Kuora: The how and why of eunuchs in imperial China

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on March 12, 2015.

Why did Chinese imperial households use eunuchs as servants? Who started to do it? How and why was this practice created?

It’s not clear when the practice of using castrated males as servants in the imperial palace began in China, but it’s clear that castration was a form of punishment practiced since the first historically attested dynasty, the Shang. Probably the first most famous victim of castration was China’s great historian Sima Qian (fl. 1st century BC), who chose castration over death when he opposed the Han emperor Wudi and defended a general who was being blamed for a defeat at the hands of the Xiongnu.

Certainly by the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, eunuchs had already become a considerable problem; after about AD 100 there were violent struggles between eunuchs and powerful aristocratic families. There’s a good summary of some of the more dramatic episodes in this Wikipedia article on Eastern Han.

The role of eunuchs in the collapse of the dynasty is also an important plot point in Three Kingdoms, the fictionalized historical account of the fall of the Han Dynasty and the chaotic struggles that followed it.

The “why” of eunuchs is much easier to understand. First, eunuchs could be trusted not to get amorous with the women of the palace — or at least not to cuckold the emperor and whelp bastards on his numerous concubines. It was also thought that lacking any heirs of their own, eunuchs would have less incentive to corruption and embezzlement: They were supposed to dedicate themselves to the imperial family rather than to their own families. Of course, that didn’t exactly work out: The access that they had to the imperial person made them very natural interlocutors between the inner and outer court, and many officials would try to curry favor with powerful eunuchs to gain access to the emperor or to the women around him.

Eunuchs often became extremely powerful personal agents of the emperor. One very good historical example was the admiral Zheng He, who is best known for having commanded an enormous fleet during the early Ming Dynasty that sailed as far west as the east coast of Africa and into the Persian Gulf as far as Aden. He was a Moslem of a prominent family in Yunnan, where he was castrated as an adolescent and brought into the service of the Prince of Yan, who later become the Yongle Emperor.

Eunuchs were also used for similar reasons — to guard harems without fear of cuckoldry, and because they didn’t have families of their own with the attendant interests of families — in many other East and Southeast Asian countries, and probably more famously in the Ottoman Empire.

Kuora is a weekly column.