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Qing era eunuchs
The tradition of using eunuchs in the imperial court goes back at least 2,000 years. Beginning in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D. 220), palace eunuchs often ran the day to day affairs of the court. They vied for power with military leaders and scholar-bureaucrats.The word eunuch comes from the Greek word for bed watcher. Eunuchs were used in China, the Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Turkey and other imperial states by monarchs as "keepers of the couch," or guardians of the royal harem.

Joshua Wickerham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”: Eunuchs were some of the few servants who could be trusted to serve palace elite, and even then, the intrigues of eunuchs in state affairs alone require volumes of history. Emperors, princes, wives, and others of high rank each had dozens or hundreds of personal eunuch attendants. Despite attempts by almost every philosophic persuasion in every era to limit eunuch ascendancy, the institution survived until the fall of the Qing Dynasty, when families were still castrating unwanted boys and grown men were undergoing voluntary surgeries for the chance to enter the imperial ranks.” [Source: Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Chinese imperial eunuchs were nicknamed “bob-tailed dogs". During the Ming dynasty it was said that 20,000 of them were employed in the Forbidden City. Imperial eunuchs survived until 1924 when the last 1,500 of them were banished from the Forbidden City, according to one observer, “carrying their belongings in sacks and crying piteously in high pitched voices.”

Eunuchs were widely seen as greedy, corrupt and scheming. In dramas about Imperial life they are often cast as villains. Even so they made their contributions to Chinese culture and civilization. The eunuch Cai Lun is credited with inventing paper in A.D. 105. Court eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty were the first Chinese to play Western classical music. The eunuch Zheng Ho was China's greatest explorer. In the the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Qianlong assembled a chamber orchestra of eunuchs dressed in European suits and wigs.

Many eunuchs chose their way of life. One eunuch told British Sinologist John Blofeld in "City of Lingering Splendour": “It seemed a little thing to give up one pleasure for so many. My parents were poor, yet suffering that small change, I could be sure of an easy life in surroundings of great beauty and magnificence, I could aspire to intimate companionship with lovely women unmarred by their fear or distrust of me. I could even hope for power and wealth of my own.”

Good Websites and Sources on Eunuchs: Hidden Power; Eunuch of the Ming Dynasty ; Wikipedia on Eunuchs Wikipedia

Eunuch Operation in China

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Eunuch boy
Familes often encouraged their sons to become eunuchs as a means of pulling the family out of poverty and gaining admittance into the imperial court. Many parents even organized their sons' castration at an early age in hopes that they would become imperial eunuchs.The castrations were usually performed with one slash of a small knife in a hut outside the Forbidden City for a fee of six silver pieces. The eunuchs lost their testicles and penis ("the three preciouses"). The only local anesthetic used was hot chili sauce. After the procedure a plug was placed in the wound and the urethra and left there for three days. If urine poured out of the wound after the plug was removed the operation was considered a success. If it didn’t the patient usually died a painful death.

During the Ming dynasty, the Forbidden City contained a special eunuch clinic where candidates had their genitals removed while sitting on a special chair with a hole in it. Candidates that didn't survive were carried way with their penis and testicles in a pouch for reunification in the afterlife.

Many eunuchs were orphans or sons of prisoners or poor parents. In her book on the famous eunuch Chêng Ho, "Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne", Louise Levathes wrote: "As was the custom, young sons of prisoners were castrated. Thousands of young boys’some no more than 9 or 10 years of age---were stripped naked, subjected to one brutal stroke of a curved knife...Hundreds never recovered, dying of infection and exposure. Those who did were taken to the capital to serve as court eunuchs."

