Throughout the Chinese history, eunuchs, who were appointed to serve the royal household, actually existed as a political power in many dynasties.
Since the eunuchs were not able to have children, they were believed to have no reason to seize power and more reliable for the ruler than well-educated but overly ambitious scholars and officials, especially in some certain dynasties, when there was tension between the monarch and powerful officials. However, as is the case when power is involved, things didn’t always go to plan.
Though eunuchs were supposed to be most loyal and dutiful, in many cases, they were just as power-hungry as the men they served. In China, when people hear the word “eunuch”, terms like “conniving” often come to mind. Here are some of the bold but kind-of-evil eunuchs whose ballsy backstabbing made them hated (or possibly used as scapegoats) by historians.
Zhao Gao was a Qin dynasty eunuch and politician who served as a close aide to all three emperors of the Qin dynasty and was regarded as having played an instrumental role in the downfall of the dynasty. After Emperor Qin Shihuang died in 210 BC, Zhao Gao and Li Si, the Chancellor, secretly changed the emperor’s final edict, which named Fusu, the crown prince, the heir to the throne. But in the falsified edict, Fusu was ordered to commit suicide while Huhai, Emperor Qin Shihuang’ youngest son and Zhao gao’s student, was named the new emperor.
After Huhai was enthroned as Qin Er Shi, Zhao Gao became a highly trusted confidant and instigated the emperor to exterminate his own siblings to consolidate power, and used the opportunity to eliminate his political opponents such as Meng Tian, a famous military official. He also framed Li Si for treason and had Li and his entire family executed, after which he replaced Li as the Chancellor and monopolized state power. In 207 BC, when rebellions broke out, Zhao Gao became worried that Qin Er Shi would blame him, so he launched a coup and assassinated the emperor.
There is an idiom “指鹿为马（Calling a deer a horse）“, which may have originated from Zhao Gao. In order to test how high his prestige was among the ministers, Zhao is said to have brought a deer to the court one day, and said to Emperor Qin Er Shi, “Here is a fine horse I’m presenting to you”. The emperor laughed and said, “You are wrong. This is a deer. Why do you say it is a horse?” But Zhao insisted on claiming that it was a horse and asked other ministers what the animal was. To the emperor’s surprise, all the ministers stood calmly, either staying silent or confirmed that it was a horse. No one dared tell the truth at all.
The test was perhaps more effective at detecting yes-men [chinanews.com]
In the late Han Dynasty, the power of the emperor was being undermined by a group of eunuchs called the “Ten Eunuchs”, who held great influence in the imperial court. Zhang Rang was their leader. Emperor Ling trusted Zhang so much that he even referred him as “father” and Zhang took control of most matters of the court matters.
Zhang advised the emperor to levy high taxes to build extravagant palaces and profited from the construction. Many officials, including He Jin, Yuan Shao and Cao Cao, thought that Zhang Rang’s power was too great. After Emperor Ling died and was succeeded by his son, these individuals invaded the capital for the purpose of defeating the Ten Eunuchs, which ultimately failed and led to He’s beheading by the Ten Eunuchs. Zhang then kidnapped the emperor and his brother, the future Emperor Xian. However, Zhang was soon surrounded by enemy soldiers and so jumped in the river and drowned himself.
By the time of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder and the first emperor of this dynasty, had wised up and noted the problems caused by shifty eunuchs. He kind of overreacted though, drastically reducing their numbers, forbidding them to handle documents, insisting that they remain illiterate, and executing those who commented on state affairs.
However, this situation didn’t last long once Zhu was out of the picture. In the reign of Emperor Yingzong, Wang Zhen showed up. Wang was originally a scholar, but not outstanding enough to excel in the imperial examinations. In order to gain power, he castrated himself and became a court eunuch and personal servant of the emperor, who ascended the throne while still a boy. Wang then dominated the young emperor and took control of the state affairs.
In 1449, ignoring the regular military strategies, Wang advised the emperor personally directed the Battle of Tumu Fortress against the Mongols. Unsurprisingly, the inexperienced emperor lost the battle and imprisoned by the enemy. More than 200,000 soldiers and 100 officials died in this battle. This failure shook the Ming dynasty to its core and Wang was executed by the next emperor.
Wang was just the first of a series of eunuchs whose mismanagement helped destroy the Ming dynasty. After him, Liu Jin was no less notorious.
Liu served Prince Zhu Houzhao when the Prince was young. After the prince acceded to the throne, Liu was promoted quickly to become the leading eunuch in the Court. Since the emperor was lazy and not interested in politics, Liu replied to memorials to the throne in name of him, and pushed out 56 officials.
At that time, Liu, together with seven other eunuchs, was favored by the emperor. They were called “Eight Tigers”. However, it was just one of those “tigers”, Zhang Yong, who helped upright officials Yang Yiqing and Li Dongyang to report Liu was plotting rebellion, which led to Liu’s “death by a thousand cuts (凌迟)” a process which was actually numerically inaccurate. As if being castrated wasn’t enough, Liu was cut 3,357 times.
It was reported that before Liu was executed, 12,057,800 taels (449,750 kg) of gold and 259,583,600 taels (9,682,470 kg) of silver were taken from his residence. In 2001, the Asian Wall Street Journal placed Liu on its list of the fifty wealthiest persons in the past 1,000 years.
Which gives you some indication why President Xi Jinping’s current anti-corruption campaign has often emphasized going after tigers and flies. Liu was one hell of a corrupt tiger.
Wei Zhongxian (魏忠贤)
Of course, most of the eunuchs were pretty poor. