The Fascinating Life of a Chinese Eunuch in the Forbidden City

The Fascinating Life of a Chinese Eunuch in the Forbidden City


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The Inner Court of China’s Forbidden City was the emperor’s private realm, where no other men were allowed to linger for too long. Officials, military personnel, and even male relatives of the emperor were required to leave the Inner Court at night. The only men who were allowed to stay in the Inner Court were those who had been rendered sexually impotent through castration. These were the eunuchs of China.

The Reasons Behind Castration in Ancient China

While the Forbidden City was only built during the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century, the practice of castration and the use of eunuchs in China can be traced much further back. In ancient China (up until the Sui Dynasty), castration was one of the Five Punishments, a series for physical punishments meted out by the Chinese penal system.

Nevertheless, castration was also a means of getting a job in the Imperial service . Since the Han Dynasty, eunuchs ran the day to day affairs of the Imperial court. As their duties brought them in close contact with the emperor, eunuchs had the potential to exert a considerable amount of influence on the emperor as well as amass an immense amount of political power.

Since eunuchs were unable to have children of their own and pass down their power, they were not seriously considered a threat to the ruling dynasty. The powerful emperors of China would sometimes have thousands of concubines within the Forbidden City, with no risk that the women would become impregnated by anyone but themselves.

Thousands of Eunuchs served in the Forbidden City of China. Source: BigStockPhoto

The Immense Power of the Chinese Eunuch Zhao Gao

While eunuchs were dismissed as potential threats due to their inability to found their own dynasties, they were entirely capable of bringing down ruling dynasties. The immense power that some eunuchs wielded corrupted them, turning them into greedy, ruthless, and scheming individuals.

In Chinese dramas and films about the Imperial court, eunuchs are often cast as villainous characters. Many instances of evil eunuchs can be found in Chinese history. The fall of the Qin dynasty, for instance, may be attributed to the eunuch Zhao Gao.

Ming Dynasty Eunuchs.

According to the historical records, Zhao Gao belonged to the ruling family of the state of Zhao, one of the seven states during the Warring Period. When Zhao Gao’s parents committed a crime, they were punished, and his brothers were castrated. It is traditionally thought that the same punishment was inflicted onto Zhao Gao.

Zhao Gao came into the service of Qin Shi Huang as he was an expert in law and punishment. This allowed Zhao Gao to rise through the ranks and become one of the emperor’s closest advisors. Upon the death of Qin Shi Huang, Zhao Gao and the Prime Minister / Chancellor, Li Si, orchestrated a coup by engineering the death of the heir apparent, Fusu, as well as two of his supporters, Meng Tian and Meng Yi.

Subsequently, Qin Shi Huang’s youngest son, Huhai, was installed as a puppet emperor. Three years later, a rebellion broke out, and Zhao Gao forced Huhai to commit suicide, fearing that the emperor might hold him responsible for the uprising. Zhao Gao then installed Ziying (either Fusu’s son, or Fusu’s uncle) as the new emperor.

A group of eunuchs. Mural from the tomb of the prince Zhanghuai, 706, Qianling, Shaanxi.

Knowing that Zhao Gao would dispose of him once he was no longer of use, Ziying turned the tables on Zhao Gao, and succeeded in killing him. The uprising was not quelled, however, and Ziying surrendered to Liu Bang, who founded the Han Dynasty. Thus, it may be said that the actions of the eunuch Zhao Gao was responsible for the fall of the Qin dynasty just three years after the death of Qin Shi Huang .

Other Roles of the Ancient Chinese Eunuch

Despite the notorious reputation that the Chinese eunuchs acquired over the course of history, not all of them were villainous. Some even contributed greatly to Chinese culture. Paper, one of the Four Great Inventions, is said to have been invented during the Eastern Han dynasty by a eunuch named Cai Lun, for example.

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Furthermore, Zheng He , who was a eunuch serving under the Ming emperor Yongle, commanded the emperor’s trading fleets on voyages to Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, Persia, and East Africa, thus connecting China with these parts of the world through trade.