The operation cut off the supply of male hormones to the body and gave the eunuchs high voices and soft demeanors. It also left them with less control of their bladder. Eunuchs often wet their beds and their clothes, the source of the old Chinese expression “as smelly as a eunuch.” The operation also left them too weak to perform hard physical work such as farm labor. Eunuchs traditionally preserved their genitals in a jar and carried them in a bag hung on their belt. This way, if a eunuch died he had his genitals on him and could be buried with them and be reincarnated as a "full man"

Eunuchs Live Longer

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Eunuch tombs
In September 2012, Reuters reported: A study of eunuchs in Korea's royal court has found men without testicles live longer. Researchers looking at the court of the Chosun Dynasty found eunuchs lived to 70 on average, or 14 to 19 years longer than "intact" men of similar socio-economic status. Three of the 81 eunuchs studied lived to 100 or more, giving the group a centenarian rate some 130 times that in developed nations today. [Source: Reuters. September 24, 2012]

During the dynasty, which ran from 1392 to 1910, boys in Korea sometimes underwent castration in order to serve as eunuchs and gain access to the privileged life of the palace. Employed through history as guards or servants in harems across the Middle East and Asia, eunuchs in the Chosun court were allowed to marry and had families through adoption.

Kyung-Jin Min of Inha University and Cheol-Koo Lee of Korea University believe the longevity of the eunuchs was not simply attributable to their privileged lifestyle. "Except for a few eunuchs, most lived outside the palace and spent time inside the palace only when they were on duty," Min told Reuters. In contrast, the average lifespan of the kings, who spent their whole lives inside the palace, was just 47 years.

Previous studies have shown female mammals generally live longer than males, and one explanation is that testosterone weakens the immune system and can increase the chances of heart disease. Scientists have also found that castration typically prolongs lifespan in animals but studies on people have been inconclusive. While data on mentally ill, institutionalized men showed them living longer, the lifespan of castrato singers was not significantly different from their non-castrated counterparts. The study was published in the journal Current Biology.

Eunuchs and the Chinese Emperor

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Tomb of powerful eunuch Tian Yi
Eunuchs were generally the only men other than the emperor who were allowed to enter the inner courtyards of the Forbidden City, where the imperial family and concubines lived. Other men, including officials, military guards and even male relatives of the emperor, were not only not allowed to enter the inner sanctums but were often required to leave the palace grounds at night.

Emasculation was thought to turn eunuchs into sort of non-humans that could enter the Emperors realm without violating it, presenting a threat or undermining the emperor’s privacy.

"The eunuchs detailed to attend on the women of the harem" wrote historian Daniel Boorstin, were "no menace to the purity of the imperial line or to the chastity of the royal consorts...They became a privileged class. Knowledge of the daily habits and personal tastes of the emperor gave eunuchs a peculiar opportunity to anticipate the monarch's whims. In the arbitrary governments of the East, this meant an opportunity to seize power." China's greatest explorer, Chêng Ho, was an eunuch as were several brilliant military leaders. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Eunuchs had to be careful though. "For a eunuch to make a mistake," wrote Matteo Ricci in the 16th century, "in the presence of the King is equivalent to placing his life in danger. They say the sovereign is rigid with them in this respect that even for a slight fault the poor unfortunates are sometimes beaten to death."

Court Duties of Chinese Eunuchs

Much of the day to day operation of the imperial court was taken care of by the emperor’s favorite eunuch, who headed an imperial staff that oversaw thousands of cooks, gardeners, laundrymen, cleaners, painters and other eunuchs that were ranked in a complex hierarchy with 48 separate grades. Floggings and other punishments were often controlled and carried out by the court eunuchs. Concubines and eunuch often formed close friendships.

Eunuchs served as cooks, cleaners, record keepers and companions. "Each eunuch was apprenticed to a master," wrote Marina Warner, biographer of the Empress Dowager, "and his eventual success or promotion depended on the favor in which his master was held. On his master's death, a young eunuch might be forgotten until the day he himself died but if he was apprenticed to the chief he might rapidly acquire influence."

The eunuchs were loathed by many. They were regarded as corrupt and immoral. They often demanded kickbacks in return for contracts. Scholar-bureaucrats, who had risen to their positions through merit, "feared, envied and despised" the eunuchs. Sometimes political battles broke out between the eunuchs and the mandarins.

