First Draft: Chinese Eunuchs in the Mid to Late Qing Dynasty

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Introduction Chinese eunuchs were the original gate-keepers of the imperial palace, menial servants in the imperial harem, and messengers between the emperor, his concubines, and the imperial court. The Chinese inscriptions combing the graphs for ‘male reproductive organ’ and for ‘knife’ have been found on oracle bones dating from about 1300 BCE.1 The context of the inscriptions generally indicates that the castration of captured prisoners of differing ethnicities existed at this early date.2 The word for eunuch, taijan , often connotating a pervert, first appeared in the Chinese language about one thousand years ago.3 Eunuchs were deemed suitable candidates for the emperor’s close aides and attendants because they possessed both a masculine physique and a feminine docility. More important, however, was the use of men deprived from their reproductive power and sexual desires was thought to safeguard the moral purity and sanctity of an emperor’s private chambers.4 Throughout the three-thousand year old institution, the number of eunuchs in the imperial palaces varied between less than 100 in the early years, to more than 100,000 in 1620, roughly 1% of the population.5 The extent, role, and nature of the eunuch presence in Chinese history varied according to specific social and political backgrounds throughout the long existence of the political institution, but identifying some recurring themes of eunuch activities is useful towards reconstructing the social history of eunuchism in China. It is apparent, however, that as imperial power and autocracy increased, the use of castrated men to fill various male jobs in the palace gradually became a necessity. Background and Historiography The first eunuch in Chinese history to acqu... ... middle of paper ... ...ng, the operation of castration in China has been relatively unreported by historians. Western Perceptions of Chinese eunuchs have for the most part coincided with the idea of “Oriental Despotism,” the notion that Eastern political systems were inherently authoritarian, repressive, and corrupt. In light of this, palace eunuchs were seen by westerners as a sign of degeneracy and savagery. As historians Yosefa Loshitzky and Ryan Meyuha said in their 1992 journal article “’Ecstasy of Difference’: Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor,” eunuchs were regarded by modern Western audiences as distorted, unnatural ‘rarities’ of a former backwards era who were associated with the oddities of a foreign culture.25 As Westerners came into China during the Qing dynasty, they began to associate eunuchs as an “uncivilized phenomenon” that somehow survived long past its expiration date.26

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