This Week in History: China Ends the Eunuch Era

By Ned Kelly, November 27, 2020

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On November 25, 1924, the eunuch system was finally banned in China, thus ending an era that had endured for over 3,000 years and through 25 dynasties.

Records of eunuchs in China date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), when the Shang kings castrated prisoners of war. In the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), eunuch slaves performed forced labor on state projects, including the manufacturing of the Terracotta Army.

In ancient times, castration was not only a traditional punishment (it was one of the Five Punishments, the other four being: tattooing the face; cutting off the nose; cutting off the feet; and death), but also a means of gaining employment in the Imperial Service.

By the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE), there were about 70,000 eunuchs employed by the emperor, with some serving inside the Imperial Palace. The logic ran that, since they were incapable of having children, they would not be tempted to seize power and start a dynasty of their own. This did not stop certain eunuchs gaining immense power, including famous explorer Zheng He (1371-1433 CE).

Castration included removal of the penis as well as the testicles, all done with the single slice of a knife. A quill made from a bird feather was inserted into the urethra to prevent it getting blocked as the wound healed.

The agonizing process was often done at home and could be lethal; self-castration was a common practice among the ambitious, although it was not always performed completely, which led to its being made illegal.

With the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) so came the end of tradition. Spare a thought for poor Sun Yaoting, the last surviving imperial eunuch of Chinese history who died in 1996. He was castrated at the age of eight by his father with a single swoop of a razor – the year was 1911, mere months before the last emperor, Puyi, was deposed...


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