Eunuchs in Ancient China

Eunuchs were powerful political players in ancient Chinese government. Originating as trusted slaves in the royal household they were ambitious to use their favoured position to gain political power. Advising the emperor from within the palace and blocking the access of officials to their ruler, the eunuchs were eventually able to acquire noble titles themselves, form a bureaucracy to rival the state's and even select and remove emperors of their choosing. Their influence on government would result in the falling of dynasties and last right up to the 17th century CE.

From Slaves to Political Heavyweights

Eunuchs, or 'non-men' as they could be known, first appeared in the royal courts of ancient pre-imperial Chinese states where they were employed as servants in the inner chambers of the palace. They were more or less slaves and were usually acquired as children from border territories, especially those to the south. Castrated and brought to serve the royal household, they had no real means of altering their lives. Eunuchs were regarded as the most trustworthy of servants because they could neither seduce women of the household or father children which might form a dynasty to rival that of the sitting emperor's.

A eunuch's duties, therefore, included exclusively serving the women of the royal palace. Any other males were forbidden from staying overnight in the palace, and any person who entered unauthorised faced the death penalty. Eunuchs acted as fetchers and carriers, bodyguards, nurses, and essentially performed the roles of valets, butlers, maids, and cooks combined. Despite their privileged position, the general public's view of eunuchs was extremely negative as they were regarded as the lowest class of all servants.

Eunuchs advised, spied, & intrigued in equal measure in order to acquire the top positions in the state apparatus.

In contrast to the confidence put in them by rulers, their physical deformity, disdain from the ruling class and the general stigma attached to them made eunuchs more likely to seek to exploit their privileged position and gain political influence within the court. The eunuchs would not be content with the life of a simple slave for very long. Often aligning themselves with the powerful Buddhist monasteries, they advised, spied, and intrigued in equal measure in order to acquire the top positions in the state apparatus.

Eunuchs, with their special access to the Inner Court (Neiting), where no ordinary officials were permitted, could be especially prominent when the ruler was not yet an adult and they fully exploited the possibility of not only filtering out communications from ministers to the emperor and vice versa but also appointments so that very often ministers simply could not gain an audience with their ruler. Eunuchs ingratiated themselves with the emperor and were perhaps more compliant than high-minded and more principled scholar-officials which made the emperor more likely to follow their advice.

Love History?

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

Another point in the eunuchs' favour was that they had known their emperor perhaps for all his life and that they were the only males the ruler ever met until adulthood. In addition, the emperor knew that the eunuchs did not have a power base or loyalties outside the court, unlike the politicians.

In the Han Dynasty

Very often the eunuchs encouraged and made worse political factions, which damaged the unity of the government. Eunuchs are charged with playing a major part in the fall of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). During the 2nd century CE, in particular, a succession of weak emperors were easily manipulated by the eunuchs at court. In 124 CE they even put their own child candidate on the imperial throne. They gained more imperial favour and further entrenched their position in 159 CE by helping Emperor Huan settle a family succession dispute. In gratitude, the emperor awarded a noble title to five leading eunuchs.

The eunuchs' even greater power ultimately resulted in government officials and students banding together and staging protests in 166 and 168-169 CE. The eunuchs would not be put off so lightly though and they instigated a wave of purges which saw many of those involved in the protests imprisoned and 100 executed. The luckier officials, students, and intellectuals who had spoken out against eunuch power were merely excluded from ever holding public office. In 189 CE events took an even more brutal turn. The eunuchs murdered the 'Grand General' He Jin after it was discovered he had plotted to assemble an army to himself purge the eunuchs. The general's followers exacted immediate revenge by killing all the eunuchs in the palace. With this power vacuum there then ensued a civil war for control of the empire, with the result that the Han fell and the Wei dynasty was established in 220 CE.

Eunuchs manipulated the Tang court & created divisions amongst the government officials.

