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Chinese Eunuchs

Qing eunuch

A Qing dynasty eunuch

"All countries large and small suffer one defect in common: the surrounding of the ruler with unworthy personnel.... Those who would control rulers first discover their secret fears and wishes. “- Han Fei Tzu, revered Chinese minister of state and man of letters, who died 233 B.C.

This essay will briefly explore the general ideas of the eunuch, and then its role in the Chinese history with some mentions of some prominent eunuchs.

A general disclaimer on this topic: discussions of eunuchs center on the times when their activities reached high points or when politics appear to have been distorted by them. They seldom go beyond a fragmentary presentation of factual developments. All officials scribes belong to the scholar-literati class, and they as a whole are wont to write of their own and not their bitter rivals, the eunuchs.

Eunuchs are basically castrato, male who had their genitalia castrated. It is a practice not limited only to the Chinese society but also noted in Europe, Persia and India since antiquity.

At the beginning, the eunuchs that served in Chinese court exist from as a result of the crime and punishment system. Kung-hsing, the Chinese term for castration, meant palace punishment. In addition, some of the eunuchs come from barbarian tribes and defeated foreign enemies of the kingdom. As luxury of court increase, and poverty in the populace became widespread, more and more of the peasants castrate either themselves or their sons as a means of economical survival. As time evolves especially with the growing size of the imperial court; the recruitments of eunuchs became institutionalized.

‘Specialist’ outside the imperial palace operated on those potential eunuchs, who were guaranteed by others. The fees for these in the Qing dynasty was 6 taels, which most of them can’t pay and had to be deducted from their salary.

In terms of the operation itself, once an absolute consent was given, the patient was seated in a semi-reclining position, crouch-like while his waist and legs were firmly held down. The abdomen and upper thighs were tightly bound with bandages, and the operated area cleaned with hot water. With a small, slightly curved blade, the ‘specialist’ will cut off both the testis and the penis. A plug inserted into the urethra.

These operations were generally successful. Fatalities range among 1 in 1000, to 1 in 10,000; primarily due to infection and urine blockage. The severed part are known as ‘pao’ or treasure and is kept by the eunuchs and have to be presented to the head eunuchs as part of the entry examination into the palace. In addition, most eunuchs kept their ‘pao’ on the top of cupboard signifying ‘pao pao kao shen’ and have it buried together when they die so that they can be a whole person in the next life. 

Eunuch certificate

Eunuch certificate

After the castration, the eunuchs underwent a change of voice becoming like a girl and more of a falsetto during adulthood. They lose their beards and they often suffer from bed-wetting, leading to the description of ‘smelly like a lao kung (eunuch)’.

In addition to these, the loss of their testosterone, leads to a fattish appearance and loss of weight and strength in most. Psychologically, the loss of their sexual organs leads to the perception that they are incomplete, eunuchs are really sensitive to any criticism of their appearance or defects, and tend to be rather petty and argumentative.

Not heaven but women and eunuchs Bring misfortunes to mankind Wives and those without balls Bleat with similar voices
- Book of Odes

Since time memorial, the Chinese people especially since the advent of Confucianism, demands strict moral purity among its womenfolk. This combined with the necessity of Chinese kings and emperors to produce male heirs, which in turn require a huge presence of a royal harem, effectively created and demanded the presence of the most elusive of Chinese political animals --- the Chinese eunuchs.

The access and influence that the eunuchs enjoy with the emperor enables them to enjoy certain power and privileges via the emperor's supreme power. When combined with the false belief that the castrato, being one who's unable to sire a child, would therefore be not ambitious, having no personal empire to build, leads to the usage of eunuch in palace and then administrative affairs, something that would be repeatedly be abused by eunuchs who built alliances and personal fiefdom of power.

Certainly, the potential of corruption and abuse of power among the eunuchs are well-known, and there exists a ‘separation of power’ between the inner and outer courts. In many dynasties, eunuchs are forbidden to leave the palace, and also forbidden to have inputs into the matter of the administration of the nation, a task of the mandarins.

During the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuan Zhang (Emperor Hongwu) had this engraved on an iron tablet in front of the palace: “Eunuchs are forbidden to interfere with government affairs. Those who attempt to do so will be subjected to capital punishment.”

