The Real Lives of China’s Eunuchs8 min read

Jeremiah Jenne reviews two books that humanize a much-maligned group

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. ∎

Melissa Dale, Inside the World of the Eunuch. (HKUP, January 2019)
Jia Yinghua, The Last Eunuch of China: The Life of Sun Yaoting, trans. Sun Haichen. (China Intercontinental Press, March 2009)
Header: Qing dynasty Dowager Empress Cixi in her throne sedan, carried by palace eunuchs. (Wikicommons)
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Sun Yaoting visited the Forbidden City in 2005. It was 1995.