The Castrated in the Tang Dynasty

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Many cultures have made use of castration to provide young men who would in one way or another be trusted to run the household of a king or emperor. Yet few if any countries have made such systematic use of the process to make eunuchs as imperial China. During the Tang Dynasty, a maximum of perhaps 5,000 eunuchs wielded, in some cases, enormous power over the future of the state. Owing to their physical state, and there are various ways in which the knife may actually be employed, eunuchs were trusted such that no child born of an emperor’s woman could be suspected as being one of theirs. Hence, they were the only men permitted to work in the imperial harem – which could be extensive, some emperors had concubines numbered in the tens of thousands, which would presumably be more than could be received by any emperor no matter how full of vigour.

Of course, most eunuchs were occupied with minor and menial tasks throughout their imperial career but those with more luck, talent and connections could find themselves with extensive access to senior members of the imperial household and, freed from familial relationships, could manoeuvre themselves into high positions. The process of dealing with the numerous petitions and legislative decisions from across the empire could be enormously tedious not to mention trying and not every emperor was willing to put in the many hours required. After all, energetic young men with thousands of concubines, horses, performers and artists to call upon would not always prefer to sit on an uncomfortable throne listening to interminable arguments about which official may have cheated another or which peasant has stolen another’s chicken. An official willing and able to relieve some of this burden from an emperor could expect to receive considerable and very valuable thanks.

It is not surprising, therefore, that many people felt that the castration knife offered a good opportunity for an unwanted son – families had many children so as to have offspring to look after them in their elder years. Yet there was always a limit to the number of mouths that could be fed. Sons could be sent away; unwanted daughters might be summarily drowned or left to die elsewhere. Life is harsh. From the southeastern regions in particular, a constant stream of hopeful young eunuchs made their way to an imperial capital in the hope of being accepted for service and, perhaps, a life of power and wealth. Alas, as ever, most were to be disappointed.