He had this further to say about eunuchs: “Not one or two of these people out of thousands are good. Those who are evil frequently number thousands. If they are employed as ears or eyes, then the ears and eyes are covered. If they are employed as the heart and bowel, then the heart and bowels will be sick. The way to control them is to make them fear the laws and not permit them to have merit. If they have merit, them they will be arrogant and lustful.”

These lessons however are not learned by all, and if learned, never deep enough to prevent the rot from setting in, with increasing number and power of the eunuchs through the generations. At its peak, the total numbers of eunuch employed by the Ming imperial government numbers approximately 100,000 at the end of the Ming dynasty.

“These two can neither be taught nor controlled- palace women and eunuchs”Confucius, Book of Odes.

As mentioned above, the Chinese eunuchs are originally the creation of the crime and punishment system. At its onset, in the earlier dynasties such as the Shang Dynasty, eunuchs serve as servants in the court, doing menial tasks such as cleaning and cooking. With the adoption of the imperial harem, the number of eunuchs increased, though not to the extent of late generations.

The historical records of eunuchs in earlier dynasties is perhaps more sketchy than those of later dynasties. We do know that as early as the Chou (Zhou Dynasty, BC 1766- BC 255) that the eunuchs are involved in palace intrigues. In the Chou Dynasty, eunuchs were repeatedly involved in assassination attempts of crown princes in retaliation of their shoddy treatment from the princes.

This however pales when compared to the deeds of the infamous eunuch of the Qin Dynasty. Following the death of Qin Shih Huang Di, the eunuch Chao Kao in collaboration with Premier Li Ssu faked the imperial will to select their own preference as the next emperor, thus forcing the death of the legitimate crown prince and also the loyal General Meng Tien.

“For three generations, my family has served the House of Qin. Now in command of 300,000 troops, I have the power to stage a rebellion, but I prefer death, for I am unwilling to disgrace my ancestors, and reluctant to forget the honors which the First Emperor bestowed on me.” quoted General Meng Tien before his death.

Once he usurped the control of the palace, Eunuch Chao Kao executed all his enemies and constantly flatter and control the affair of states of the inexperienced 2nd emperor. In addition, when rebellion from the peasants under Liu Bang started, Chao Kao secluded the emperor and reassured him that everything was under control. Even when the military seek to inform the emperor of the truth and seek military reinforcement, he denied them access to the emperor, forcing them to join the rebellion. He further consolidated his power by throwing Li Ssu into prison.

When the rebellion began to be overwhelming, fearing for his life, Eunuch Chao Kao had the emperor dethroned and assassinated. Luckily, the third and final emperor of Qin had this eunuch killed for his crimes in the waning days of Qin.

There was less mention of eunuchs in the Early Han Dynasty where efforts was put in to suppress the power of the eunuchs. Two incident of note happened in this dynasty. Firstly, furious that he was sent to Mongolia to accompany an imperial princess who was to be wed by the Mongolian, Eunuch Chung-hsing Shou defected to Mongolia and helped to organize them to the future dismay of Han China. This represents the first attempt by the Mongolian to use Chinese methods against them in their raids and wars.

Secondly, in the Han dynasty, Emperor Wu Ti was repeatedly cheated by an eunuch Luan T who claimed to have visited the Immortals on the Isles of Blest in the eastern ocean, conferring honors and ranks on him. This eunuch was later beheaded when the truth emerged. Nonetheless, throughout the ensuing centuries, eunuchs of all sorts managed to use religion and the promise of immortality to seduce and the consolidate their own powers from the emperors.

In the late Second Han dynasty, eunuch begun to organize their collective political power. With the granting of adoption rights, they started to amass more power and wealth with the accumulated assets and hereditary offices passed on as inheritance. They also become more powerful up till the Five Eunuch Lords are able to eliminate the Liang family, the empress’s family that controlled the various ministries, and commenced inquisitions against their scholar critics.

These soon inflamed the populace and the soldiers who after A.D. 189, burst into the palace and massacred thousands of eunuchs. Within the next 20 years, as the dynasty under weak emperors, fell sway into various warlords finally toppled; after the structure of the government had been weaken by ages of eunuch and scholar struggles against each other.

The power and influence of eunuchs waxed and waned in the succeeding dynasties. These are in part, due to the start of the conquest of the mainland China by the barbarians, forming the dynasties such as Jin and Yuan. These non-Han (or ethnically non-Chinese) peoples did not have eunuchs during their nomadic stages, but adopted this Chinese institution as part of the sinicization or sinification process when they set up dynasties.

While eunuchs in the Northern Wei were as powerful as the indigenous Chinese dynasties, those during the Liao, Jin, and Yuan periods were relatively insignificant.

The Sui and Tang dynasties had their fair share of difficulties with eunuchs. Yang Ti of the Grand Canal fame in the Sui dynasty had his life and reign ended by a coup led by his palace eunuchs amidst population unease about the dynasty’s war in Korea.

It was the Eunuch Kao Li-Shih who introduced Yang Kuei Fei to Tang’s Emperor Hsuan Tsung, perhaps to the everlasting sorrow of the Tang dynasty and In A.D. 826, during the late Tang dynasty, Emperor Ching Tsung was murdered in his chambers by eunuchs under the control of powerful Wang Shou-Cheng, who deemed it to be their duty to save the dynasty from the young emperor’s utter irresponsibility and uncontrolled excesses. The palace was then under the control of Eunuch Wang Shou-Cheng so much so that the next emperor can only free himself out of this grip with the help of another eunuch surname Chiu, who was even worse as he confines the emperor to the harem and executed three chief ministers.

Chiu Shih-liang then in A.D. 840 forged an imperial will in order to instate his preferred emperor as the next emperor, who he then controlled. By the time of his death, the total treasure accumulated by Eunuch Chiu exceeded the annual budget of the entire empire. It can be reasonably claimed that the power of the eunuchs played a significant role in the breakup of the culturally strong but militarily weak Tang Dynasty.
The next dynasty where the eunuchs were as strong was during the Ming dynasty.

Eunuch Liu-chin was another whose treasures when confiscated during the Ming dynasty again exceed the budget of the entire empire. Liu-chin was so powerful in that era that he virtually issued all the emperor’s wishes and that he was able to force 300 scholar-ministers to kneel for half a day in front of him, in a bid to find out of a person who criticized him in an anonymous letter. Unfortunately, his thirst for power was so great that he nearly staged a revolt against the emperor.

This is but one of the example of the powers of the eunuchs towards the mid and late Ming dynasty. The precautions set in to limit the power of the eunuch’s at the start of the dynasty were by then not enforced. The powers of the eunuch reached a peak during this era when there were a total of 100,000 eunuchs. The wealth and the power of the eunuchs attracted the peasants who castrated en masse to apply for positions of eunuchs.

In 1598 alone, the court took in 4,500 eunuchs. Those who were not taken into the palace grew up as robbers and beggars, hiding under city walls and begging and robbing travelers to the city.

At the start of the Qing dynasty, precautions of the power of the eunuchs were again set in place again. As an example of the distrust that Manchu of the eunuchs, Emperor Kang Shi ordered that eunuchs are forbidden to leave the capital city.

Nonetheless, like the Ming Dynasty, the power of the eunuchs grows as the time passes. Among Dowager Empress’ retinue is a Eunuch Li Lien-ying who was so loyal to her that he was willing to cut flesh from his own thigh as a cure during one of her episodes of illness. It was this chief eunuch who gave Tzu Hsi the nickname of “Old Buddha”. This self-styled Nine-Thousand Life remained by Tzu Hsi’s side throughout the rest of his life, and had a hand in stifling reforms from the progressive factions under emperor Kuang Hsu.

The last emperor, Pu Yi, was instrumental in ending the ancient eunuch system. In secret, and under the observation of republican guards, the hundreds of remaining eunuchs were herded out in a main palace courtyard where they were told of their dismissal, and then herded into the Prospect Hill and then out.

Qing child eunuchs

Child enuchs in Qing dynasty - treated as pets in the palace.

The last of the Chinese eunuchs died in 1996.

“There is no defilement so great as castration. One who has undergone this punishment nowhere counts as a man. This is not just modern attitude; it has always been so. Even an ordinary fellow is offended when he has to do business with an eunuch- how much more so, then, a gentleman!”
Ssu-ma Chien, the father of Chinese history.

For every eunuch that was infamous for their pursuit of power, there were equally many who served with devotion and excelled. It was the eunuch Tsai Lun in A.D. 105 that managed to invent paper, one of the 5 great inventions of ancient China.

I will conclude this essay by highlighting a few eunuchs of distinction in the Ming Dynasty in hope to show the impact of eunuchs, unnamed in other dynasties who had served with distinction.

Ssu-ma Chien, quoted above, was initially a Chinese scholar, a son of another Chinese historian. He was sentenced by Emperor Wu Ti during the Han dynasty after he remonstrated on behalf of a general who is under the wrath of the emperor. Because of his promise to his historian father to complete their work, he rather chooses the punishment of castration rather than the punishment of death by suicide. “It was my obligation to my father to finish his historical works which made me submit to the knife without showing the rage I felt. If I had done otherwise, how could I ever have the face again to visit the grave of my parents?” He was subsequently called the Father of Chinese History.

Zheng He was perhaps the greatest sailor that China produced, while at the same time, the most renown of all Ming eunuchs. He was born as Ma He into a muslim family in Yunnan who served the Mongolian. With the rise of the Ming dynasty, Ma He was castrated and sent into the palace where he served Emperor Hongwu’s fourth son, Zhu Di. Ma De developed into a fine warrior, an experienced scout and a war commander in the prince of Yan’s camp. In the civil war that followed the succession of Emperor Hongwu, Ma De managed to stall an enemy attack around the Zheng Village Dike, enabling the prince to counterattack and destroy his enemy, in the most pivotal of battle during that brief war. For this, his surname was changed by imperial edict into Zheng. After that, Zheng He became a supervisor of court civil engineering and procurer of fireworks and metals.
Soon after, he build a navy 100,000 strong in troops under imperial order to stop Japanese pirates that was marauding on the Chinese coast. In 1405, he started the first of his seven voyages that brought him to Java and the East African, traversing the Indian Ocean. His fleet was 63 ships strong with the largest measuring 444 feet x 180 feet. These expeditions spread the Ming cultural influence across whole swaths of South-East Asian lands, enabling nations as diverse as Annam to Malacca and Borneo to become vassal states to Ming China. Unfortunately, the large cost of such expeditions and perhaps the prominence of the Zheng He caused severe opposition from the scholar-literati of the age. Later on, the whole record of Zheng He’s voyages was completely burned by a Liu Daxia, a director of the Transportation bureau, who bemoaned the cost of those voyages.

Hou Xin, is second to Zheng He, whose fleet he sailed with, in terms of fame among all eunuch during the 200 years plus of Ming dynasty. A member of the great Ming eunuch-diplomat-envoy corps, he was instrumental in expanding the Ming influence into Nepal, Bengal, Tibet and Jaunpaur.

Nguyen An is a native of Annam, who became an eunuch in Ming China, famous foremost because he became the architect of the Forbidden Palace. He was also talented in arts and was expert in civil engineering, a veritable renaissance man. Among his other achievements, he toured and strengthened the engineering works around the Grand Canal in 1449.

Feng Bao is one the model Confucian eunuch of the Ming dynasty. Well learned, he is diligent and compassionate. Initially, one of the seal eunuchs, he became the grand guardian of the Ceremonial Directorate. He later held the title of the grand secretary, and also director of the East Depot. He together with the statesmen Zhang Juzheng, and the background support of the Dowager Empress, helped to manage the affairs of nation under Emperor Wanli.

Another eunuch during the Wanli reign was Chen Ju, who helped to maintain a working inner court, while the outer court was torn asunder into several waring factions. In death, for his service, he was conferred the title “Pure and Loyal”.


This article contains facts and opinions sourced extensively from several sources, among them:-

  1.  Mary M Anderson, (1990), Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs Of Imperial China. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York. (Good for general overview of eunuchs throughout the ages)
  2.  Shih-shan Henry Tsai (1996), The Eunuchs In The Ming Dynasty. State University of New York Press. (One of the better books that I read, balanced in review and judgment of the eunuchs)
  3. Taisuke Mitamura (1970), Chinese Eunuchs: The Structure of Intimate Politics. Charles E. Tuttle, Tokyo.
  4. Edward H. Parker, Ancient China Simplified at http://www.authorama.com/ancient-ch...mplified-1.html
  5. Jennifer W. Jay. (1995), The Eunuchs And Sinicization In The Non-Han Conquest Dynasties In China, Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast Conference, June 16-18, 1995, at Forest Grove, Oregon, U.S.A.