Although the last of the remaining Chinese court eunuchs died in the early 20th century, the world continues to be fascinated by them. Kyoto University scholar Taisuke Mitamura’s Chinese Eunuchs: The Structure of Intimate Politics (1963, 1970 English translation by Charles A. Pomeroy) is an informative, readable monograph on the history of the individuals and their impact on China. The book’s jacket flap tells it better than we can:
In the world of China, through the long centuries almost to modern times, eunuchs either ruled or were the powers behind the throne for long periods of time. Dynasties were built upon and around eunuchs, and dynasties crashed because of eunuchs. The structure of intimate policies was so great that eunuchism often played a kingly role while the emperor fiddled in his harem, pondering such momentous decisions as to which of 122 wives or concubines to huddle with on a certain night… Prof. Mitamura pulls no punches, presenting the sordid and often macabre details of an amazing system which finally was cut off for good on November 5, 1924, when Hsuan T’ung Ti, the last emperor of the Ch’ing dynasty, was driven out of the Tsu Chin Palace where he had been allowed to live after the 1912 revolution.
On that day a host of eunuchs, “crying pitifully in high-pitched, feminine voices,” left the palace forever, thus ending a system that had endured for over 2,000 years and through 25 dynasties. The author describes in sharp and cutting detail the various methods of castration, tells of the high valuation placed upon the pao, or “treasure” (the severed parts), for the eunuchs had to show their pao to be advanced in rank, or to produce a substitute, which was permissible. Another reason for preserving the pao was so that it could be buried with the eunuch after his death. In this case, too, it was permissible to use a substitute. The eunuchs hoped [o be restored to masculinity in the next world, for the Chinese had a great fear of deformity. Also, it was believed that Jun Wang, the king of the underworld, would turn those without their pao into female asses.
A secret formula is revealed—for making a revolting concoction called Hung Pills. One ingredient was the “menstrual discharges of beautiful maidens 13 or 14 years old.” Another was powdered human waste. The pills were considered a powerful restorative capable of curing five kinds of fatigue, seven kinds of wounds, and general debility.
This book, however, isn’t just about eunuchs. There’s a notable passage regarding the characteristics of jealous women:
Scholars of the Ming dynasty were tireless in writing about the evils of jealous women, in the Wu Tsa Tsu, a collection of essays rich in anecdotes, the author, Hsieh Chao Chi, says: “Confucius says that women and men of small character are difficult to manage. As a rule, women possess such undesirable qualities as jealousy, stinginess, obduracy, sloth, inaptitude, foolishness, cruelty, short temper, suspicion, gullibility, attachment to trivia, displeasure, worship of heretical religions, and infatuation. Of these, jealousy is the worst.
We at WoWasis found the book to be a remarkable treatise not only on eunuchs in general, but on the squabbles, courting practices, culture, and political strife of the Chinese dynasties. In here, there’s enough of murder, mayhem, and intrigue to keep historians, scholars, and general interest readers sitting at the edge of their seats, relieved that they weren’t there to participate in this perilous life and era. Buy it now on the WoWasis eStore.