The jade book

17 January 2012

For almost a century, one of the best-known Chinese objects in the Bodleian has been the little jade-bound book of poems in the Backhouse Collection, which I describe as follows in my catalogue:

御製漁樵二十詠 不分卷 / (清)高宗撰
折裝1冊 ; 10公分
MS.Backhouse 11

The text is simple enough: twenty poems by the Emperor Gaozong (the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned 1736-1796) in the calligraphy of the scholar-official Liu Lun (1711-1773). It is an exquisite product of the imperial workshop, and a is a so-called “sleeve edition”, that is, a volume small enough to be carried in the sleeve of a gown. Its endpapers are decorated with cloud-patterns in gold dust, and with boards of jade, engraved with the title and authorship details.

The binding is in what is often described as the “accordion” format, as its pleats resemble those of the bellows of that instrument. I dislike this vulgar term, and prefer to use either the Chinese term zhezhuang 折裝 (which simply means “fold binding”), or its alternative fanjiazhuang 梵夾裝 (“Buddhist scripture binding”) as this binding structure was and still is used for Buddhist sutras, and by extension, for Daoist scriptures too.

We have no other example of a jade-bound book, which is probably a good thing, as the jade covers are so heavy, and the “fold binding” so difficult to handle, that if dropped, the covers would surely rip themselves off. When read, this book should therefore be placed on a table, and never opened in one’s hands.

But I’m more interested in the provenance of the book than the object itself, although that said, I know of no other example of its kind in a European collection.

Backhouse was one of the Library’s greatest benefactors. He presented his magnificent collection of Chinese books to the Library in stages between 1913 and 1922. At the time of the donation they constituted what was probably the finest collection of Chinese books outside the Far East, and the collection still contains many editions unique in the west. The jade book is among them.

Unfortunately, we do not know the provenance of the 650 or so editions in the Backhouse Collection. Many of them bear seals, some of them from aristocratic owners. He may have bought them in the Liulichang in Peking, or through private connections at a time of dynastic change when fortunes were being lost and heritages scattered. Only one edition in the collection bears a label which records details of its purchase and the price paid for it.

I thought more may be found in Backhouse’s memoirs, so set about reading them. They are introduced in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s A hidden life : the enigma of Sir Edmund Backhouse, which was published by Macmillan in 1976, the year in which I joined the Library.

There are two sets of these memoirs: The dead past, and Décadence mandchoue. Both are highly pornographic, the first dealing with Backhouse’s experiences in an English public school and Oxford, involving Paul Verlaine among others; and the second set in high circles in Peking, where his encounters involved no less a figure than the Empress Dowager Cixi. Understanding these memoirs involves (in the words of David Rutherford, the Library’s first fund-raiser) “a qualification in anatomy”. I used to entertain the fantasy of publishing them, but could never find a way of extracting them from our Western Manuscripts department for long enough to photocopy them secretly; when their publication became known, I wanted everyone to know who was reponsible, but without being able to prove it.

The time for such childish behaviour has now passed, because the Chinese memoirs were published openly last year, with all due consents from both the Library and the Backhouse family, by Earnshaw Books in Hong Kong: Décadence mandchoue : the China memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, edited and introduced by Derek Sandhaus.

Chapter III is a record of Backhouse’s audience with Grand Secretary Junglu (Ronglu 榮祿) “on the day set for Edward VII’s abortive coronation [26 June 1902] and the sudden access of perityphlitis” (p.41). In due course,

“The Grand Secretary had already hinted – and I did not wish to outstay my welcome – that it was time to take leave, and thanking Junglu for his exceeding kindness I was about to depart; but he stopped me to present a poem by Grand Secretary Liu Lun 劉綸 written for the Ch’ien Lung Emperor and bound in jade covers. It is now in a European library.” (p.58).

There is no way of knowing if this is indeed the true provenance of the jade book, or even if Backhouse’s audience with Ronglu is the record of a historic event or a product of his fertile imagination. Opinions vary as to the historical worth of his memoirs. I have heard Xiang Si 向斯 (a research librarian at the National Palace Museum in Peking) say that the knowledge Backhouse displays of Palace affairs could only have come from an insider; but equally Craig Clunas has dismissed the memoirs as a farrago of absurdities, written at a time when everything within the Palace walls had become common knowledge.

To me, Backhouse’s account of the origin of the jade book seems too straightforward to have been made up: it is insufficiently outrageous. And I much prefer Derek Sandhaus’s thoughtful treatment of the memoirs to Trevor-Roper’s “mean-spirited and narrow-minded” account of them.

There is also a pleasing symmetry about the gift. Liu Lun and Ronglu both occupied the same office of Grand Secretary – in effective charge of the Chinese government – one fairly early in the dynasty, the other at the end; and both were renowned calligraphers.

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