The term “eunuch” refers to a specific type of Chinese Imperial servant. Eunuchs, males who had survived having their scrotums and penises removed, performed a variety of palace roles. Their original purpose, however, stemmed from the emperor’s need for guards to protect his harem while avoiding questions regarding paternity. Traditionally valued by rulers for their fierce loyalty and military prowess, eunuchs also often garnered disdain for being uneducated, susceptible to corruption, and serving as Imperial spies. Under some dynasties, eunuchs increased in both numbers and power, accumulating excessive influence over the emperors and their courtly affairs.
While some bequeathed both gifts and titles to family members, others servicing emperors who heavily favored their court scholars often faced persecution and death. A eunuch’s influence at court waxed and waned depending upon each dynasty’s emperors’ temperaments and judgments.In the 1400s during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), under Emperor Yongle’s (Yung-lo) (1403-1424) rule, the famous Muslim eunuch Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) (1371-1435) commanded a vast fleet of Imperial treasure ships, captained by eunuch sailors who were fiercely brave and loyal to their emperor. While Yongle’s son later ordered such journeys discontinued and eliminated the eunuchs’ prestigious positions, his grandson then restored his eunuchs’ prominence, arranging for their education and once again appointing them to important military commands.
Because a eunuch had no direct ties to the royal family system, he lacked social standing and remained dependent upon the emperor’s favor, but oftentimes, his close proximity to his master led to participation in both state affairs and courtly intrigue. Eunuchs could easily manipulate those who were minors or weak rulers. Working as his servants and companions, eunuchs often proved themselves a young emperor’s most reliable supporters in situations relating to an empress’s family. One eunuch chief minister from the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) used deception to assure a younger son’s succession, and eunuchs conspired to murder the brother of one Han (206 BC-220 AD) emperor’s consort. Under the Tang dynasty (618907), reforms in court practices regarding Imperial control of taxation curbed the influence of eunuchs controlling the treasuries. Under Tang Emperor Wuzong (841-846), a powerful eunuch handled Buddhist affairs until those who espoused Confucian thought suppressed Buddhism in China.
Through the centuries, eunuchs served as personal secretaries and envoys to tributary states, as tax auditors, and as members of secret police systems. Although the Chinese and Manchu rulers trusted their eunuchs due to their being entirely dependent upon them, the eunuchs often exploited their privileged positions. Their ability to manipulate a court’s bureaucracy led to flagrantly corrupt and oppressive eunuch dictatorships, which resulted in reigns of terror. Approximately 70,000 eunuchs assumed administrative and political roles under the absolutist Ming rulers in Beijing (Peking). They eventually exerted considerable influence in the Inner Court, while using a security system to terrorize court scholars and officials. During later decades, Manchu emperors distrusted and restricted their eunuchs’ official power by reducing their numbers to only a few thousand. Because no Manchu princes married ethnic Chinese women, their eunuchs also only transported specified nude and specially prepared Manchu women wrapped in rugs to the imperial beds.
Molly McLeod Mirll
See also: Confucian-Mencian Paradigm; Han Dynasty; Manchus; Ming Dynasty; Qin Dynasty; Qing Dynasty; Tang Dynasty.
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Mitamura, Taisuke. Chinese Eunuchs: The Structure of Intimate Politics.
Trans. by C. A. Pomeroy. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 1992.