They erected palaces, nursed imperial children, baked delicious goods in Beijing’s imperial ovens, carried royalty on sedan chairs, tended to palace carpentry and filed government documents, produced imperial garments, crossed the gamut of professions from artisans to physicians, managed the tea-horse trade, led diplomatic missions all the way to Africa onboard giant naval vessels and even produced palace toilet paper.
They were the efficient housekeepers and secret lovers of the famed Imperial cities of Beijing and Nanjing.
They were the Ming dynasty eunuchs.
While eunuchs have long existed, in ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome, Turkey, Persia and even today in some parts of India where they are a recognised third gender, China’s Ming Dynasty saw an unprecedented surge in the number of castrates.
Eunuchs under Hongwu Rule
The eunuchs’ political trajectory during the Ming Dynasty is remarkable. From their modest beginning as lowly servants, they were long suspected of unreliability and treachery by Ming Dynasty founder, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (Hongwu). It is thought that even Confucius himself once stated that he disapproved of eunuchs’ claim to power and their centuries old defamation may in part originate from this.
As for Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, no sooner had he claimed victory over the Mongols and established his dragon throne in Yingtian (present day Nanjing) that he declared that eunuchs be forbidden to learn how to read or write and that no power be vested in them. For the most part, he appointed eunuchs solely to run his imperial palace, thus assuring the chastity of his concubines, as most Chinese emperors who hoped for a secure heir had done before him for hundreds of years.
Eunuchs under Yong Le Rule
It was Hongwu’s son, Emperor Zhu Di (Yong Le), who first increased the number of his eunuch servants and gave them important posts. As it turned out, Zhu Di was never appointed heir by his father. His nephew, Zhu Jianwen was. The astute and strategically minded Zhu Di, a general by experience, set about overthrowing his nephew from the dragon throne. Zhu Di was aided by reports from spying eunuchs and later by his own eunuch soldiers, one of which was no other than Zheng He, his future Grand Admiral.
As a ruler, Zhu Di employed many eunuch spies. The ruthless and powerful Ming secret police was also officialised by Zhu Di. And finally, he implemented a manipulative dualism which pitted eunuchs against his elect clique of scholar ministers. Whenever vexed by the ministers’ Confucian conservatism which was often at odds with his expansive outlook, Zhu Di reacted by increasing his eunuchs’ powers.
But even then, Ming Dynasty eunuchs were forbidden to learn how to read or write.
Eunuchs under Xuande Rule and Beyond
It is only later, when Zhu Di’s grandson, Zhu Zhanji (Xuande) acceded to the dragon throne that eunuchs were finally taught to read and write.
It turned out that the Ming emperors who followed Zhu Zhanji were no longer as politically minded as their forebears. They became idle. In the centuries that followed, it is believed that the general apathy on the part of the emperors combined with the increased involvement of literate eunuchs led to corruption within the government.
Holding court, something that the conscientious and astute Zhu Di did on a daily basis, involved perusing, approving or rejecting recommendations brought forward by the scholar ministers. But around the time of Zhu Zhanji’s rule, the Silijian or Directorate of Ceremonial, a eunuch agency possessing powers not unlike that of the US White House, became more active in the processing of these ministry documents. It was the Silijian who executed the emperor’s edicts once those documents were approved. As a result, in the later Ming Dynasty, it was debatable just how many decisions the Emperor had made and how many had been directly taken by the Silijian without as much as the emperor’s involvement. It is believed that it was through this loophole that eunuchs became so powerful in the Ming dynasty.
But setting aside their rapacious reputation, which can partly be attributed to envy, scapegoating and the legacy of Confucian teachings, eunuchs have left an undeniable mark on the history of The Middle Kingdom.
Who were they?
|Chinese admiral Zheng He Changle City in Fujian|
Origin of Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty
They were young men, mostly boys, who had been fully castrated. The severing of their glands at around 10 or 11, ideally before puberty, meant that they would forego traditional family life and instead offer their services to the emperor or some other wealthy household. Victims of castration had no choice since they were often prisoners of war, much like Admiral Zheng He. Other eunuchs were ‘gifts’ from The Middle Kingdom vassal states, such as Korea and Annam. They came from all over the country, including the province of Yunnan in the Southwest. They were employed not only in the palace but wherever they were afforded. If they were so unfortunate, this might mean a brothel or the household of some perverted merchant or prince.
There were also those who self-castrated. This illegal operation was frowned upon and if discovered, the applicant would be relegated to serve in the imperial army as punishment. This, however, did not deter some young men. They were lured by the prospect of much coveted imperial posts where one could ascend the echelons of the eunuch institution and bring honour to themselves and their family.
If we consider the physical ills that a eunuch endured both during castration and years later as an adult, the self-castration act is baffling. If we even contemplate the shame and lack of control which many eunuchs suffered and which forced them to wear an incontinence cloth and a scented pouch to avoid unpleasant effusions, it is astounding that some young men were prepared to go through this process. Or perhaps it depicts a clearer vision of the times. It speaks volume of the social inequities and the desperation in some provinces. It also hints to the relative wealth and power of imperial eunuchs.
Eunuch Screening Process in Beijing
Outside the palace in Beijing’s southeast was a large imperial hunting ground which also functioned as a reserve camp. Nanhaizi was the holding place of hundreds of thousands of castrates. They waited eagerly for a position in the Imperial Palace.
Their meagre possessions included a small urn where they kept their severed body parts. Eunuchs cherished this urn which was to be buried with them and assure their completeness in the afterlife.
After a rigorous testing and screening process by eunuch Directors from the palace, they were selected and then given a wooden tablet before being assembled for their task assignments.
Psychology of Eunuchs
When I worked on my novel, The Ming Storytellers, I wanted to give these men a soul and pay homage to their historical contribution. I embarked on a journey to see life through their eyes. I wanted to understand their pain and their emotional-regulation strategy as human beings. How can a man who has been forcefully castrated in a Confucian society continue to function while preserving his self-integrity? To answer this question, I created a range of eunuch characters, from the lowly, the corrupt to the most powerful and noble, in the hope of stepping into their shoes and realising who they were. Having done so, I tend to think that the answer, one I long suspected, is that as far as insecurities and power complexes, eunuchs were no different from other men.
In Memory of Eunuchs
In Beijing Shijingshan District, there is a small desolate building which does not garner much attention. It is a tomb memorial and museum dedicated to China’s 2000 year old eunuch history. It seems that apart from it and a few statues to honour Admiral Zheng He (including one in Fujian), the world’s memory of eunuchs is thin.
So I end this post with one look at a eunuch I have long admired. Perhaps because like me, he had an engineering background but mostly because of the way he died despite his talent, without a tael to his name.
He was a Vietnamese eunuch appointed by Emperor, Zhu Di. His name was Nguyen An.
Nguyen has been described as a ‘talented artist’ and ‘ingenious architect’. Brought to the Middle Kingdom as an Annamese tribute to honour Zhu Di, he was soon noted for his incorruptibility and loyalty.
Nguyan An was highly technical. As a hydraulic specialist he was once called upon to repair damaged lock gates on the Grand Canal following severe flooding in Nanjing which caused the Yangtze River to spill over a large area.
But what Nguyan An should be mostly remembered for is his contribution to one of the largest and most ambitious palaces in the world: Beijing’s Forbidden City. As the master architect, it was under Nguyen An’s supervision that Beijing’s convict workers realised this glorious edifice.
For all his impeccable service record and his remarkable talent, it would come as a surprise that Nguyen An died penniless.
Yet his work and the work of many men, some who will never be known or recognised for their hard labour, stands today as one of the most visited palaces in the world.