Eunuchs were not allowed to be buried with their families. Several buried together outside of Beijing in a small graveyard for eunuchs with stone guardians around the tomb of the Ming dynasty eunuch Tian Yi.

Political Power of the Eunuchs in China

Beginning with the reign of Han Shun To in A.D. 126, eunuchs held a high position in the Chinese court and had what is known today as access. While ministers and many high officials were not allowed to address the Emperor directly, eunuchs saw him on a daily basis and were allowed to talk to him on familiar terms. Not only did they work closely with the Emperor and his court, child eunuchs often grew up with future princes and emperors and were their playmates. They also had close ties with the palace women. In some case they were the only men they were allowed to see.

Eunuchs of Ming Emperor Xuande

"Since the emperor would not come out from the inner recesses of the Forbidden City---an area closed to all save the imperial family and their personal attendants," Yale professor Jonathan Spence wrote in "The Search for Modern China", "the eunuchs became crucial intermediaries between the outer bureaucratic world and the inner imperial one."

"Any senior official with business that demanded the emperor's attention," wrote Spence, "had to persuade a eunuch to carry the message for him; the eunuch, naturally enough, asked for fees in return for such services, and soon the more powerful ones were bribed and flattered by ambitious officials."

"In later Chinese history," wrote Boorstin, "the heir, born in a the palace, grew up under the constant tutelage of the eunuchs. When such an emperor, still a child succeeded to the throne, the imperial eunuchs would control the child-emperor's decisions or those of the empress-regent. These eunuchs...were usually drawn from the lowest levels of society. Having no future outside the palace, they had no reason not to merit their reputation for being mercenary and unscrupulous. They collected bribes, distributed honors, and meted out the punishments of the torture chamber." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

When the power of the Emperor diminished for some reason, the vacuum was filled by the eunuchs and the corrupt officials that patronized them. This process became a pattern in Chinese history and foretold a dynasty in decline that was primed for being overthrown.

Eunuch Power in China

Court eunuchs reached the height of their political power under the Ming Emperor Wanhi. He employed over 10,000 eunuchs in the imperial court and had 70,000 to 100,000 of them in official positions throughout the country. Powerful eunuchs embezzled huge fortunes while the Emperor was preoccupied with his concubines. The eunuchs often knew the weaknesses of the Emperors and exploited them. Taisuke Mitamura, author of "Chinese Eunuchs: The Structure of Intimate Politics" wrote: “The emperor in many ways became the plaything of these pariahs from the normal world. They deftly colored for their own purposes the rulers picture of the outside world and turned him against any ministers who tried to oppose their influence. An eunuch named Wei Zhinganxian for all intents and purposes ran China in the 1620s as did eunuchs when the Qing dynasty finally collapsed in 1911. After the Communists came to power many eunuchs became destitute outcasts. A few committed suicide in the moats of the Forbidden City. A eunuch museum has was opened in 1999 outside of Beijing next to the tomb for Tian Yi.

Boorstin wrote: Eunuchs “became a privileged class. Knowledge of the daily habits and personal tastes of the emperor gave eunuchs a peculiar opportunity to anticipate the monarch's whims. In the arbitrary governments of the East, this meant an opportunity to seize power. China's greatest explorer, Zheng Ho, was an eunuch as were several brilliant Byzantine and Ottoman military leaders. High ranking eunuchs were so common in Egypt that the word "eunuch" became a term for describing any officer of the court and the court itself was sometimes describes as "eunarchy." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