Additionally, Chinese eunuchs are said to have made contributions to the court music of China. Eunuchs during the Ming dynasty were recorded as the first Chinese to play Western Classical music, while the emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty assembled a chamber orchestra consisting of eunuchs dressed in European suits and wigs.

Eunuchs from the Qing dynasty. ( )

The end of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century brought an end to the Chinese imperial system, and also the use of eunuchs. In 1924, the last 1500 eunuchs were banished from the Forbidden City. The last imperial eunuch, Sun Yaoting, died in December 1996, thus bringing an end to an ancient practice that spanned several millennia.


How an army of eunuchs ran the Forbidden City


Marcelo
Duhalde
Infographer -->The presence of eunuchs in the Chinese court was a long-standing tradition. These emasculated men served as palace menials, spies and harem watchdogs throughout the ancient world. An army of eunuchs was attached to the Forbidden City, primarily to safeguard the imperial ladies’ chastity.

Confucian values deemed it vital for the emperor, seen as heaven’s representative on Earth, to produce a direct male heir to maintain harmony between heaven and Earth. Not wanting to leave anything to chance during a period with a high infant mortality rate, the world’s largest harem was placed at the emperor’s disposal to ensure enough heirs would survive into adulthood.


The Real Lives of China’s Eunuchs 8 min read

In 1995, an elderly man in a wheelchair visited the Forbidden City. Entering through the northern Gate of Divine Prowess (神武门 shenwumen), 93-year-old Sun Yaoting began giving his helpers a tour of the back garden and courtyards of Beijing’s Palace Museum. There was the doorway threshold removed to make way for the last emperor Puyi’s bicycle. In another yard, two brass rings still embedded in an old tree were part of a long-removed swing once beloved by Puyi’s empress Wanrong. The man in the wheelchair was Sun Yaoting, and he was no ordinary tourist but a former resident returning to his place of employment. Sun Yaoting was China’s last living imperial eunuch.

History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs. Chinese literature is filled with stories of avaricious and ambitious eunuchs exploiting their position for personal gain and power to the detriment of the social and political order. Society treated eunuchs with a mix of fascination and revulsion. They were a source of anxiety for the court and its officials. They were third-sex creatures marked by their relative lack of facial hair and perceived physical deformities (early castration often resulted in eunuchs being taller, with longer hands and limbs). In the foreign gaze, eunuchs became an analog for a decrepit China, feminine symbols of a decaying imperial system – a view perpetuated by 20th-century Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. Today, when thought of at all, it is as stock villains or comic foils in palace costume dramas.

History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs”

Melissa Dale’s book Inside the World of the Eunuch provides a more nuanced and balanced understanding of the lives of the eunuchs. Dale redirects our attention away from a small number of notorious and powerful eunuchs, who were, she argues, rare exceptions. Instead, she focuses on the thousands of men (despite their physical changes, most continued to identify as male) who toiled in and outside of the palace in bondage to the imperial court.

Sun Yaoting, whose biography is recounted by historian Jia Yinghua in The Last Eunuch of China, owed his fame to his longevity – as the last eunuch he came to enjoy minor celebrity in the final years of his life. Yet his life was in many respects very ordinary for eunuchs in the last years of the imperial era. Sun was born in 1902, to a poor family outside of Tianjin. Out of desperation, at the suggestion of a neighbor, Sun’s father convinced his nine-year-old son to allow him to cut off the boy’s genitalia as a prerequisite to applying for palace service. The boy was stripped naked, trussed on a bed, and a sharp knife used to remove his scrotum and penis. Post-operative care consisted of a tube inserted into the wound to keep the urethra from scarring closed, then covering the wound with bandages of oil-soaked paper.

It was only after, in 1912, that Sun’s father learnt that the last emperor had abdicated and the Qing dynasty had ended. Representatives of Puyi, the boy emperor, were negotiating the end of imperial rule after the Xinhai revolution of late 1911. Under the terms of their agreement, Puyi would continue to reside in the Forbidden City and many of the imperial clan retained their mansions and household staffs. There might still be employment for the emasculated in the capital, but the age of the eunuchs – like that of the monarchy they served – was coming to an end.

