A University of Arkansas researcher looks at the history of Chinese imperial dynasties and declares what centuries of Chinese scholars have refused to admit -- that some of the most powerful men in China's history weren't exactly men.
In his article "Eunuch Power in Imperial China," professor of history Henry Tsai surveys the rise of castrated men throughout the various Chinese dynasties and examines their roles as family servants, court advisors and powerful officials.
Tsai reports that during the Ming dynasty -- the height of Chinese culture and power -- imperial eunuchs gained so much influence that they comprised a third branch of government, alongside the scholar-bureaucrats and military commanders. In addition, eunuchs led military and exploratory expeditions, shaped domestic and foreign policy, and designed and built the Forbidden City -- the imperial palace in Beijing.
Yet despite their influence and involvement in Chinese political history, Tsai notes that eunuchs have been largely ignored by traditional Chinese historians.
"Throughout the centuries, eunuchs were regarded as half-men, half-women, and they were disdained. They were considered unworthy of mention by many scholars," Tsai said. "Also, because of their power with the emperor, the Confucian scholars felt threatened by the eunuchs. They held the eunuchs responsible for many of the dynasties' failings."
This tradition of stigma and blame filtered through the centuries, Tsai said, so that even modern mention of the imperial eunuchs stereotypes them as sycophants -- sucking power and wealth from the imperial family, pretending to serve the emperor while actually serving themselves. Tsai asserts that it's time to set the record straight and that, until more unbiased scholarship is completed, our understanding of Chinese political history remains incomplete.
Tsai's own research attempts to fill this void. He's published three books on the topic, including "Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty" and "Perpetual Happiness: the Ming Emperor Yongle" -- a biography of the ruler who gave eunuchs their greatest position and power. Tsai's latest article appears in "Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond," a collection of scholarly papers published by The Classical Press of Wales.
In addition to Tsai's article on imperial China, the volume features contributors from Oxford University, Princeton, the University of Bonn and the College de France, and covers such topics as the role of eunuchs in the Byzantine, Roman and Persian empires; references to eunuchs in early Christianity; and the role of eunuchs in western culture and society.
According to Tsai, the book provides a comparative overview of eunuchs in history. Looking through the chapters, he has noted that Byzantine and Ottoman eunuchs attained modest levels of power as well, while eunuchs in western Europe filled only the lowest social stations.
However, none of the eunuchs in Europe or the Near East enjoyed as much influence and wealth as those who served the Chinese emperors. Tsai attributes this to the way eunuchs entered the imperial court and the intimacy they developed with the imperial family. Castrated in boyhood or early adolescence, young eunuchs were brought to the palace, immersed in a luxurious life and indoctrinated into the ways of the court.
"Say you're a teenager when you start working for your patron -- perhaps the son of one of the emperor's wives. You're 13 or 14, and this prince is five or six. You watch him. You play. You grow up together. Then by a stroke of luck, this young man becomes emperor. Suddenly, you're one of the emperor's most trusted confidants, and that gives you instant access to power," Tsai explained.
Such intimacy and loyalty invariably exerted an influence over emperors, but some felt the bond of trust so strongly that they allowed their eunuch servants to emerge from behind the scenes and openly assume places of power. Emperors in the Tang dynasty granted their eunuchs titles of nobility. At other periods, eunuchs were allowed to hold land, adopt sons, command troops and run important offices.
In fact, eunuchs were capable of becoming so powerful that they inspired wary fear in other court officials, imperial scholars, even emperors. According to Tsai's article, the position of imperial eunuchs hung uncertainly with each new emperor and could suffer drastic change with each new dynasty. Some emperors -- swayed by the advice of their court scholars or mistrustful of ambitious underlings -- relegated eunuchs to domestic servitude and threatened severe punishment for any who dared to dabble in politics. Others, like the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, took precautions by limiting the number of eunuchs in service at the imperial palace.
But such setbacks were frequently reversed, and Tsai points out that, even as mere servants, imperial eunuchs controlled a certain amount of power. When the first Ming emperor died, the empire passed briefly to his grandson. But with the help of palace eunuchs, his fourth son Yongle drove the rightful heir from the palace and usurped the throne. Yongle's long rule as emperor rewarded the eunuchs handsomely -- instituting them as an integral part of the Chinese political system.
Tsai's article makes it clear that, despite the vicissitudes of their position in court and their uncertain social status, eunuchs played a critical role in Chinese political history, and he advocates further research on the subject.
"The disdain that imperial scholars felt for eunuchs set a precedent that Chinese historians have followed to the present day. But I think that's a mistake," Tsai said. "Political history has to be studied in different contexts. These so-called less important perspectives, I think, have greatly shaped history."