In the Tang Dynasty

In the troubled final years of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) the eunuchs once again played a prominent role, this time in the downfall of emperors. Following rebellions in the provinces by renegade military commanders, the imperial court was eager to strengthen its position and so created a new palace army in the mid-8th century CE. The eunuchs were put in charge of this new force and soon began to create problems of their own for the emperor. Just as in previous eras, eunuchs manipulated the court, created divisions amongst the government officials, and by the 9th century CE, even began to enthrone and murder emperors. One emperor authorised an official purge of the eunuchs in 835 CE to try and claw back some power but before the plan could be executed the eunuchs wiped out over 1,000 of the conspirators and anyone else they remotely suspected of trying to usurp their power. As a shocking demonstration to any future conspirators, three chancellors along with their families were publicly executed in one of the marketplaces of the capital, Chang'an.

Famous Eunuchs

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) eunuchs were often made military commanders. One such figure was Tong Guan (1054-1126 CE) who was Emperor Huizong's most important general. He won famous victories in the north-west border regions in his youth, quashed the Fang La rebellion in Zhejiang province and continued to loyally serve his emperor into his seventies. Guan was also honoured with an official biography where it is recorded he was a painter of some talent. The biography, which appears in the Song History, displays the typical disdain and prejudice that eunuchs suffered even if they were such talented individuals as Guan:

It was his nature to be cunning and fawning. From being an attendant in the side-apartments of the palace, because he was skilled at manipulating the weighty as well as the trivial intentions of people, he was able by means of first serving in order to later command. (in Di Cosmo, 208)

Another famous eunuch was Zheng He (1371-1433 CE) who made seven voyages to the Indian Ocean for Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). One of He's fleets was composed of 317 ships, including 62 'treasure ships' full of gifts for foreign rulers and over 30,000 men. On his various travels, He followed Arab trading routes and stopped off at such far-flung places as Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and East Africa. He then returned to China and wowed the court with his exotic captures such as giraffes, lions, and fabulous gems.

Later History

From the early 15th century CE the eunuchs set up their own mini-bureaucracy at court where they could ferret away paperwork and filter out the input of government ministers in state affairs. It even included a secret service branch which could investigate corruption or identify suspects who might plot against the status quo and imprison, beat, and torture them if necessary in the prison the eunuchs had created for that purpose. At the end of the century, this eunuch-led apparatus had grown spectacularly to 12,000 employees, making it the equal of the official state bureaucracy. By the latter stages of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) there were some 70,000 eunuchs, and they had established almost complete domination of the imperial court. During that period four infamous dictators - Wang Zhen, Wang Zhi, Liu Jin, and Wei Zhongxian - were all eunuchs.

The power they held and the political intrigues they often stirred up resulted in the eunuchs becoming infamous, and they were especially unpopular with Confucianist scholars. Huang Zongxi, the Ming dynasty Neo-Confucianist thinker here sums up the general view of eunuchs in Chinese history: "Everyone has known for thousands of years that eunuchs are like poison and wild beasts" (in Dillon, 93).

Why have eunuchs been so influential in Chinese history?

Throughout the history of China, eunuchs amassed power, destabilised dynasties, and commanded armies. They were a major cause in the decline of the Han, Tang and other dynasties.

What customs or beliefs or norms led to their gaining prominence?

When it was found they could wield power and challenge or undermine the authority of emperor, why were they not removed and distanced from their source of power? They weren't necessary in the same way as generals or empresses.


Over years of painstaking research, he has gleaned arcane details about every aspect of palace life, along with secrets about the emperor’s sexuality and cruelty that would look at home on the front page of tabloid newspapers.

For centuries in China, the only men from outside the imperial family who were allowed into the Forbidden City’s private quarters were castrated ones. They effectively swapped their reproductive organs for a hope of exclusive access to the emperor that made some into rich and influential politicians.

Sun’s impoverished family set him on this painful, risky path in hopes that he might one day be able to crush a bullying village landlord who stole their fields and burned their house.

His desperate father performed the castration on the bed of their mud-walled home, with no anesthetic and only oil-soaked paper as a bandage. A goose quill was inserted in Sun’s urethra to prevent it getting blocked as the wound healed.

He was unconscious for three days and could barely move for two months. When he finally rose from his bed, history played the first of a series of cruel tricks on him -- he discovered the emperor he hoped to serve had abdicated several weeks earlier.