As Dale writes, “With the cut of a knife, a life was changed forever.” The emasculated male was cut off from traditional structures of family life and procreation. Not all eunuchs suffered at the hands of family members. There were two families in Beijing which specialized in selecting and grooming young men for eunuch service at court. Their methods of emasculation were often more sanitary, but hardly less painful.

Moreover, while emasculation was a prerequisite for applying to join the ranks of palace eunuchs, it was far from certain that these young prospects would be accepted. Getting cut did not guarantee a young eunuch would make the cut. Sun Yaoting was one of the lucky ones, although his route to palace service was a circuitous one. He first found work with the emperor’s uncle Zaifeng, before he was invited to become an attendant in the rump court of the young ex-emperor in the Forbidden City.

Once inside the palace, a new eunuch was isolated from his old life and introduced to a whole new reality. Both books describe the parallel world of palace eunuchs, a highly regimented and hierarchal society that still had spaces for deviant behavior, petty jealousies, and even violence. Eunuchs were expected to show complete devotion to their duties, and to their masters and mistresses. At the same time, they also formed friendships as well as master/disciple bonds with older and more experienced palace hands. While the rules governing eunuchs were numerous and punishments harsh, eunuchs still created actual spaces in the palace for their own activities. There were barbershops, noodle stands, gambling parlors, opium dens, and various other places where court eunuchs could blow off steam with multiple cups of wine and the sympathetic ear of their fellow attendants.

Not all eunuchs adjusted well to palace life. Dale looks at case files of eunuchs who were punished for attempting to run away, and those caught attempting suicide. There were ways to leave palace service – sick leave, retirement for a lucky few, or death – but it was rarely on the eunuch’s terms. Those who left the palace found life on the outside difficult to navigate. Many were shunned by society and even by their family members. Some eunuchs did marry and adopt children (and a few had wives and children from before their operation) but were cut off from the usual support systems. It was a life Sun Yaoting knew only too well.

Puyi expelled the remaining eunuchs in 1923. The former emperor had become convinced that the eunuchs were plotting against him, and stealing treasures which Puyi and his family had planned to appropriate for their purposes. Except for a brief, unhappy sojourn as a eunuch in Puyi’s court in Manchukuo in the 1930s, while the region was ruled by Japan, Sun Yaoting only served as a palace eunuch for seven of his 94 years, before dying in 1996.

Eunuchs were shunned by society and even by their family members”

Much of Sun’s biography is devoted to the desperate lives of the eunuch community in the years following their expulsion from the palace. Many fell into poverty. Some gathered together in small communities based at temples and tried as best they could to adapt to a changing society. The Communist revolution brought even more significant challenges, and the account of eunuch persecution during the Cultural Revolution is predictably horrifying. Through it all, at least according to his telling, Sun Yaoting made the best of a bad situation, avoiding the pitfalls of gambling, opium, and profligate spending which undid many of his brethren. Although he had some near misses during the political upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, he survived and lived out the final years of his life in the Guanghua Temple, near Houhai in central Beijing.

Dale’s research and Sun’s story help humanize the lives of the eunuchs. The stories of wicked or power-hungry Chinese eunuchs are sensational, but most of them lived without freedom on the margins of power. Dale, in particular, takes pains to strip the sensationalism and titillation which have long surrounded accounts of eunuchs in Chinese and Western writing on the subject. In this way her book resembles the efforts of historian Dorothy Ko has made to document the social history of foot binding in China, in Cinderalla’s Sisters.

More scholarship remains to be done on the subject of eunuchs. It would be interesting to look at the Manchu-language archives for references to the eunuch system. There is evidence that the Manchus were somewhat apprehensive about the use of eunuchs, although by the 18th century there were over 3000 eunuchs employed by the Qing emperors (still a far cry from the 50,000 – 70,000 which, according to Dale, served the Ming court).

