The Empress Dowager Cixi in a sedan chair surrounded by eunuchs in front of Renshoudian, Summer Palace, Beijing, circa 1903–1905. Left front, Second Chief Eunuch Cui Yugui; right front, First Chief Eunuch Li Lianying. SMITHSONIAN PHOTOGRAPHY INITIATIVE.
Often at odds with Confucian officialdom, eunuchs were castrated male servants employed in the imperial household. The emperors, especially those who were mistrustful of their Confucian officials, relied on veritable armies of eunuchs (at one point numbering up to 100,000) for many critical decisions, appointing them to positions of high authority. The last known eunuch died in Beijing in 1996.
Eunuchs (taijian or huanguan) were castrated male servants employed in the imperial household from the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE) through the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). As individuals, eunuchs were charged with various responsibilities, such as guarding gates and attending to the personal care of the emperor, his harem, and the imperial relatives. As an institution, eunuchs collectively functioned as an imperial structure in the inner court alongside the officialdom in the outer court, and during certain periods emperors relied on eunuchs for critical decision making and appointed them as army supervisors, tax collectors, military commanders, special commissioners, and other positions whose authority rivaled that of the officialdom.
As individuals and as an imperial structure eunuchs held a fluctuating level of political and military powers through special intimacy with the emperor, princes, and palace women. The Confucian officials in the outer court often targeted them as enemies, but the institution of eunuchs survived massacres and the change of dynasties until the last century. In 1912 the constitution of the Republic of China banned castration, but a small number of boys continued to undergo the procedure. Sun Yaoting, the last known eunuch, died in Beijing on 17 December 1996 at the age of ninety-four.
The primary sources on eunuchs are the biographies of mostly notorious eunuchs included in the standard histories of each dynasty, which contain the Confucian historians’ vitriolic commentaries on eunuchs as scoundrels who overstepped their original role as menial servants. Except for Later Liang (907–922) and Tangut Xi Xia (1038–1227), all dynasties had eunuchs serving in the palaces as servants and intermediaries between the emperor and the officialdom. Eunuchs in the indigenous dynasties, Han (206 BCE–220 CE), Tang (618–907 CE), and Ming (1368–1644), were most destructive and were blamed for the fall of these dynasties. Even when large numbers of eunuchs were evicted from the palaces and massacred by the thousands in 189 CE and 890 CE, the survivors were soon recalled and new recruits brought into the palaces. In the Han and Tang dynasties many eunuchs acquired offices, became estate owners, and terrorized the populace, interfering in court and military affairs to the point of usurping the operative powers of the bureaucracy and dethroning and enthroning emperors. The number of eunuchs varied from several dozen in short-lived dynasties to 100,000 in the Ming dynasty, during which the emperors, who distrusted the Confucian officialdom, entrusted eunuchs to lead major military and diplomatic campaigns.
Foreign peoples who founded dynasties on Chinese territory did not have eunuchs during their nomadic stages, but they adopted this Chinese institution as part of the state-forming and sinicization process when they set up these dynasties—the Tabgach Northern Wei (386–534 CE), Khitan Liao (907–1125), Jurchen Jin (1125–1234), Mongol Yuan (1279–1368), and Manchu Qing (1644–1912). The Northern Wei eunuchs gained as much power as their counterparts in the indigenous dynasties, but eunuchs in the Liao, Jin, and Yuan periods were relatively insignificant. In the Qing dynasty some eunuchs were manipulative, but they did not have the institutionalized political and military powers associated with the eunuchs of the earlier periods, as in the cases of Zhao Gao (d. 207 BCE) and Wei Zhongxian (1568–1620). Zhao Gao held an iron grip on the Second Generation emperor of the Qin dynasty (reigned 209–207 BCE) after removing his rival and silencing the officialdom. Similarly, in the Ming dynasty Wei Zhongxian tyrannized the officialdom and population and created a cabal of corrupt eunuch and non-eunuch officials who flattered him by setting up more than forty shrines to worship him as a living god.
Literary works supplement traditional historical sources in constructing a social history of the eunuchs. The making of eunuchs involved removing the male reproductive organs, a procedure described as either coerced or voluntary castration. Coerced castration provided the main supply of eunuchs until the seventh century, during which castration was the punishment meted out to criminals, with a severity second only to execution. Castration was forced on prisoners of war in the Shang dynasty and on male children and relatives of political criminals in the Northern Wei. Provincial tributes to the central government often included a quota of castrated boys who had been captured for that purpose.
In voluntary castration a boy had himself castrated in order to be eligible for eunuch recruitment into the palaces (as Wei Zhongxian did). Poverty-stricken parents who “volunteered” their young boys for castration actually coerced them to undergo the procedure, hoping that they would be recruited into the palaces and supplement the family income.
With only several exceptions, the eunuchs through the dynasties were healthy males before castration, and after the procedure they retained their male gender identity and sexuality. They married palace women and adopted both eunuchs and non-eunuchs who perpetuated their lineage. Despite the eunuchs’ marriage and adoption practices, the Confucian society that valued biological heirs and social standing still treated eunuchs with contempt, berating them for being unfilial and immoral. Eunuchs suffered a lifetime of physical torture from emperors, palace women, and senior eunuchs, who beat them to death for minor violations. Indeed, the majority of the eunuchs in the standard histories were executed for court intrigues or alleged crimes of murder and corruption.
In this culture of sanctioned violence were rare cases of eunuchs who escaped the historian’s negative appraisal. Cai Lun (50–121 CE) is praised as the inventor of the paper-making process; he was falsely accused and executed on trumped-up charges. Zheng He (1371–1433) is acclaimed as an admiral who led seven maritime voyages across the oceans, reaching the east coast of Africa. Born in a Muslim community in Kunming, Yunnan Province, he was captured and castrated as a young boy and taken to Nanjing and Beijing, thousands of miles from his family and culture.
The eunuch institution has been seen as an icon of the Chinese imperial system from which East Asian civilizations borrowed. Confucianism and eunuchs both became entrenched in premodern Korea and Vietnam, which even exported eunuchs to Yuan and Ming China. It is interesting to note that Japan adopted Confucianism but rejected the practice of eunuchs.
Jay, J. W. (1999). Castration and medical images of eunuchs in traditional China. In Y.-S. Kim & F. Bray (Eds.), Current perspectives in the history of science in East Asia (pp. 385–394). Seoul: Seoul National University Press.
Source: Jay, Jennifer W.. (2009). Eunuchs. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 778–780. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Eunuchs (Tàiji?n ?? Huàngu?n ??)|Tàiji?n ?? Huàngu?n ?? (Eunuchs)