Before I begin – I should warn you that there are pictures and information in this blog post that some may find disturbing/distasteful – I know gentlemen who have become very squeamish contemplating this topic!
For thousands of years, eunuchs have played a part in Chinese life and when reading Chinese history or the biographies of Chinese Emperors, their wives and concubines I have come across mention of them. Recently I decided to find out more…why were there so many eunuchs in the Imperial Palace (aka The Forbidden City/Gugong/Great Within) ? what were their roles? how did they get there?
After digging through tons of stuff in books and on the internet I have grasped some information, and this past weekend I persuaded the DH and GD (an old friend of ours from London) to come with me to find Tian Yi Mu, the eunuchs’ graveyard – which is located to the west of Beijing. It proved to be a fascinating few hours.
After a few false starts, driver Zhang found where we should be, we then walked through a huge street market, the like of which I haven’t seen in BJ for many years (everything is now sanitized in the city), men and women offering ear-cleaning, street dentistry, sunglasses, books, scarves, vegetables, fish, nuts, live baby fish and turtles, hamsters, hair cuts, and a huge barrel of live frogs which were being ladled into plastic bags for hungry locals, ugh!
Eventually we came across the entrance to the graveyard and purchased tickets at 8 kuai each (approx 80p) from a very bored woman who was amazed to see three laowei visiting the site, and set off to see the tombs.
The place is very neglected, the garden completely overgrown with bindweed, but there are signs of some organisation, someone is busy trying to re-vamp the place. Piles of old bricks and tiles ready to refurbish the roof areas are stacked in the front courtyard, and wheelbarrows, spades and other building paraphernalia are lying around..maybe it will all become really slick and well maintained. Lets hope.
Anyway, on to the eunuchs themselves and why this graveyard is here. As I said before, eunuchs played a vital role in Imperial life. The Emperor always had several wives and many concubines, and they were tended to by eunuchs. Because eunuchs couldn’t have sexual congress with women, and they could prevent any other men from doing so, the Emperor could be sure that if a wife or concubine became pregnant, it would certainly be his child and the dynasty blood-line would be pure.
Eunuchs were also valued in the palace as they couldn’t produce children themselves, and therefore no matter how important they became in the hierarchy, they wouldn’t found a rival dynasty to overthrow the Emperor. Some eunuchs never rose much above domestic slavery, whereas others who were clever rose to high rank, and indeed over the centuries several eunuchs were in total control of the palace and how it was administered, and in doing that they amassed great fortunes for themselves. Some senior eunuchs married – but I am at a loss as to why and how that worked for them or their wives, they often adopted children.
Chinese eunuchs always had both penis and testicles removed whereas in other cultures just the testicles were taken off.
Most, but not all, Chinese eunuchs were emasculated as children.
Young eunuch and a castrating knife
The bodily parts that were removed would be put in a small sealed container of alcohol called a ‘pao’*,and given to the eunuch to keep. This was very important for the eunuch because the Chinese believed that one could not be resurrected after death if the body was incomplete, so a eunuch needed to be buried together with his pao (aka his ‘treasure’); unfortunately for many reasons some eunuchs lost their own pao, so they would beg, borrow or steal some other eunuch’s pao to substitute for their own. This lead to stolen pao being traded . Seriously, you couldn’t make it up, some desperate eunuchs at the end of their lives buying another eunuch’s shrivelled cock and balls …what a weird trade in stolen goods.
Poverty was rife in China, people lived hand-to-mouth and many families were looking for anything that would lift them from such hardship. One way way they hoped to do it was by getting a family member into the private domain of China’s highest rulers. Some families decided to present one of their sons to the Imperial Palace, (where there was an official department castrating young boys) in the hopes that he would then be accepted into service and rise through the ranks, bringing financial fortune and security with him. However, many fathers took matters into their own hands and personally castrated one of their sons using a razor. If the boy survived this appalling crude surgery he would then be taken to the Imperial Palace where they hoped he would be accepted. Horrifying though it is to contemplate these days, at the time it was thought to be a potential road to riches and an easy life. Although most eunuchs never rose much above the level of servant, many eunuchs did indeed become very, very important and lead lives of luxury and power
Emperor Wan Li
Tian Yi 田义 was one such eunuch. He was born in Shaanxi province in 1534 AD and he was castrated when he was nine years old. He entered the Imperial service, rising through the ranks of eunuchs and advisors and serving three Emperors; eventually he became the highest court official during the reign of Emperor Wan Li, and indeed he became one of the most important people in all of China. Wan Li had withdrawn from communicating with the civil servants of the Empire, and the eunuchs became the intermediaries between him and the world; he appointed thousands of eunuchs into his service. Tian Yi became the favourite of Wan Li who relied on him absolutely.
When Tian Yi died in 1605AD, Emperor Wan Li was distraught, and did something completely unprecedented – he ordered three days of official mourning. More than that, he set aside land to the west of the city and ordered that a small replica of an Imperial mausoleum be built for Tian Yi, and ordered that four eunuchs should always tend this graveyard, which they did, and now they are buried there too.
Alas, the graves were violated by tomb robbers in about 1911 and during the Cultural Revolution some futher damage was done, but none-the-less, there is still quite a lot to see. After you have gone round this small graveyard (the ground area is in the shape of a penis!) you can visit the ‘museum’ a grand name for four shabby rooms which are dimly lit, falling into rack and ruin but with some signs of restoration. Right now the whole area is something of a shambolic building site, and given my poor mobility it needed careful walking to get from room to room.
Room 1 shows the most graphic exhibits – but you need the torch app on your mobile to see some of them – the knives used for castration, the position, how it was done etc., etc. One of the rooms lists all the famous eunuchs in China – and there were quite a few.
Two of the most famous are Cai Lun 蔡伦 who was the man responsible for developing the method of producing paper in large quantities, which really changed China – and the world;
Cai Lun – inventor of paper
and Zheng He, the renowned admiral who lead a navy of great ships from China to explore the seven seas way back in 1421AD.
Zheng He was all the more remarkable for not only being a eunuch, but also a practicing Muslim, aspects which would have mitigated against him in Ancient China.
When the last Empress Ci Xi died in 1908 there were still some 2000 eunuchs in the Forbidden City. She lived surrounded by eunuchs in whom she placed immense trust.
The last Imperial eunuch to survive was Sun Yaoting and he died in 1996 aged 94.
* I had some difficulty finding why their ‘bits’ were called ‘pao‘ in Chinese, but finally discovered that the word can mean ‘pickled’ – usually applied to vegetables, but not inappropriate in this context.