The life of the eunuch was not easy, but it was a life lived. Melissa Dale and Jia Yinghua should be commended for bringing these lives to our attention. ∎


The Landmark of the Forbidden City

There are many and just like that there&rsquos a landmark in the Forbidden city as well. And that is the gigantic decadent monument of the Emperor. Which took one million men working diligently in miserable and gloomy condition for 15 years.

In conclusion, The forbidden city is built at the heart of Beijing. No matter how much the city changes, this part always remains the same. It is a captivating reversion to a preceding time and a different culture and a look into Imperial China.


STERILITY AND POWER

Over years of painstaking research, he has gleaned arcane details about every aspect of palace life, along with secrets about the emperor’s sexuality and cruelty that would look at home on the front page of tabloid newspapers.

For centuries in China, the only men from outside the imperial family who were allowed into the Forbidden City’s private quarters were castrated ones. They effectively swapped their reproductive organs for a hope of exclusive access to the emperor that made some into rich and influential politicians.

Sun’s impoverished family set him on this painful, risky path in hopes that he might one day be able to crush a bullying village landlord who stole their fields and burned their house.

His desperate father performed the castration on the bed of their mud-walled home, with no anesthetic and only oil-soaked paper as a bandage. A goose quill was inserted in Sun’s urethra to prevent it getting blocked as the wound healed.

He was unconscious for three days and could barely move for two months. When he finally rose from his bed, history played the first of a series of cruel tricks on him -- he discovered the emperor he hoped to serve had abdicated several weeks earlier.

“He had a very tragic life. He had thought it was worthwhile for his father, but the sacrifice was in vain,” Jia said, in a house stacked with old books, newspapers and photos.

“He was very smart and shrewd. If the empire had not fallen there is a high chance he would have become powerful,” Jia added.

The young ex-emperor was eventually allowed to stay in the palace and Sun had risen to become an attendant to the empress when the imperial family were unceremoniously booted out of the Forbidden City, ending centuries of tradition and Sun’s dreams.

“He was castrated, then the emperor abdicated. He made it into the Forbidden City then Pu Yi was evicted. He followed him north and then the puppet regime collapsed. He felt life had played a joke at his expense,” Jia said.

Many eunuchs fled with palace treasures, but Sun took a crop of memories and a nose for political survival that turned out to be better tools for surviving years of civil war and ideological turbulence that followed.

“He never became rich, he never became powerful, but he became very rich in experience and secrets,” Jia said.


Eunuchs are the people around the emperor and his consort. They could not live without eunuchs. Sun Yaoting was an unlucky and powerless eunuch. Unlike the Ming Dynasty, the Qing Dynasty did not allow eunuchs to share the imperial power, but rather guarded against the expansion of eunuch power at every turn. The eunuch in the books was like a nanny. Compared with Wei Zhongxian of the Ming Dynasty, he was a failure.

Many people may not like the eunuch Wei Zhongxian. However, the reason why he was Eunuchs are the people around the emperor and his consort. They could not live without eunuchs. Sun Yaoting was an unlucky and powerless eunuch. Unlike the Ming Dynasty, the Qing Dynasty did not allow eunuchs to share the imperial power, but rather guarded against the expansion of eunuch power at every turn. The eunuch in the books was like a nanny. Compared with Wei Zhongxian of the Ming Dynasty, he was a failure.

Many people may not like the eunuch Wei Zhongxian. However, the reason why he was able to wreak havoc on the Ming Dynasty was all because of the emperor's incompetence. The stupid emperor allowed eunuchs to share the supreme imperial power, and Zhu Yuanzhang might be very angry if he knew that.
. more

Finally. Finally a book not about Emperors, Kings, and Princesses. Finally a book about the "little" people behind the Emperors, about "the servants", about the Eunuchs working for Emperors , Kings and Princesses. I&aposve read severals novels about various kings and alike mentionning briefly the Eunuchs, but this is the first time an entire novel is dedicated to their lives and their sides of the stories.