“He had a very tragic life. He had thought it was worthwhile for his father, but the sacrifice was in vain,” Jia said, in a house stacked with old books, newspapers and photos.

“He was very smart and shrewd. If the empire had not fallen there is a high chance he would have become powerful,” Jia added.

The young ex-emperor was eventually allowed to stay in the palace and Sun had risen to become an attendant to the empress when the imperial family were unceremoniously booted out of the Forbidden City, ending centuries of tradition and Sun’s dreams.

“He was castrated, then the emperor abdicated. He made it into the Forbidden City then Pu Yi was evicted. He followed him north and then the puppet regime collapsed. He felt life had played a joke at his expense,” Jia said.

Many eunuchs fled with palace treasures, but Sun took a crop of memories and a nose for political survival that turned out to be better tools for surviving years of civil war and ideological turbulence that followed.

“He never became rich, he never became powerful, but he became very rich in experience and secrets,” Jia said.

The Real Lives of China’s Eunuchs 8 min read

In 1995, an elderly man in a wheelchair visited the Forbidden City. Entering through the northern Gate of Divine Prowess (神武门 shenwumen), 93-year-old Sun Yaoting began giving his helpers a tour of the back garden and courtyards of Beijing’s Palace Museum. There was the doorway threshold removed to make way for the last emperor Puyi’s bicycle. In another yard, two brass rings still embedded in an old tree were part of a long-removed swing once beloved by Puyi’s empress Wanrong. The man in the wheelchair was Sun Yaoting, and he was no ordinary tourist but a former resident returning to his place of employment. Sun Yaoting was China’s last living imperial eunuch.

History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs. Chinese literature is filled with stories of avaricious and ambitious eunuchs exploiting their position for personal gain and power to the detriment of the social and political order. Society treated eunuchs with a mix of fascination and revulsion. They were a source of anxiety for the court and its officials. They were third-sex creatures marked by their relative lack of facial hair and perceived physical deformities (early castration often resulted in eunuchs being taller, with longer hands and limbs). In the foreign gaze, eunuchs became an analog for a decrepit China, feminine symbols of a decaying imperial system – a view perpetuated by 20th-century Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. Today, when thought of at all, it is as stock villains or comic foils in palace costume dramas.

History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs”

Melissa Dale’s book Inside the World of the Eunuch provides a more nuanced and balanced understanding of the lives of the eunuchs. Dale redirects our attention away from a small number of notorious and powerful eunuchs, who were, she argues, rare exceptions. Instead, she focuses on the thousands of men (despite their physical changes, most continued to identify as male) who toiled in and outside of the palace in bondage to the imperial court.

Sun Yaoting, whose biography is recounted by historian Jia Yinghua in The Last Eunuch of China, owed his fame to his longevity – as the last eunuch he came to enjoy minor celebrity in the final years of his life. Yet his life was in many respects very ordinary for eunuchs in the last years of the imperial era. Sun was born in 1902, to a poor family outside of Tianjin. Out of desperation, at the suggestion of a neighbor, Sun’s father convinced his nine-year-old son to allow him to cut off the boy’s genitalia as a prerequisite to applying for palace service. The boy was stripped naked, trussed on a bed, and a sharp knife used to remove his scrotum and penis. Post-operative care consisted of a tube inserted into the wound to keep the urethra from scarring closed, then covering the wound with bandages of oil-soaked paper.

It was only after, in 1912, that Sun’s father learnt that the last emperor had abdicated and the Qing dynasty had ended. Representatives of Puyi, the boy emperor, were negotiating the end of imperial rule after the Xinhai revolution of late 1911. Under the terms of their agreement, Puyi would continue to reside in the Forbidden City and many of the imperial clan retained their mansions and household staffs. There might still be employment for the emasculated in the capital, but the age of the eunuchs – like that of the monarchy they served – was coming to an end.

As Dale writes, “With the cut of a knife, a life was changed forever.” The emasculated male was cut off from traditional structures of family life and procreation. Not all eunuchs suffered at the hands of family members. There were two families in Beijing which specialized in selecting and grooming young men for eunuch service at court. Their methods of emasculation were often more sanitary, but hardly less painful.

