- Inside the World of the Eunuch: A Social History of the Emperor's Servants in Qing China by Melissa Dale
This is the first book-length study of Chinese eunuchs in English since Henry Shih-shan Tsai's 1996 study of eunuchs in the Ming dynasty. Dale has accessed [End Page 193] a number of new sources for the study of Qing dynasty eunuchs, including archival records of legal cases in which eunuchs were involved. She has looked at the eunuch institution from multiple perspectives: legal, medical, social, and historical, effectively supplementing her text-based account with photographs of eunuchs in the early twentieth century.
With the best will in the world, those of us who have grown up steeped in modern Western liberal traditions struggle to understand the social, political, and economic circumstances that enabled one group of human beings to routinely subject another group of people, in this case boys and men, to an operation that robbed them of their external genitalia and their opportunities to engage in ordinary sexual activity and to have biological children. As our guide into the world of Qing dynasty eunuchs, Dale's authorial voice is calm and she does not flinch from recording the details of the operations these boys and men endured and the mortality or lifelong morbidity that were often the result.
Dale highlights dramatic contrasts between the histories of eunuchs in the Ming and Qing while at the same time illustrating some areas where continuity is apparent. She estimates that about 3,000 eunuchs were working in the Qing imperial palace at the end of the dynasty, very significantly fewer than estimates of their numbers under the Ming. She identifies the employment of bondservants as a key structural difference between the Ming and Qing courts. Qing bondservants were men who had a special relationship with the emperor and took on many of the more prestigious roles that eunuchs had fulfilled under the Ming. Qing dynasty eunuchs did not fill important military positions as eunuchs had during the Ming. In addition, at least initially, the Qing emperors sought to limit eunuchs' literacy more than the Ming had done. Nevertheless, there were opportunities for Qing eunuchs to learn to read and write in both Manchu and Chinese, and their literacy was one of the skills they had to offer in their service to the imperial women. Empress Dowager Cixi was known to prefer to employ literate eunuchs. By the end of the dynasty, the most senior eunuchs held positions in the imperial household that were as high as the second and third rank in the bureaucracy. As the ultimate symbol of imperial power and authority, these senior eunuchs were respected and feared. Their generic designation (tàijiàn 太監) signalled both their administrative responsibilities and their closeness to the throne.
While the justification for turning boys into eunuchs was often articulated in terms of the need to have servants in the imperial palaces who could never threaten the purity of the imperial patriline, Dale provides abundant evidence that looking after the women of the palace was far from the only activity that Qing dynasty eunuchs characteristically undertook. They led religious services, serving as lamas, chanting the scriptures, and praying for the souls of the dead. Their religious activities encompassed Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucian [End Page 194] sacrifices to the ancestors and some were converts to Christianity. Eunuchs also served the court and the imperial elite as actors and theatrical performers, musicians, physicians, and men of all work. They looked after imperial collections, transmitted edicts, managed documents, gardened, kept the imperial seals, and were in charge of the protocols for imperial audiences for officials and visitors. Expected to perform as the perfect servants of the imperium, they often obliged.
Dale found that under the Qing dynasty most eunuchs were Han Chinese who came from the northern provinces of Hebei, Shandong, and Zhili, the directly administered region surrounding the capital...