The author wrote a brilliant both a Biography and History novel as if writing a fiction Finally. Finally a book not about Emperors, Kings, and Princesses. Finally a book about the "little" people behind the Emperors, about "the servants", about the Eunuchs working for Emperors , Kings and Princesses. I've read severals novels about various kings and alike mentionning briefly the Eunuchs, but this is the first time an entire novel is dedicated to their lives and their sides of the stories.

The author wrote a brilliant both a Biography and History novel as if writing a fiction book. The novel is the biography of the last Eunuch of China, Sun Yaoting (1902-1996), who's also the last member of the small community of imperial Eunuchs (about 900 serving the Imperial family early 1900's) and a witness of almost a century of China's History through different political regimes.

Due to severe poverty and dreaming of quick wealth, an 8 years old child decided to undergo castration in order to be able to work for the Imperial family inside the Forbidden City. However, right after his castration, he learns that the Emperor abdicated from power, but still lives in the Forbidden City. Thus, Sun Yaoting ends up working inside the Forbidden City from low rank and moves up until the Imperial family had to leave the Palace and the city. Sun Yaoting joined them again later. However, life has entirely changed from bad to worse for the eunuchs. When he finally stoped serving the Imperial family, Sun went back to Beijing to live in a Taoist Temple, work for and/or with other Enuchs, for the rest of his life.

Through the life of Sun Yaoting, readers gets a chance to read annecdotes of behind the scenes stories lived directly by the Eunuchs and unknown to outsiders of the palace. Furthermore, members of the small community of Eunuchs are all from different parts of China, but they all decided to become Eunuchs to escape poverty and hoping to become wealthy like some of their predecessors. Behind the closed doors of the Palace, it is a life of physical suffering, abuse and even death for all, except the lucky few who were able to rise in the ranks, in power, and in wealth.

The author wrote everything on this book. He detailed all the negative experiences lived by Sun Yaoting such as his castration by his own father, the physical and verbal abuse and suffering while serving the Imperial family, the harrassment by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in late 1960's. The author described also the positive normal and healthy lifestyle Sun Yaoting lived inside the Taoist Temple, where he managed the temple and assisted other Eunuchs in their old ages.

The author based his book on the life of Sun Yaoting thanks to his many interviews of the person himself years before his death. Sun Yaoting became a living legend of China's History and Imperial China in 1980's and 1990's with many interviews and documentaries with him. The characters are all well written. The story is well written and developed.


Palace servants

The Qing Palace Maids

Maids were female servants in the palace. They were ranked according to their families’ social position and they would only be recruited from the Eight Banners families that were mainly Manchurians and Mongolians. They were selected when they reached the age of 13. Their role was to attend to the daily needs of the empress, imperial consorts and concubines. They could not leave their ladies’ sides, day or night, seven days a week. The maid-in-waiting held the highest rank.

MAIDS ASSIGNATION
The number of maids assigned to high-ranking women varied

Imperial consorts and concubines wanted to mark their high status and spare themselves the physical challenges of breastfeeding. This resulted in wet nurses coming to high prominence during the Ming dynasty.

THE SELECTION

One of the more unusual responsibilities that the Rites and Proprietary office bestowed upon eunuchs was to recruit between 20 and 40 lactating women every three months.

Whenever a baby was due in the palace, 40 wet nurses and 80 substitutes were employed. Imperial sons were breastfed by a wet nurse whose own child was a girl, and vice versa in the cases of imperial daughters. This way the yin and yang could be matched and the substitution of babies, accidental or otherwise, could be averted.

REQUIREMENTS

When working, wet nurses received a clothing allowance, rice with about five ounces of meat a day, and coal in cold weather.


Concubines were often stolen from their families

So how exactly does one guy obtain thousands of sex slaves? Well, he's the emperor, so all he has to do is close his eyes and wish really hard, and imply that people might die if he doesn't get his way.

