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.
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