Moreover, while emasculation was a prerequisite for applying to join the ranks of palace eunuchs, it was far from certain that these young prospects would be accepted. Getting cut did not guarantee a young eunuch would make the cut. Sun Yaoting was one of the lucky ones, although his route to palace service was a circuitous one. He first found work with the emperor’s uncle Zaifeng, before he was invited to become an attendant in the rump court of the young ex-emperor in the Forbidden City.

Once inside the palace, a new eunuch was isolated from his old life and introduced to a whole new reality. Both books describe the parallel world of palace eunuchs, a highly regimented and hierarchal society that still had spaces for deviant behavior, petty jealousies, and even violence. Eunuchs were expected to show complete devotion to their duties, and to their masters and mistresses. At the same time, they also formed friendships as well as master/disciple bonds with older and more experienced palace hands. While the rules governing eunuchs were numerous and punishments harsh, eunuchs still created actual spaces in the palace for their own activities. There were barbershops, noodle stands, gambling parlors, opium dens, and various other places where court eunuchs could blow off steam with multiple cups of wine and the sympathetic ear of their fellow attendants.

Not all eunuchs adjusted well to palace life. Dale looks at case files of eunuchs who were punished for attempting to run away, and those caught attempting suicide. There were ways to leave palace service – sick leave, retirement for a lucky few, or death – but it was rarely on the eunuch’s terms. Those who left the palace found life on the outside difficult to navigate. Many were shunned by society and even by their family members. Some eunuchs did marry and adopt children (and a few had wives and children from before their operation) but were cut off from the usual support systems. It was a life Sun Yaoting knew only too well.

Puyi expelled the remaining eunuchs in 1923. The former emperor had become convinced that the eunuchs were plotting against him, and stealing treasures which Puyi and his family had planned to appropriate for their purposes. Except for a brief, unhappy sojourn as a eunuch in Puyi’s court in Manchukuo in the 1930s, while the region was ruled by Japan, Sun Yaoting only served as a palace eunuch for seven of his 94 years, before dying in 1996.

Eunuchs were shunned by society and even by their family members”

Much of Sun’s biography is devoted to the desperate lives of the eunuch community in the years following their expulsion from the palace. Many fell into poverty. Some gathered together in small communities based at temples and tried as best they could to adapt to a changing society. The Communist revolution brought even more significant challenges, and the account of eunuch persecution during the Cultural Revolution is predictably horrifying. Through it all, at least according to his telling, Sun Yaoting made the best of a bad situation, avoiding the pitfalls of gambling, opium, and profligate spending which undid many of his brethren. Although he had some near misses during the political upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, he survived and lived out the final years of his life in the Guanghua Temple, near Houhai in central Beijing.

Dale’s research and Sun’s story help humanize the lives of the eunuchs. The stories of wicked or power-hungry Chinese eunuchs are sensational, but most of them lived without freedom on the margins of power. Dale, in particular, takes pains to strip the sensationalism and titillation which have long surrounded accounts of eunuchs in Chinese and Western writing on the subject. In this way her book resembles the efforts of historian Dorothy Ko has made to document the social history of foot binding in China, in Cinderalla’s Sisters.

More scholarship remains to be done on the subject of eunuchs. It would be interesting to look at the Manchu-language archives for references to the eunuch system. There is evidence that the Manchus were somewhat apprehensive about the use of eunuchs, although by the 18th century there were over 3000 eunuchs employed by the Qing emperors (still a far cry from the 50,000 – 70,000 which, according to Dale, served the Ming court).

The life of the eunuch was not easy, but it was a life lived. Melissa Dale and Jia Yinghua should be commended for bringing these lives to our attention. ∎

Top 10 Notorious Eunuchs in Ancient China

Eunuchs refer to men who have been castrated or have their sexual organs removed. Throughout many Chinese imperial dynasties, eunuchs were appointed to serve the royal household. Some eunuchs collected huge fortunes through corruption, while others had so great power that they even could effectively dictate policy. And below are top 10 most notorious eunuchs in ancient China.

