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IMPOTENT POWER: UA HISTORIAN STUDIES EUNUCHS OF IMPERIAL CHINA
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
July 26, 2002
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- 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
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
"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
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
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
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