It was dangerous to be beautiful in ancient China. According to Precious Media, beautiful women were often stolen from their families to serve as the emperor's concubines — sometimes they were even offered by their families in exchange for political favor. Now, since concubines weren't actually allowed to write home or anything, all that stuff about torture, execution, and starvation probably wasn't common knowledge, so maybe families deluded themselves into believing that life at the palace would be better for their daughters than life at home.

The emperor's concubines lived in isolation from the outside world — they weren't even permitted to see a doctor if they got sick. Instead, they were diagnosed based on a written description of their symptoms, sort of like WebMD only with actual doctors.

Not every concubine had to die with the emperor, though. That honor was reserved for favorite concubines, which means it was one of history's few professions where getting promoted was not something you celebrated with champagne and a night on the town. For regular, non-favorite concubines, it was possible to "retire" after serving a few years, and then go on to an auspicious career as a laundress or a nun, which were really your only other options.


Last Chinese eunuch’s inside view of history

Sun Yaoting was 8 when his father castrated him with a single swoop of a razor.

The year was 1911, and China was in turmoil. Just a few months later rebels deposed the emperor, overturned centuries of tradition and established a republic.

“Our boy has suffered for nothing,” his father said, weeping and beating his breast, when he learned that the emperor had been overthrown. “They don’t need eunuchs anymore!”

Little did he know that the child nevertheless would earn a place in Chinese history. The imperial court was resuscitated long enough to give Sun a chance to serve the wife of the boy emperor Puyi -- a position that gave him the distinction of being the last eunuch to the last Chinese emperor.

After the Communists came to power in 1949, Sun and other surviving eunuchs were despised as freakish symbols of the feudal past. He was nearly killed during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, and his siblings were so fearful of persecution that they threw away his bao, or treasure: the severed genitals that eunuchs kept pickled in a jar so they could be buried as complete men.

It was not until the final years of his life that Sun was recognized as a rare living repository of history. A biography based on hours of interviews in the years before his death in 1996 was recently translated into English. The book arrives as a museum dedicated to eunuchs, built around the tomb of a 16th century eunuch, is undergoing a major expansion. It is scheduled to reopen in May.

Whether the interest is prurient or scholarly, the curiosity is definitely there.

Emasculation was thought to render eunuchs nonpersons, without ambition or ego, so their presence in the innermost sanctum of the imperial palace did not violate the emperor’s privacy.

“The eunuchs were very mysterious and in some ways more interesting than the emperors themselves,” said Jia Yinghua, Sun’s biographer. Jia met Sun when he was researching a book about Puyi, and recorded 100 hours of conversations with him.

The biography, “The Last Eunuch of China: The Life of Sun Yaoting,” contains everything you might want to know about the gruesome particulars of becoming a eunuch, along with much you probably would not want to know.

Suffice it to say the boys went through excruciating pain without benefit of anesthesia (other than chile peppers in some cases). In addition to a lifetime of impotence, they often suffered incontinence in exchange for entry to the palace.

Sun was unusual: Inspired by an older eunuch from his village who had become rich, he decided for himself that he wanted to follow this path. But then the emperor was deposed and the castration had left him too weak for farm work.

The emperor retained the trappings of power in the Forbidden City, however. Sun came to Beijing at age 14, still wearing the pigtail of Chinese boys at the time. He got a job with one of the emperor’s uncles, and later with Puyi’s wife.

He followed the imperial family to Manchuria after Puyi was installed in 1932 as puppet emperor of a Japanese colonial state known as Manchukuo.

Sun was privy to the court’s most intimate secrets, the opium addiction and out-of-wedlock pregnancy of the emperor’s first wife, Wanrong, and the emperor’s ambivalence about his own sexuality. Sun later told his biographer that Puyi was less interested in his wife than in a particular eunuch who “looked like a pretty girl with his tall, slim figure, handsome face and creamy white skin.” He recalled that the two were “inseparable as body and shadow.”

After the Communists came to power, many of the eunuchs became penniless outcasts. A few drowned themselves in the moats of the Forbidden City. Sun, one of the few who was literate, got a job as caretaker of a temple, where he lived until his death. The recollections of an adopted son and a grandson, together with the biography, make him one of the most documented eunuchs of modern times.

