Cut it off! Eunuchs in Imperial China

By Cole Garrett (Vanderbilt University)

The Emperors of China (starting from the 6th century BC and lasting until the overthrow of the Emperor and declaration of the republic of China in 1912 AD) used Eunuchs and shrouded themselves in mystery in order to maintain power over their empire. Access to the emperor in Imperial China was limited to his closest advisors, concubines, and the eunuchs. Other than the emperor himself, eunuchs were the only men allowed to live in the Forbidden City.*

The exclusivity of the imperial residence shrouded the emperor in mystery, helping him to maintain his power as a deity of the Chinese people. No one aside from the Eunuchs and the Emperor’s many wives and concubine were allowed into the inner sanctum. To gain access to this forbidden world, many men (or children urged by their parents) would voluntarily undergo castration in order to be admitted into the Forbidden City.

While Eunuchs in other parts of the world were simply castrated, essentially removing the eunuch’s sex drive, eunuchs in China were not only castrated, but fully dismembered. In the eyes of the Chinese, this insured that the eunuchs would not give into temptation from the emperor’s many beautiful concubines. Although a relatively effective means of sex control, eunuchs developed a reputation of being foul smelling, as urination was hard to control.

Castration and the use of eunuchs in imperial courts did start, at first, as a punishment in 6th century BC. Criminals and prisoners of war were castrated and made to work in the Imperial courts. As the imperial court of China became continually more lavish, the need for eunuchs increased and castration and service in the imperial court changed from a punishment to a tradition and an honor.

To become a eunuch, the potential court attendant would present himself for surgery in a hut outside of the palace gates. He would then be given opium and have his genitals washed with hot pepper water. Surgeons would then ask the potential Eunuch three times, “will you regret it or not?” and if he flinched or showed signs or anxiety, the surgery was cancelled, otherwise, the man was held down while his genitalia were removed. The surgery took a hundred days to heal.

*The Forbidden City is named as such because access to the palace was incredibly limited. Those who served the Emperor in his home were not permitted to leave, and very few people were permitted to enter the city except under very special circumstances.

Note from the author: I am largely indebted to Hannah Pakula’s new book, The Last Empress, for the original inspiration and information for this article.

Further Reading:

Book: Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China by Mary M. Anderson
Article: Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China
Eunuchs of China
Castration Secrets of China’s Last Eunuch Revealed
New York Times: Death of the Emperor’s Last Eunuch
Report of Eunuchs to Royal Asiatic Society, 1877

IMAGE:Prince Zhanghuai’s Tomb, Eunuchs, Image from: Paludan, Ann. (1998). Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: the Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial China. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. ISBN 0500050902. Page 115.

Cole G. is the Wonders and Marvels Editorial Assistant for East Asian History/Nonfiction and Historical Fiction. You can read more about him here.

  • librarypat

    What an interesting article. I was aware of eunucks in other societies with other positions, but had not heard of them in China. I find it hard to believe a man or parent of a child would willingly undergo such extreme mutilation, even to work in such an important position. One would think that once it changed from a punishment to a privilaged position, they would have made the surgery a bit less extreme.

  • http://aseaofbooks.blogspot.com/ gwendolyn b.

    This is an interesting little article. It was an horrific practice nonetheless. I never cease to be amazed by the things we do to each other and to ourselves.

  • http://www.tracybarrett.com Tracy Barrett

    Fascinating information! I had to deal with this subject in a book for children about ancient China. Not easy to do!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=788986795 Arturo Hassan

    How does the Chinese control birth limitation in China ? Is castration an alternative ?  Just curious, because I was just reading that a black  33 year old  youngman  has fathered 30 children with 11 women,  while all are living on welfare.   No wonder so many states are facing bankrupcy, and president  Obama now wants to further tax the rich to distribute the wealth..   Wow   !!!

    • sahm

      Wow Arturo. How did this become racist and political when we were just discussing Chinese Eunucks?

    • Get A LiFe!

      What does your point have to do with this article? Push that Obama hate through any means necessary, huh!

  • maanu

    I’ve been to the forbidden city in Beijing. It is so huge , it took me most of the day to explore the place and it is really beautiful.

  • txakurra

    Ouch!