1. Wei Zhongxian, Ming Dynasty

Wei Zhongxian (1568 – 1627) is considered as the most powerful and notorious eunuch in Chinese history. He was good at flattery and was later promoted to get lose to the Emperor Wanli. When Zhu Youjiao, the grandson of the emperor ascend to the throne, Wei seized power very soon. The emperor liked him very much that he gradually obtained absolute power over the court. He killed anybody who opposed his decisions, causing the death and imprisonment of many court officials. He afterwards declared himself to be Nine-Thousand Years which meant that he was the second most powerful person in the country, just after the emperor. He led the monarchy controlled by eunuchs to the peak.

2. Zhao Gao, Qin Dynasty

Zhao Gao(? – 207 BC) was a notorious eunuch in Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC). When the first Chinese emperor Qinshihuang died he plotted with the primary minister Li Si to help illegitimate heir Hu Hai acquire the imperial power. After that, he cruelly killed those officials who opposed him and also wiped out his former ally Li Si. Still later in order to protect his benefits, he even killed the emperor Hu Hai after that the dynasty slided into chaos and the empire collapsed very soon.

3. Wang Zhen, Ming Dynasty

Wang Zhen was a notorious Chinese eunuch who grabbed power during the first reign of the emperor Yingzong (1427-1464) of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Wang was blamed by later historians for cuasing Tumu Crisis and the capture of the emperor by Oirat Mongols in the war. He himself was also killed by angry guard of the emperor in the disastrous campaign.

4. Liu Jin, Ming Dynasty

Liu Jin (1451 -1510) was a notorious Chinese eunuch during the reign of the Chinese Zhengde Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Liu was widely known as one of the most corrupt officials in Chinese history. His corruption made the Ming Dynasty from bad to worse. He was the leader of the “Eight Tigers”, a powerful group of eunuchs who manipulated the imperial court.

5. Li Lianying, Qing Dynasty

Li Lianying (1848- 1911) was a eunuch during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). He was favored by powerful Empress Dowager Cixi, who was the actual ruler of China for 40 years from 1869–1909. Li dominated court affairs and manipulated everything with the help of other eunuchs. Both his flattery to his master and his cruelty over other officials were unbeatable.

6. Zhang Rang, Eastern Han Dynasty

Zhang Rang was a eunuch who served Emperor Ling of Eastern Han Dynasty(25-220AD). He was the head of the “Ten Eunuchs”, a group of eunuchs who had big influence in the Han royal court. Zhang has so great power that Emperor Ling even called him “father” and permitted him to control most country matters. Zhang together with his followers always made up a variety of bogus charges and murdered those officials with different ideas. Their behavior eventually caused severe disturbances in the following years of the Dynasty.

7. Li Fuguo, Tang Dynasty

Li Fuguo was a eunuch during the Emperor Suzong (Li Heng) period in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). He helped Li Heng obtain the throne during Anshi Rebellion. He later turned to be extremely powerful through coalition with Emperor Suzong’s wife Empress Zhang. Li was really good at flattering and was quite brutal. He flattered from imperial family members to higher officials, but when he considered someone had no further use to him, he would get rid of any of them ruthlessly. Ultimately, he was drawed to death.

8. Tong Guan, Northern Song Dynasty

Tong Guan (1054–1126) was both a eunuch and general during the reign of Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Tong Guan used all sorts of ways to flatter the emperor and was promoted quickly. He colluded with the official Cai Jing to freeze out other officials and used their families and friends as officials. Tong manipulated the armed forces for 20 years and lost many battles against Liao and Jin armies. But these failures didn’t have any influence on his control over the military.

9. An Dehai, Qing Dynasty

An Dehai was a eunuch favored by the Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty. He kept an close eye of the activities of Emperor Tongzhi and the other court officials. Counting on Cixi’s trust he was very arrogant and blatant. He designated his personal fellows as officials and had great power in the imperial court.

10. Gao Lishi, Tang Dynasty

Gao Lishi was a powerful eunuch in Tang Dynasty. He was quite powerful during Emperor Xuanzong`s rule and took charge of many country matters that should be the emperor’s responsibility.