Scholars also will tell you about other eunuchs: Cai Lun was credited with inventing paper in AD 105. Zheng He became one of China’s greatest explorers in the 15th century. But eunuchs are generally depicted in Chinese literature as conniving and greedy, the stock villains of many a palace intrigue.

The eunuch museum is in an overgrown cemetery with stone guardians and a tomb for the Ming dynasty eunuch Tian Yi, who died in 1602. Eunuchs were not permitted to be buried with their families, so several other favored eunuchs found their final resting place in Tian Yi’s compound in the foothills of west Beijing.

Hidden behind what had been an elementary school, the tombs somehow escaped destruction during the Cultural Revolution and were opened to the public in 1999. The expanded museum is to display paintings of eunuchs, a photo collection about Sun’s life and other 20th century eunuchs, and items such as the curved knives used to castrate them.

“The eunuchs are part of a long Chinese tradition that continues to this day in which the regular people had to do anything to serve the all-powerful central government,” said Cui Weixing, a literary and cultural critic who has written about eunuchs.

“Maybe that’s why the Chinese government isn’t so anxious to publicize anything about eunuchs. But it is a good start that we’ll have this museum so that people can begin to learn.”


Eunuchs in Ancient China

Eunuchs were powerful political players in ancient Chinese government. Originating as trusted slaves in the royal household they were ambitious to use their favoured position to gain political power. Advising the emperor from within the palace and blocking the access of officials to their ruler, the eunuchs were eventually able to acquire noble titles themselves, form a bureaucracy to rival the state's and even select and remove emperors of their choosing. Their influence on government would result in the falling of dynasties and last right up to the 17th century CE.

From Slaves to Political Heavyweights

Eunuchs, or 'non-men' as they could be known, first appeared in the royal courts of ancient pre-imperial Chinese states where they were employed as servants in the inner chambers of the palace. They were more or less slaves and were usually acquired as children from border territories, especially those to the south. Castrated and brought to serve the royal household, they had no real means of altering their lives. Eunuchs were regarded as the most trustworthy of servants because they could neither seduce women of the household or father children which might form a dynasty to rival that of the sitting emperor's.

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A eunuch's duties, therefore, included exclusively serving the women of the royal palace. Any other males were forbidden from staying overnight in the palace, and any person who entered unauthorised faced the death penalty. Eunuchs acted as fetchers and carriers, bodyguards, nurses, and essentially performed the roles of valets, butlers, maids, and cooks combined. Despite their privileged position, the general public's view of eunuchs was extremely negative as they were regarded as the lowest class of all servants.

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In contrast to the confidence put in them by rulers, their physical deformity, disdain from the ruling class and the general stigma attached to them made eunuchs more likely to seek to exploit their privileged position and gain political influence within the court. The eunuchs would not be content with the life of a simple slave for very long. Often aligning themselves with the powerful Buddhist monasteries, they advised, spied, and intrigued in equal measure in order to acquire the top positions in the state apparatus.

Eunuchs, with their special access to the Inner Court (Neiting), where no ordinary officials were permitted, could be especially prominent when the ruler was not yet an adult and they fully exploited the possibility of not only filtering out communications from ministers to the emperor and vice versa but also appointments so that very often ministers simply could not gain an audience with their ruler. Eunuchs ingratiated themselves with the emperor and were perhaps more compliant than high-minded and more principled scholar-officials which made the emperor more likely to follow their advice.

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Another point in the eunuchs' favour was that they had known their emperor perhaps for all his life and that they were the only males the ruler ever met until adulthood. In addition, the emperor knew that the eunuchs did not have a power base or loyalties outside the court, unlike the politicians.

In the Han Dynasty

Very often the eunuchs encouraged and made worse political factions, which damaged the unity of the government. Eunuchs are charged with playing a major part in the fall of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). During the 2nd century CE, in particular, a succession of weak emperors were easily manipulated by the eunuchs at court. In 124 CE they even put their own child candidate on the imperial throne. They gained more imperial favour and further entrenched their position in 159 CE by helping Emperor Huan settle a family succession dispute. In gratitude, the emperor awarded a noble title to five leading eunuchs.

