China Books

Jasper Becker's City of Heavenly Tranquility

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Many foreigners who lived in old Beijing and succumbed to its charms became more Chinese than the Chinese, preferring a fantasy China to the real one.

Danwei publishes an extract from Jasper Becker's new book on Beijing: City of Heavenly Tranquility (Penguin and OUP) describing an enduring phenomenon.

The book is available on Amazon and the Beijing Bookworm.


Chapter 8, The Last Sanctuary of the Unknown and Marvellous

by Jasper Becker

One hot summer evening, Daniele Vare, Italy’s ‘Laughing Diplomat’ and author, was walking in the Western Hills when he came across an Englishman seated beneath the lacquered columns of an ancient temple:

‘The warm air was scented with lotus: the Chinese servants in their blue cotton coats and red satin waistcoats, moved about to serve the white-haired gentleman who dined in the open, at a little table with a fine table cloth and glass and silver. And though he was alone, on a hot summer evening in a Chinese temple, he was correctly dressed in a dinner-jacket with a black tie. He was dressed for dinner – because one does dress for dinner when one is a British Minister, even alone in far-off temples in the hills.’

Sir John Jordan, the British Minister, was one of Vare’s colleagues in the tightly knit diplomatic community living in the Legation Quarter in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. Despite the horrors of the 1900 siege, many of them became enamoured with a romantic and exotic notion of China just as the Chinese were avidly embracing modernity and change. Vare wrote a biography of the Empress Dowager and a series of novels about life in Beijing, including The Maker of Heavenly Trousers and The Gate of Happy Sparrows, populated by charming and quaint Chinese characters.

The notion of the exotic otherness of China grew in the Western imagination after 1900 just as Chinese became entranced by western rationalism and embraced ‘didactic materialism’. The French writer Pierre Loti (1850-1923), who reported on the terrible events of the siege, became so romantically involved with the mystery of China that he described Beijing as ‘the last sanctuary of the unknown and marvellous on earth’.

Another French writer, Viktor Segalen, who served as doctor in the French legation, so loved traditional Chinese culture that he said it constituted ‘the other pole of human experience’. He rejected the whole modernism project on the grounds that it ‘diminished the difference between the Chinese and us’ and had no time for the emerging new republic, dismissing its first president, Sun Yat-sen, as ‘a perfect cretin’.

Segalen not only approved of China as an ‘impenetrable’ enigma but went on to argue that it should be preserved to satisfy a hunger we all share for an exoticism that modern Western culture had destroyed. Many of the other Westerners living in Beijing at this time wrote in a way that seemed to prefer an imagined China to the real one. In Britain, books like the Fu Manchu mysteries, which played upon the mystery and cruelty of the Manchus, became bestsellers. Indeed, the most popular books on China were written by authors like Ernest Bramah, who never went anywhere near the country. His first work, The Wallet of Kai Lung, was published in 1900, followed in 1922 by Kai Lung’s Golden Hours, Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (1928) and Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree (1940). Kai Lung’s Golden Hours describes how Kai Lung, an itinerant storyteller finds himself the prisoner of a mandarin whose duplicitous secretary is bent on his execution. Kai Lung only escapes by entertaining the mandarin with enthralling stories. In these books, the characters all speak in a strange, antiquated way, part biblical, part fairy tale, that was even shared by the likes of Nobel laureate Pearl Buck, author of The Good Earth, a book about Chinese peasants.

The Westerner entranced by China’s past culture became such an archetype for the Chinese that Beijing writer Lao She created the character Mr. Goodrich in his novel The Yellow Storm. Mr. Goodrich lived in a courtyard house with an old ex-palace eunuch as doorkeeper and so loved old Beijing that he opposed any modernization and wanted to keep the city as a sort of living museum. ‘If, when walking along the foot of the city wall, or in the suburbs he met someone carrying a bird cage, or a leftover person from the Manchu dynasty rolling two walnuts in his hand, he would stop and talk for hours.’ Mr. Goodrich sounds very much like the real Englishman, Sir Edmund Backhouse, who discovered that one could make a living by exploiting the gullibility of those who wished for an imaginary China. Sir Edmund dressed in Chinese robes like a Confucian scholar and lived in a courtyard house as a recluse. He was one of very few foreigners who chose to live outside the Legation Quarter; he also spoke and read Chinese, not to mention Manchu and Mongolian.

Sir Edmund began his long life in Beijing working as a researcher for Dr. George Ernest Morrison, the famous correspondent of The Times. His job was to feed Morrison, who could barely manage a word of Chinese, the political gossip of the court. Backhouse’s relied on the writing of Kang Youwei, one of the scholar reformers who fled abroad, narrowly escaping execution during the Empress Dowager’s 1898 purge. Kang painted Yehonola as a fiendishly clever, ruthless, iron-willed and over-sexed Manchu tyrant who habitually poisoned her enemies.