38 rare pictures of eunuchs during the Qing Dynasty

They have performed a wide variety of functions in many cultures: treble singers, courtiers, domestics, religious specialists, government officials, and harem servants.

Records of eunuchs in China date to the Shang dynasty, when the Shang kings castrated prisoners of war.

In China, castration included the removal of the penis as well as the testicles.

Both organs were cut off with a knife at the same time.

Men sentenced to castration were turned into eunuch slaves of the Qin dynasty state to perform forced labor for projects such as the Terracotta Army.

From ancient times until the Sui Dynasty, castration was both a traditional punishment (one of the Five Punishments) and a means of gaining employment in the Imperial service.

In China, castration included the removal of the penis as well as the testicles. Both organs were cut off with a knife at the same time.

At the end of the Ming Dynasty, there were about 70,000 eunuchs employed by the emperor, with some serving inside the Imperial Palace.

Certain eunuchs gained immense power that occasionally superseded that of even the Grand Secretaries, like Zheng He, who lived during the Ming Dynasty.

When the Ming army finally captured Yunnan from Mongols in 1382, thousands of prisoners were killed and, according to the custom in times of war, their young sons – including Zheng He – were castrated. (Wikipedia)

Certain eunuchs gained immense power that occasionally superseded that of even the Grand Secretaries, like Zheng He, who lived during the Ming Dynasty.

How to create a Eunuch in ancient China: the procedure

How to create a Eunuch: A eunuch in ancient China was a man castrated, typically early enough in his childhood to have major hormonal consequences in order to make him a reliable servant of a royal court where physical access to the ruler could wield great influence.

In China, castration included the removal of the penis as well as the testicles. Both organs were cut off with a knife at the same time.

Many eunuchs came from poor families who couldn’t repay debts. For this reason, they had to sell to the local or royal court one of their children.

A fee was charged to perform the operation.

To castrate a kid, the surgeon had to use a carpenter knife and follow a complex procedure in order to avoid infections.

Usually, they performed the operation during spring or early summer, avoiding hot and cold temperatures, mosquitoes, flies, etc. For about one month after the surgery, the eunuch couldn’t wear clothes.

Before performing the operation, the surgeon usually asked a few questions and assertions to the candidate: “Are you willing to cleanse it?”, “It’s too late to go back!”, “So you will die without sons”.

If the wannabe eunuch had any hesitations, the surgeon had to stop immediately. This obviously just in the case of voluntary eunuchs.

If the candidate was instead a volunteer, the surgical operation began. To disinfect the wound, the assistant of the surgeon used a hot pepper soup.

After disinfected the scalpel with fire, the surgeon performed the operation. Three days after the surgery the new eunuch was not allowed to drink water.

Only after one hundred days, the recovery was completed.

One other horrible way to perform the operation was hiring “special nannies”. Some parents decided his son had to be a eunuch from an early age.

They deliberately hire a “maid” to take care of the special child. For this reason, from their infancy, the maid performed a sort of slow and constant surgery on the testicles of the child, three times a day, pinching them and slowly increasing the strength, day after day, gradually destroying his reproductive function.

Therefore the child’s genitals would gradually shrink. In the course of time, slowly, female characteristics showed up: no Adam’s apple, prominent breasts, sharp voice, etc.