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The eunuchs' even greater power ultimately resulted in government officials and students banding together and staging protests in 166 and 168-169 CE. The eunuchs would not be put off so lightly though and they instigated a wave of purges which saw many of those involved in the protests imprisoned and 100 executed. The luckier officials, students, and intellectuals who had spoken out against eunuch power were merely excluded from ever holding public office. In 189 CE events took an even more brutal turn. The eunuchs murdered the 'Grand General' He Jin after it was discovered he had plotted to assemble an army to himself purge the eunuchs. The general's followers exacted immediate revenge by killing all the eunuchs in the palace. With this power vacuum there then ensued a civil war for control of the empire, with the result that the Han fell and the Wei dynasty was established in 220 CE.

In the Tang Dynasty

In the troubled final years of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) the eunuchs once again played a prominent role, this time in the downfall of emperors. Following rebellions in the provinces by renegade military commanders, the imperial court was eager to strengthen its position and so created a new palace army in the mid-8th century CE. The eunuchs were put in charge of this new force and soon began to create problems of their own for the emperor. Just as in previous eras, eunuchs manipulated the court, created divisions amongst the government officials, and by the 9th century CE, even began to enthrone and murder emperors. One emperor authorised an official purge of the eunuchs in 835 CE to try and claw back some power but before the plan could be executed the eunuchs wiped out over 1,000 of the conspirators and anyone else they remotely suspected of trying to usurp their power. As a shocking demonstration to any future conspirators, three chancellors along with their families were publicly executed in one of the marketplaces of the capital, Chang'an.

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Famous Eunuchs

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) eunuchs were often made military commanders. One such figure was Tong Guan (1054-1126 CE) who was Emperor Huizong's most important general. He won famous victories in the north-west border regions in his youth, quashed the Fang La rebellion in Zhejiang province and continued to loyally serve his emperor into his seventies. Guan was also honoured with an official biography where it is recorded he was a painter of some talent. The biography, which appears in the Song History, displays the typical disdain and prejudice that eunuchs suffered even if they were such talented individuals as Guan:

It was his nature to be cunning and fawning. From being an attendant in the side-apartments of the palace, because he was skilled at manipulating the weighty as well as the trivial intentions of people, he was able by means of first serving in order to later command. (in Di Cosmo, 208)

Another famous eunuch was Zheng He (1371-1433 CE) who made seven voyages to the Indian Ocean for Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). One of He's fleets was composed of 317 ships, including 62 'treasure ships' full of gifts for foreign rulers and over 30,000 men. On his various travels, He followed Arab trading routes and stopped off at such far-flung places as Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and East Africa. He then returned to China and wowed the court with his exotic captures such as giraffes, lions, and fabulous gems.

Later History

From the early 15th century CE the eunuchs set up their own mini-bureaucracy at court where they could ferret away paperwork and filter out the input of government ministers in state affairs. It even included a secret service branch which could investigate corruption or identify suspects who might plot against the status quo and imprison, beat, and torture them if necessary in the prison the eunuchs had created for that purpose. At the end of the century, this eunuch-led apparatus had grown spectacularly to 12,000 employees, making it the equal of the official state bureaucracy. By the latter stages of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) there were some 70,000 eunuchs, and they had established almost complete domination of the imperial court. During that period four infamous dictators - Wang Zhen, Wang Zhi, Liu Jin, and Wei Zhongxian - were all eunuchs.

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The power they held and the political intrigues they often stirred up resulted in the eunuchs becoming infamous, and they were especially unpopular with Confucianist scholars. Huang Zongxi, the Ming dynasty Neo-Confucianist thinker here sums up the general view of eunuchs in Chinese history: "Everyone has known for thousands of years that eunuchs are like poison and wild beasts" (in Dillon, 93).


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