The Last Eunuch of China

In Imperial China, eunuchs were the only men who could live and work within the palace with the emperor and his wives/ concubines. Officials believed that one a person was emasculated, they were without ambition since they were without children and wouldn’t have to worry about their legacy. Eunuchs were trusted with the emperor’s privacy and secrets. They served the Chinese emperors since the Han Dynasty (206 BC) and often grew very wealthy and influential.

Sun Yaoting was one of the last eunuchs in China. Born in 1902, he was castrated around age 8. Boys at this time had their penises and testicles fully amputated without anesthesia. Sun’s father castrated him at their home with a razor. Sun suffered greatly, falling into a coma for three days and unable to walk for two months.

Why would a father do this to his son? Sun had become inspired by a wealthy eunuch from his village and wanted riches as well. At the time, with many of China’s people living in poverty, sacrificing one’s manhood often proved the only way to gain riches or at least escape desperate times. Sun’s older brother was in France with a work group and his two younger brothers went old enough for the procedure yet. Sun’s father could not afford to make him an apprentice in a trade so working as an eunuch seemed the only opportunity available.

However, a few months after Sun’s castration in 1911, the emperor was overthrown. Sun’s father lamented, “they don’t need eunuchs anymore!” Luckily for a time, the rulers of the Chinese republic allowed Emperor Pu Yi to remain in his palaces in a symbolic role. Add a result, Sun had a job, albeit one declining in influence.

Pu Yi

Eunuchs of Pu Yi had less in numbers and in influence than those who came before them. Pu Yi only had two wives, which meant less traditional work for eunuchs who managed their ruler’s sexual encounters and administering to hundreds of concubines. This work provided the eunuchs with influence as their access to the concubines kept them informed of palace intrigue and the emperor’s mood. They also gained riches when paid by concubines to arrange sexual encounters with the emperor. During Sun’s time, eunuchs did more household work, cooking feasts, sweeping, keeping incense burning, and balancing the palace’s accounts.

Sun’s first rule was self the chief eunuch. He learned to greet his superiors with three kneels and nine kowtows (touching the forehead to the ground). He worked in the palace’s account department, a servant to the emperor’s uncle, and later became an aide to the emperor’s wife.

Pu Yi’s First Wife

In the 1920s the emperor and his family were thrown out of the palace. The ethics found themselves penniless and homeless. Sun and some of the others pooled their money together from the sale of palace belongings and lived together in a place they called “the Temple of the Eunuchs.” They worked hard and were so poor they had to search garbage for coal to burn in the winter. Some eunuchs resorted to begging in the streets, ridiculed as “sexless freaks.” Sun occasionally visited his family but couldn’t return to his old life as he was too weak for the brutal manual labor of farming.

When the Communists took power in 1949, they nationalized the temple the eunuchs lived in. They were given jobs and political instruction. Sun faced hardships from radical leftists during the “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s-70s. During this, Sun lost his most treasured possession: his genetalia.

Eunuchs kept their severed parts picked in jars with the belief that they would nw restored in the afterlife. Without this, they would be eunuchs after death as well. The radicals attacked eunuchs as a reminder of old times and as slaves of the emperor.

After the uprisings, the eunuchs were protected by the state and valued for the history they had seen and lived. Sun remained in the temple until his death.

In 1985, Sun returned to the courtyard and buildings of the Forbidden City where he had served. He remained that nothing had changed.

Sun died at age 94 in 1996 in Beijing.

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