The Skoptzy

The Skoptzy (or Skoptsy, meaning the castrated), also called the White Doves, were a Christian sect whose male members, to attain their ideal of sanctity, subjected themselves to castration. Their origin in the 18th century, their spread through a large part of Russia and into Romania and Bessarabia, the attempts by the Russian government to suppress the movement, and the theological underpinnings of the religion were described by Pelikan ( 8), Grass ( 9), and Pittard ( 10). Because they believed that the second coming of Christ would occur only when the number of Skoptzys reached the apocalyptic number of 144,000, they became ardent proselytizers. Their critics claimed that they used coercion among children and prisoners, a charge that seems warranted in view of the fact that many were castrated below the age of 10 yr, but others were religious enthusiasts who underwent the procedure voluntarily as adults. Male members of the sect were encouraged to take either the “great seal” (removal of the penis, the scrotum, and the testes) or the “lesser seal” (removal of the scrotum and testes, leaving the penis intact). Women were not castrated, but were subjected to mutilation of the breasts and external genitalia. In men the procedure was of great simplicity namely, the operator seized the parts to be removed with one hand and struck them off with the other. In the early years of the sect the surgical instrument was a red-hot iron rod or poker (hence the expression baptism of fire), but instruments of castration included pieces of glass, razors, and knives. A cicatrix formed, with healing in 4–6 weeks ( Fig. 1). In some instances the procedure was performed in stages (taking the lesser seal before the great seal). When the penis was removed, nails were inserted into the urethra to avoid strictures, and such men were said to urinate while sitting or squatting. Many Skoptzys were deported to Siberia, where they formed settlements, and the sect continued to perform castrations as late as 1927 ( 11). Persecution of the Skoptzys persisted into the Soviet era, and during the antireligious fervor in 1929–1930 they were subjected to sensational public trials and publicity. It was estimated that there were between 1000 and 2000 Skoptzy in Soviet Russia in 1930, 500 of whom lived in Moscow, but by 1962 none were thought to be alive ( 11).

Anatomical preparation of the external genitalia of a Skoptzy man who had received the greater seal. Reprinted from Koch ( 13 ).

Anatomical preparation of the external genitalia of a Skoptzy man who had received the greater seal. Reprinted from Koch ( 13 ).

Medical studies on the Skoptzy. Medical studies were performed on the Skoptzy by at least three different groups of investigators. At the turn of the century Pittard made measurements in 30 Skoptzy men in 1 Romanian village and noted that they appeared to be taller than their peers ( 10). In 1907 Tandler and Grosz examined 5 Skoptzy men in Bucharest whose average age was 30 yr and who had been castrated between ages 5–21 yr ( 12). Subsequently, during the German occupation of Romania in the First World War Walter Koch studied 13 Skoptzy men, all between 50 and 94 yr of age (averaging 64 yr), who had been castrated for an average of 46 yr ( 13). A variety of anthropomorphic measurements were made, and skull x-rays were obtained in some ( 13).

Chop, chop! How and why did men become eunuchs?

Eunuchs have held an important role in imperial Chinese history, serving as the Emperor’s advisors and confidantes. (Rawpixel pic)

Castration is possibly one of the worst fates that could ever befall a man, yet for centuries, thousands underwent the painful procedures to become eunuchs.

But who in their right mind would want to become a eunuch?

Historically, three imperial courts employed eunuchs in large numbers these being the Chinese, the Byzantines and the Ottomans. However, the history of eunuchs likely stretches beyond even before these empires were born.

The earliest records of eunuchs come from Assyria and even back then, they served as politicians and servants in the court.

It is interesting to note that there are no records that state eunuchs “gradually” appeared, and it seems likely that eunuchs existed before written records.

The same can be noted of Chinese eunuchs. The Zhou Dynasty records the presence of eunuchs, though it was only during the Qin Dynasty when eunuchs gained political importance.

So, who had the honour (or misfortune) of being chosen as a eunuch? It depended on the time period and location.

The Ottoman Turkish court received most of its eunuchs from a Coptic monastery called Abou Gerbe, where slave boys were sent.

Meanwhile in China, eunuchs were often provided to the imperial court by volunteering families. This wasn’t always the case though, as during the Qin and Han Dynasties, eunuchs were punished criminals.

In addition, some tributary states would provide the Chinese Emperor with eunuchs taken from their own population.

It can be said that there were actually two types of eunuchs throughout history.

One being the infamous “clean cut” which involved the removal of the eunuch’s entire genitals, the other being somewhat more merciful with only the testes removed.

The simple removal of the testes was most common historically.

Many eunuchs served as servants in the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Sultans and their families. (Pixabay pic)

This was done either by the testes being crushed in the scrotum with no surgery done, or through surgical removal of the testes, or through the removal of both scrotum and testes.

Few records also indicate a third variant in which the penis is removed but not the testicles, though this seems to be a rare occurrence.

