Chinese eunuchs often held immense power, but were unpopular among the people, and are often derided even by modern historians. Eunuchs are men whose testicles (and sometimes penis) have been removed.
In China and much of the ancient world, rulers kept huge number of wives and concubines, partly because it was very nice to do so, and also to ensure the production of an heir. However, with such an abundance of potential mothers they worried that someone else might impregnate one of them. Eunuchs provided the perfect solution, if your concubines never came in contact with another testicled-man then they wouldn’t get pregnant by anyone else.
Exactly how they were castrated varied. Sometimes only the testicles were removed, sometimes the penis was lopped off too so that they had to squat to go to the toilet. Sometimes a special gelding chair with holes for the appropriate bits to dangle through was used. It’s thought that up to one third of castrated men may have died as a cause of the operation.
Castrating a man inhibits the production of testosterone in his body. This, so advocates of eunuchism say, renders him less prone to fits of temper and the temptations of the flesh. It could also help avoid male health problems such as baldness, and is claimed by some to increase longevity. Castration at a young age can cause the person’s limbs to grow to an extreme length.
According to legend, castration has often been used to improve the effectiveness of soldiers. Apparently, rulers would sometimes remove the testicles of young men in order to promote growth and build himself an army of giants. Alternatively, the king would remove the men’s penises but leave their testicles intact. This would cause them such enormous sexual frustration that they would become exceedingly violent and aggressive – perfect on the battlefield.
Throughout the Imperial Chinese dynasties, eunuchs were appointed to guard the royal household. Through daily contact with the Imperial family, they often gained immense power. Some eunuchs amassed huge fortunes through corruption, others had the Emperor so much in their power that they could effectively dictate policy.
History books rarely look kindly upon eunuchs, who are generally assumed to be grasping, scheming, conniving and corrupt. Emperors rarely just ‘took the advice’ of a eunuch, instead they were ‘in his power’, and they never ‘ignored’ a eunuch, instead they were seen to be ‘curbing his power’.
In spite of the obvious sacrifices that had to be made to become a eunuch, some poor families began to see it as a potential path to riches. Eventually, so many families were castrating their children in the hope that they might one day become rich and corrupt that voluntary castration had to be banned. In other words, you could only be castrated if you didn’t want to be.
In traditional China, people believed that disfiguring the body would result in a disfigured soul, so eunuchs kept their testicles in the hope that they would be buried whole.
Not all eunuchs gained a reputation for being corrupt and evil. One famous eunuch is Zheng He, who was captured by a Chinese Army and castrated at a young age. He joined the Chineese Army and rose to the very top, eventually leading an armada of 300 junks on exploration missions which would reach afar afield as Africa, the Middle East, and possibly South America.
Other famous eunuchs include Cai Lun, who invented paper, and Sima Qian a well respected chronicler and bureaucrat of ancient China. Sima Qian only became a eunuch as an adult. He once insulted the emperor and, as punishment, chose to be castrated opposed to doing the honorable thing and committing suicide. Sima Qian believed he had more to accomplish and thus could not commit suicide.
Thanks to Melanie Ramsey for helping us improve this article
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