By convincing people that he had exceptional contacts at the Manchu court, Sir Edmund conned a British shipbuilder that, with his inside knowledge, he could win orders for battleships. Later, during World War I, he persuaded the British government, especially the British Minister Sir John Jordan (the one found dining alone in the temple), that he could purchase 150,000 rifles in China that Lord Kitchener badly needed on the Western front. His record as a British secret agent, claiming to penetrate the ‘Great Within’ of the imperial court, reminds one of the character created by Viktor Segalen in his novel René Leys.

Segalen began studying Chinese in 1908 after travels with the French navy to Africa and Tahiti and arrived just in time to witness the last days of the Qing dynasty. He became gripped by an obsessive desire to penetrate the interior of the ‘purple-walled Forbidden City’, and recorded his feelings in a journal that became a haunting novel, René Leys. The novel begins when the narrator hires as his Chinese language tutor a young Belgian in his late teens by the name of René Leys, who is ‘the dutiful son of an excellent grocer of the Legation Quarter’. Despite his tender age, René is an accomplished linguist and already holds a post at the Imperial College of Notables. René fascinates the narrator with his tales of undercover life as a confidant of the Emperor and active member of the palace secret police. René hints that he is even conducting an illicit affair with the Emperor Guangxu’s wife. The narrator is wildly excited by this chance to penetrate the Forbidden City but, as we read on, the tales become ever more fantastic. The reader starts to wonder if René Leys might not be making it all up or playing a part in his own fantasy. In the end the pretence kills René and the reader discovers that indeed he has acted out a life in order to satisfy the narrator’s lust for an exotic reality that never existed.

In his fragmentary work An Essay on Exoticism, written in 1923, Segalen tries to answer what it is about ourselves that makes the exotic ‘other’ so compelling. Segalen argues that we are driven to find an elsewhere uncontaminated by industrial capitalism and free from the homogenising world of mass-production and standardization. For Segalen, a culture driven by mass production and consumption is the enemy of the ‘mysterious within, the mysterious, which is the quivering approach, the extraordinary scent of Diversity’. And he believed that: ‘It is through Difference and in Diversity that existence is made glorious.’

As Sir Edmund Backhouse discovered to his profit, Westerners preferred the fantasy China to the real one. He began collecting Chinese manuscripts, some of which he gifted to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, but found his time was better spent creating fake ones. Backhouse produced a succession of secret diaries that purported to offer the readers a key to understanding the baffling failure of the Manchu court to destroy the foreigners during the siege. The first was The Diary of His Excellency Ching-san, a relative of Yehonola, the Empress Dowager, who served as an Assistant Secretary of the Imperial Household. This Ching-san allegedly died at the hands of his own son, who pushed him down a well in his own courtyard as the panicked Empress Dowager fled the city in 1900.

Backhouse says he found the document when he moved into the vacant courtyard house, although it took him nine years to produce it. The diary formed the basis of an influential book, China Under the Empress Dowager, co-written with a colleague of Morrison’s, the British journalist J.O.P Bland in 1910. It not only explained all the intrigues at the court but portrayed it as ‘a private theatre of extravagant debauchery and recondite pleasure’. The book became the basis for almost all serious works subsequently written about the period. As Daniele Vare typically observed: ‘even if it was a forgery, one could not deny that it was still a great work of art’. As time went on, Backhouse, like René Leys, could not resist writing stories so fantastic that it is hard to believe anyone took them seriously. He spiced up the stories with descriptions of his own torrid love affair with Yehonola and details the perverted sex enjoyed by her eunuchs and the debauchery of the Manchu aristocrats in the high-class homosexual brothels.

Yehonola’s faithful eunuch, Li Lianying, emerges as a diabolically clever and malevolent eminence grise. In his books, Backhouse plants the notion that there was a secret pro-Western faction in the court led by Rong Lu, her foremost adviser, and that he was trying to protect the foreigners. Sir Edmund later helped write another volume, Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking, based on another diary and reports from archives of the Grand Council. This great ‘discovery’, never actually produced, was the diary Li Lianying kept during his 40 years of service as Yehonola’s chief factotum. Backhouse it came from the eunuch’s great-nephew.

There are currently 2 Comments for Jasper Becker's City of Heavenly Tranquility.

Comments on Jasper Becker's City of Heavenly Tranquility

Wow, I bought the book at his book launch but from the way he talked I assumed it would just be just a depressing and sour tale of destruction. Then you show me this.

Might actually read the book now. Thanks, Alice!

William: Yes, I think it's a lot more than just a "depressing and sour tale of destruction". There's a good deal of nostalgia and regret, but also many of the stories are rendered in an eloquent and engaging way: albeit there's some emotion there too.

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