Unsurprisingly, procedures to make someone a eunuch were extremely painful to say the least, without the use of any painkillers whatsoever.

As soon as the genitalia was removed, the castrator would insert a plug into the urethra and the unlucky child would be unable to urinate for a few days until it fully healed.

The child would be at their most vulnerable while their urethra healed, as they were kept in a dry room and provided no water.

After about three days, the plug would be removed and if the child was unable to urinate, they were as good as dead.

Even if they survived, the lack of a penis would result in complications, particularly urinary tract infections or incontinence.

Some eunuchs permanently used a plug to allow them some ability to control when they needed to urinate.

Unsurprisingly, for eunuchs who suffered the complete removal of their genitals, it was easy to die of blood loss or other health complications after the procedure.

Some experts put the survival rate at 66% or 75%, meaning one out of three or four boys who were sent to become eunuchs would die.

The Ottomans would divide their eunuchs into two groups, the “black” undergoing complete removal and the “white” only losing their testicles.

These eunuchs had separate rules dictating which parts of the palace were off-limits to them, and “white” eunuchs were strictly prohibited from entering the Sultan’s harems.

Admiral Zheng He, the famous Chinese explorer and diplomat, was a Muslim eunuch serving the Ming Dynasty.

The Chinese imperial eunuchs on the other hand, also served as a means of communication between the Emperor and the outside world, as well as on a smaller scale between the Emperor and his harem.

Interestingly enough, the Byzantine Empire held its eunuchs in high regard, drawing a parallel between how eunuchs loyally served the Emperor and how angels served God.

Byzantine art depicted angels akin to eunuchs, as beardless and rosy cheeked men.

Certain Byzantine stories also relate how angels were mistaken to be eunuchs, such as the legend of St Michael and Hagia Sophia.

It should be noted that despite the loss of their genitalia, eunuchs were still very much capable of gaining considerable amounts of influence and power in the court.

In China, the fall of the Han Dynasty can partly be blamed on the eunuch faction in the imperial court that proved to be holding the strings behind the child emperor.

And Admiral Zheng He, the famous Chinese navigator who dropped by Melaka, was a eunuch himself.

While eunuchs were generally uncommon in European courts, castration was not unheard of either.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, boys who had been castrated were used as opera singers called castrati. Some of these would eventually grow up to serve their monarchs in the courts.

As the imperial dynasties of China and Turkey began to collapse in the 20th century, the practice of eunuchs came to an end too.

In Turkey, the eunuchs continued to serve the imperial court until the end, and ultimately were seen as a symbol of corrupted imperial decadence.

The top eunuch ended up executed by the Young Turks, though his second-in-command, named Nadir Agha, cooperated with the revolutionaries and lived peacefully as a dairy farmer afterwards.

In China, as the Qing were finally ousted from power, Sun Yaoting would become the last surviving eunuch of China, being consulted frequently by writers and filmmakers about imperial life until his death in 1996.

Starbucks is so not imperial food

If you've ever complained that Starbucks is infiltrating every corner of the known universe, take heart. America's favorite coffee shop was recently kicked out of the Forbidden City, sort of like a guy with both his avocados. Evidently, the locals were upset that the coffee giant was messing with palace ambiance.

In 2007, The New York Times reported that protests convinced museum officials that Starbucks' presence was "damaging" to the historical site, though it's unclear if they were annoyed about the coffee or if it was really just the smug coffee-drinking American tourists that bothered them. At any rate, Starbucks closed its doors shortly afterward. It's worth noting, though, that there are plenty of other palace-branded shops operating inside the walls of the Forbidden City, where you can get iPhone cases, "imperial mouse pads," or a set of headphones that looks exactly like the string of pearls some emperor guy is wearing in one of the Forbidden City's portraits. But Starbucks is too lowbrow. Perhaps if they'd changed their menu. Tripe-spiced latte and intestine in espresso, anyone?

Watch the video: Ο Νιν Ουνί, ο Νινύας τών αρχαίων Ελλήνων. Αποτέλεσμα καθοριστικής μάχης. Γραμμική Α. (January 2022).