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  • Eunuch and Emperor in the Great Age of Qing Rule by Norman A. Kutcher
  • Carl Déry (bio)
Norman A. Kutcher. Eunuch and Emperor in the Great Age of Qing Rule. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. xxv, 317 pp. Hardcover $75.00, ISBN 978-0-520-29752-4.

This book is about eunuchs' relations with Qing emperors during the first half of the dynasty, from Shunzhi to Qianlong. Eunuchs have always been tainted with mysteries and our knowledge of their lives has always been limited due to the nature of the sources available. While a consensual master narrative mostly emphasized the destructive role played by eunuch during Ming dynasty and the efforts made by Qing emperors to control and limit their influence within the government, this groundbreaking book presents a quite different picture, as the author deals with crucial aspects about the lives of a myriad of individuals that unveil the necessary relations happening behind the curtain of institutions like the Imperial Household Department. The author draws on case reports of crimes and transgressions committed by eunuchs as he tries to go beyond usual stereotypes. These reports include a considerable amount of details related to investigations, confessions, and disposition, and thus provide a "genuine insight into the lives of Qing eunuchs" (p. 8). The author also relies on official documents from the Veritable Records and the Collected Qing Regulations, unpublished archival sources, as well as a critical assessment of A History of Our Dynasty's Palace (Guochao gong shi, 國 朝 宮 史). Starting with the negative perception toward eunuchs during the late Ming and its influence on Qing emperors' policies, the author notices a recurrent gap between official imperial rhetoric against eunuchs' power and day-to-day practices of eunuch management, as he tells how eunuchs responded to the changing policies of different emperors and how they found their ways in and around the palace for new opportunities.

The book follows a chronological frame. Chapter one presents the consensus behind the master narrative on eunuch power during the Ming, and chapter two deals with the dynastic transition and the adaptation of this heritage during the [End Page 313] period of the Shunzhi emperor. Chapters three and four both deal with the reign of Kangxi, while chapters five and six both present some innovative reforms of the Yongzheng emperor, revealing the impact of the succession crisis. Chapters seven, eight, and nine all deal with the reign of Qianlong, underlying both the official regulations and the opportunities afforded to eunuchs.

The writings of a few Ming scholars "articulated important benchmarks for eunuch management that would be meaningful for Qing rulers [referred to as] the gold standard for eunuch management" (p. 27). For example, Wang Fuzhi discusses the psychology of eunuchs and their "yin nature," as he sees their lack of "yang" as a cause for treachery and devotion. According to his lecture, every time eunuch and women were directly involved with power, the effect was to unbalance the yin and yang of the State and resulted in disasters for the whole country. He therefore concludes that problems began when emperors relied on eunuchs rather than scholars. Aside from the "yin essence" of eunuch, Huang Zongzi discusses their number: "the evil caused by Ming eunuchs came in direct proportion to the number of them that were in the palace" (p. 34). This led him to criticize the morality of the imperial taste for luxury that was detrimental to dealing with the affairs of the country. So, "if a ruler wanted to avoid eunuch problems, he should reduce his desire for pleasure" (p. 35). Gu Yanwu agreed with both of them, but he also condemned eunuch literacy, since it "represented the main pathway to eunuch interference in government" (p. 39). The texts of these three scholars represented "a synthesis of collective wisdom on the subject of eunuchs, and an articulation of a set of principles for their governance that would endure through the rest of the Qing" (p. 41). Despite the fact that Qing emperors mostly adhered to these core principles, since the beginning of the dynasty, one can notice the emergence of a pattern of "imperial rhetoric deviating from practice" (p. 43). For...


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