Life in Forbidden City: Eunuch

The second starting from the right is one of the narrators in Eunuch's Recollection

The second starting from the right is one of the narrators in Eunuch’s Recollection

In Puyi’s eyes, they were  ‘slaves’. In The Twilight of Forbidden City, Reginald Fleming Johnston, the first foreign Imperial Tutor, portrayed them as greedy creatures who contrived to suck the remaining wealth of the Qing monarchy. The new Chinese Republicans viewed them as grotesque relics of the feudal past.

Xin Xiuming, the late Qing eunuch, was right in saying ‘It seems the most suffering and least appreciated group of people is eunuchs’

With the death of the last surviving imperial eunuch, Sun Yaoting (孫耀庭), in 1996, at the age of 93, no more living witness can retell what they saw and experienced in the Forbidden City. The Eunuch’s Recollection offers a rare glimpse of this group of unfortunate victims who we usually ignore in our pursuit of ‘proper’ Chinese history.

Sun Yaoting (孫耀庭)

Sun Yaoting (孫耀庭)

The book is composed of three recollections: “Happenings in Court””(written by Xin Xiuming(信修明) ),””Record of Qing Court Eunuch’s Memory””(narrated by Ma Deqing (馬德清),recorded by Zhou Chunhui (周春暉) ) and “”Eunuch’s Recollection””(narrated by Gen Jinxi (耿進喜), recorded by Zhu Jiajin (朱家浯) )

Xin’s ‘Happenings in Court’ occupies the bulk of the book. While most eunuchs were either orphans or came from poor families who can afford to sacrifice one of five or six children, Xin was one of the few eunuchs who have studied for more than 10 years and has once unsuccessfully applied for the Imperial Clinical Department (太醫院). Desperate to raise a living for his family consisted of a mother, four siblings, his wife and a child, he decided to castrate and become eunuch.

During his 23 years in the Imperial Court of the Forbidden City (1902 – 1924), he served Empress Cixi (慈禧), Empress Longyu (隆裕) and Consort Jin (瑾妃), until Puyi expelled all the eunuchs in 1924. At various points, he admitted that eunuch were indeed greedy, including himself, but after all they only wished to earn enough to give a living to their poor families. For others who have no families, they see no future and are only too happy to waste their assets in gambling and smoking opium.

Eunuch’s life in Forbidden City started not in the imperial court but in a dirty dark room waiting for castration or ‘purifying the body’. According  to lady – in – waiting  He Rong, whose husband was an eunuch, those who do castration for a living were usually also butchers. They tie the boy, both hands and legs, like a lamb waiting to get sacrificed, and first remove the testis by having a horizontal cut. Then they put sticky pork gallbladder to stop the bleeding. The second step is to cut the penis cleanly, otherwise it will grow out and require a second cut in the future. (for a detailed account,  see Recollection of Ladies – in – Waiting).

An old eunuch

An old eunuch

Others suffered in amateurish hands that sometimes amount to cruel irony. In Ma’s “Record of Qing Court Eunuch’s Memory”, his father did the work for him at the age of nine. By the time he recovered, the Qing monarchy already abdicated, and it was already Republic.

For those who survive the pain and infections will be screened and proceed to find an older eunuch master to guide them. The eunuch masters can slap, strike, beat or any other means as they think fit and proper to teach the young eunuchs. They learn which word they can’t pronounce because it associates with a particular concubine, consort, empress and emperor. They must know when and how to kowtow to people with different status.

Few eunuchs can retire to enjoy life. Prominent eunuchs like Li Lianyang (李蓮英) owned hectares of lands and bought houses in Peking and Tientsin cities. However, all eunuch suffered serious urinating problems later in life.  Many either smoked opium and died early or paid a small payment to live in monasteries. Some, like Xin who once served empresses, was relatively well – off and could afford to pay to become the heads of monasteries.

Until Puyi’s expulsion of eunuchs in 1924, the eunuch system existed for more than two thousand years in China. It is one of the most grotesque pages in Chinese history. As part and parcel of the imperial court’s daily operation, it only dismantled after the fall of Qing, the last Chinese dynasty. As  Xin said ‘I am one of them [the eunuchs]. For the past, presence and future, I will only pray daily to leave this earthly suffering and to hope that the fate and poverty will never make this kind of inhumane joke to us ever again.’

Extended reading: Forbidden City in Rains, The Last Emperor (1987)

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4 thoughts on “Life in Forbidden City: Eunuch

  1. gwenkuo says:

    Nice post and pictures! Sharing with you about the Chinese treasures in 2 National Palace Museums…http://wp.me/p3bwN9-5R

    • mrtso1989 says:

      thanks!
      i have visited both museums, by the way. unfortunately the national palace museum in taiwan forbids any photographing and perhaps the exchanges between the two museums may relax the rule.

  2. [...] Extended reading: The Last Emperor (1987), Life in Forbidden City: Eunuch   [...]

  3. [...] Extended reading: Forbidden City in Rains,  Life in Forbidden City: Eunuch [...]

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