A Tribute to China’s Eunuchs

Jun 09, 2010

Although often portrayed as greedy, scheming sex perverts, the emasculated servants of China’s emperors did have some heroes amongst them.


 The Beijing Eunuch Culture Museum at Ming eunuch Tian Yi’s tomb

The Beijing Eunuch Culture Museum at Ming eunuch Tian Yi’s tomb

Photo credit: Wang Zhiyong/China.org.cn

Studded with China’s most prestigious universities and sizzling digital products markets, Zhongguangcun is often compared with Silicon Valley of the United States. But for centuries, it was known for a retirement home for the eunuchs in this area.

The emasculated domestic servants of the royal families were called taijian (太监) or zhonggong (中官 ), which supposedly gave the area its name. As the nationalist revolution put an end to Manchu dynastic rule of China in 1911, the tradition of castrating men to be eunuchs became a badge of shame that was associated with inhumanity of the past rulers. But even in the 20s, the abdicated Machu emperor Puyi still hired a castrated man as servant. In 1996, Sun Yaoting, the man known as China’s last eunuch passed away at an advanced age of 94.

After the communist party took over in 1949, the new government replaced the character Guan (官 ) with another character (关 ) of the same pronunciation. This could be a tactful attempt to conceal the embarrassing origin of the place.

In general, history doesn’t look kindly on the eunuchs, who were usually depicted as greedy, scheming and cruel crooks and sexual perverts. That might owe to the fact that history was mostly written by the mandarins who were well versed in Confucian doctrines and despised the bunch of illiterate and incomplete men. That said, there were a few exceptions who were looked upon favorably by the historians, among whom, Tian Yi (1534 – 1605), a Ming eunuch was known for his integrity and courage.

According to history, Tian ran the risk of offending the emperor Wanli, insisting the emperor should make true of his previous promise to abolish an unpopular tax. The emperor was so infuriated that he pulled out his sword and threatened to kill Tian. Despite the episode, on Tian’s death, the emperor held a four-day mourning and ordered a big mausoleum to be built for him in the west of Beijing. The mausoleum has developed into a Buddhist temple for elderly eunuchs who had nowhere to go and nothing to do.

The Ming dynasty was the golden age of eunuchs. Not only some elite eunuchs endeared themselves to the emperors, they also played significant political role and wielded considerable political clout. Instead of being refined to domestic duties in the palace, they were sent to the front as military supervisors and emperors’ deputies, they acted as spies and gathered evidence of conspiracies against emperors, they also were sent on sail to explore the uncharted territory. These important posts gave the eunuchs great power that often went unchecked, which naturally lead to corruption, abuse as well as notoriety.

Still there were eunuchs of extraordinary accomplishment. Cai Lun, a eunuch living in Han dynasty is believed to be the inventor of paper. An even better-known example is Zheng He, who is arguably China’s greatest navigator. According to be book “1421”, Zheng led a fleet and discovered many places unknown to the so-called civilised world.

“[...] On the 8th of March, 1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China. The ships, huge junks nearly five hundred feet long and built from the finest teak, were under the command of Emperor Zhu Di’s loyal eunuch admirals. Their mission was ‘to proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas’ and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony. The journey would last over two years and circle the globe.

Over thousands of years of continuous tradition, eunuchs had developed their own collective identity.

When they returned Zhu Di lost control and China was beginning its long, self-imposed isolation from the world it had so recently embraced. The great ships rotted at their moorings and the records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost was the knowledge that Chinese ships had reached America seventy years before Columbus and circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. They had also discovered Antarctica, reached Australia three hundred and fifty years before Cook and solved the problem of longitude three hundred years before the Europeans…”

However, when Ming’s successors, the Manchus, reflected on Ming’s downfall, they attributed it largely to the power-grabbing eunuchs. More strict rules were implemented to give tighter control over the eunuchs. They were banned from giving opinion on even the most trivial political affairs and would never be allowed to step out of the Forbidden City before retirement. Over thousands of years of continuous tradition, eunuchs had developed their own collective identity. For example, they had their own semi-god patron of trade, who is a Ming eunuch.

According to mythology, Gang Bing (刚秉 ) was a soldier who castrated himself to prove his loyalty to the emperor. A temple, located in the area now known as Babaoshan, was originally built to commemorate the man of extraordinary courage.


This article was originally written for See China and the author is a staff writer for Danwei.