I was used to people kneeling before me and touching their heads on the ground. Many times the elder officials of the dynasty, my older relatives, men in Manchu court dress as well as those in the Western-style clothes of the Republic would kowtow. But I was used to it. It did not seem strange.

Henry Pu Yi. “The Last Manchu.”

The Forbidden City. I first visited it in 2017 as I ushered in the New Year in Beijing. The architecture was ornate and opulent. No expense had been spared in creating, crafting and constructing this palace that few ever had the opportunity to lay their eyes on. While I was not in the dark to the tall tales of palace intrigue, I couldn’t help but wonder how a structure and an edifice so breathtakingly beautiful once housed a legacy that was so terribly ugly.

For centuries in China, the only men from outside the imperial family who were allowed into the Forbidden City’s private quarters, were the ones who had undergone the castration process. They had surrendered their reproductive organs for a bleak hope of exclusive access to the emperor. It was not only the hope of a better life that propelled them towards making this irreversible decision. At the heart of this decision lay the seductive allure of a thirst for power.

It is said that the greatest number of eunuchs was recorded during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when there were over 100,000. The earliest imperial justification for the practise was pragmatism that had its roots in fear. Since eunuchs were incapable of siring children, it was believed that they would not be tempted to seize power and start a dynasty. They were viewed as more reliable than the scholar-officials.

But as castration became an increasingly viable opportunity to gain power, status and access to the inner workings of the palace; the eunuchs themselves found themselves in a powerful position relative to their counterparts and contemporaries.

If we were to turn this equation on its head, we would think that the penis was the cause of all the problems; and by removing the penis, we would solve all the potential problems. But that is not what happened. From a leadership perspective, I wondered, if we remove ‘the thing’ that we fear, does it solve the problem we fear? That was the question that darted through my mind as I studied the history of eunuchs in China.

In the early days of the practise, castration was a form of punishment. It included the removal of the penis as well as the testicles using a knife. I can almost see you cringe as you read this. As time went on, however, castration became a viable way to access the Forbidden City and all that lay within its walls. Many young boys underwent the procedure at the insistence of their families.

The eunuchs in the palace could be divided into two main categories: those who attended to the Empress Dowager, the Emperor, the Empress and Imperial Consorts; and all the others. It was a hierarchical institution which was divided into general supervisors, chiefs and ordinary eunuchs. By the time of Pu Yi, the Last Emperor of China, many eunuchs were performing the procedure at home in the hopes of securing a prosperous and politically powerful future.

The government role occupied by eunuchs meant that over time they were able to exert considerable influence over the emperor. With craft and cunning, they gained control of state affairs and even caused the demise of some dynasties. The power of the eunuchs endured partly due to the ambitions of the imperial family and partly as a result of the secluded lifestyle which royal etiquette had prescribed for the emperor.

The eunuch system came to an end when it was abolished on November 5, 1924, when the last emperor, Pu Yi was driven out of the Forbidden City.

During my childhood, eunuchs were a vital part of my daily life. They served me when I ate, dressed me, and saw to it that I went to bed; they played with me and accompanied me to my lessons; they told me ghost stories and fairy tales and they had both rewards and beatings from me… They were my slaves and they were also my earliest teachers.

Henry Pu Yi. “The Last Manchu.”

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