During the Ming dynasty it was said that 20,000 eunuchs were employed in the Forbidden City. They made their some contributions to Chinese culture and civilization. Court eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty were the first Chinese to play Western classical music. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Originally eunuchs were forbidden to acquire education. But soon the Ming emperors used the eunuchs as a tool to counteract the power of gentry cliques and thus to strengthen their personal power. When, later, eunuchs controlled appointments to government posts, long established practices of bureaucratic administration were eliminated and the court, i.e. the emperor and his tools, the eunuchs, could create a rule by way of arbitrary decisions, a despotic rule. For such purposes, eunuchs had to have education, and these new educated eunuchs, when they had once secured a position, were able to gain great influence in the immediate entourage of the emperor; later such educated eunuchs were preferred, especially as many offices were created which were only filled by eunuchs and for which educated eunuchs were needed. Whole departments of eunuchs came into existence at court, and these were soon made use of for confidential business of the emperor's outside the palace. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“These eunuchs worked, of course, in the interest of their families. On the other hand, they were very ready to accept large bribes from the gentry for placing the desires of people of the gentry before the emperor and gaining his consent. Thus the eunuchs generally accumulated great wealth, which they shared with their small gentry relatives. The rise of the small gentry class was therefore connected with the increased influence of the eunuchs at court.

Powerful and Corrupt Eunuch Liu Jin

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”:“In 1505 Wuzong came to the throne, an inexperienced youth of fifteen who was entirely controlled by the eunuchs who had brought him up. The leader of the eunuchs was Liu Jin, who had the support of a group of people of the gentry and the middle class. Liu Jin succeeded within a year in getting rid of the eunuchs at court who belonged to other cliques and were working against him. After that he proceeded to establish his power. He secured in entirely official form the emperor's permission for him to issue all commands himself; the emperor devoted himself only to his pleasures, and care was taken that they should keep him sufficiently occupied to have no chance to notice what was going on in the country. The first important decree issued by Liu Jin resulted in the removal from office or the punishment or murder of over three hundred prominent persons, the leaders of the cliques opposed to him. He filled their posts with his own supporters, until all the higher posts in every department were in the hands of members of his group. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

He collected large sums of money which he quite openly extracted from the provinces as a special tax for his own benefit. When later his house was searched there were found 240,000 bars and 57,800 pieces of gold (a bar was equivalent of ten pieces), 791,800 ounces and 5,000,000 bars of silver (a bar was five ounces), three bushels of precious stones, two gold cuirasses, 3,000 gold rings, and much else—of a total value exceeding the annual budget of the state! The treasure was to have been used to finance a revolt planned by Liu Jin and his supporters.

“Among the people whom Liu Jin had punished were several members of the former clique of the Yang, and also the philosopher Wang Yangming, who later became so famous, a member of the Wang family which was allied to the Yang. In 1510 the Yang won over one of the eunuchs in the palace and so became acquainted with Liu Chin's plans. When a revolt broke out in western China, this eunuch (whose political allegiance was, of course, unknown to Liu Chin) secured appointment as army commander. With the army intended for the crushing of the revolt, Liu Chin's palace was attacked when he was asleep, and he and all his supporters were arrested. Thus the other group came into power in the palace, including the philosopher Wang Yangming (1473-1529). Liu Chin's rule had done great harm to the country, as enormous taxation had been expended for the private benefit of his clique. On top of this had been the young emperor's extravagance: his latest pleasures had been the building of palaces and the carrying out of military games; he constantly assumed new military titles and was burning to go to war.

Zheng He

Zheng He (also known as Chêng Ho, Cheng Ho, Zheng Ho, and the Three-Jewel Eunuch) was a Chinese navigator and eunuch whose achievements as an explorer rank with those of Columbus and Magellan but who has been largely forgotten because his travels had little impact on history. [Source: Frank Viviano, National Geographic, July 2005]

Zheng Ho (pronounced “jung huh”) embarked from China with a huge fleet of ships and journeyed as far west as Africa, through what the Chinese called the Western seas, in 1433, sixty years before Columbus sailed to America and Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa to get to Asia. Zheng also explored India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Arabia with about 75 times as many ships and men as Columbus took with him on his trans-Atlantic journey.

Zheng He was very tall and a man of incredible ambition. Some descriptions say he stood seven feet tall, possessed a waist that was five feet in circumference and had “a voice as loud as a huge bell." He was a devout Muslim and supposedly earned his nickname “Three Jewel Eunuch” for the gems he gave out as gifts. His lack of recognition as a great explorer is partly because the Chinese never went to any length to declare he was a great explorer.

Orientalist View of Eunuchs

In a review of the academic book “After Eunuchs” by Howard Chiang, Elise Huerta wrote: “Existing work on eunuchism and its demise tends to address the matter from a social and political angle. The first chapter of “After Eunuchs” departs from this approach: it rummages through a sensational and challenging archive to address the ill-understood corporeal experience of castration. In the late 1800s, eunuchism came under severe criticism by early reformers and foreign observers, who left behind a profusion of records documenting the gruesome details of Chinese castration practices. [Source: Elise Huerta, Stanford University, MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2020]

“Voyeuristic medical images and graphic descriptions of the agony experienced after having one’s penis and testicles sickled off by “knifers” deployed Orientalist logic to cast the “feminized” body of the eunuch as a synecdoche for a backward and castrated Chinese civilization. In this sense, the turn-of-the-century representation of eunuchism parallels that of footbinding and leaves behind a similarly problematic archive that conceals the agency and subjective experiences of individual actors beneath a hegemonic, politicized narrative of victimization put forth by (alleged) observers. Following the approach adopted by Dorothy Ko in her revisionist history of footbinding, Chiang maintains a vigilant awareness of source limitations as he attempts to excavate eunuchs’ agency and multiplicity of experiences from the historical ruins.

“The chapter contends, against the mainstream narrative, that undergoing castration did not indicate the complete erasure of eunuchs’ masculine identities: many were castrated only after having children and retained their patriarchal social positions in both the political and domestic spheres. The chapter also reconsiders the apparently stunted reproductive capacity of castrated men by pointing out that eunuchs reproduced themselves socially and culturally as the principle actors who castrated other male bodies. Finally, the book dispels the ahistorical assumption that eunuchs had always been considered a “third sex” or “feminized men” by illuminating how these labels rely on epistemological categories that did not emerge until the early 1900s.”

Book: “After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China By Howard Chiang (Columbia University Press 2020)

Eunuchs in 1924

Last Eunuch of China

The last imperial eunuch, Sun Yaoting, died on December, 17, 1996 at the age of 93 at his home in a Beijing temple. Unfortunately for Sun he was emasculated only a few months before the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and his genitals were destroyed by his family in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution out of fear that they would be punished by Red Guards for having them. [Source: Barbara Demick , Los Angeles Times, March 2009]

Sun Yaoting was castrated ta the age of eight. When his father learned tat Qing Emperor had been overthrown he beating his chest, weeping, “Our boy has suffered for nothing. They don’t need eunuchs anymore!”

Sun chose to be a eunuch himself after being inspired by a eunuch in his village that became rich. He served for a while as a eunuch for the wife of the Last Emperor Puyi when the Imperial Court was briefly resurrected. After the Communists came to power he endured humiliation and ridicule as an Imperial era freak and was nearly killed in the Cultural Revolution when his family was so fearful of persecution they threw away his "bao” preserved genitals.

In the Mao era, Sun managed to find work as a caretaker of a temple and adopted a son. He died in 1996. In his last years she was recognized a s a rare source of inside information in the last year of Imperial China. Interviews he conducted in his last years were the basis of a biography on Sun that was released in English in the late 2000s.

Book: "The Last Eunuch of China: The Life of Sun Yaoting" by Jia Yinghua.

Image Sources: 1) Qing eunuchs. China Today website; 2) Eunuch boy. Brooklyn College; 3) Eunuch tomb, Great Mirror website; 4) Eunuch tomb, Great Mirror website; 5) Magistrate, Columbia University; Others: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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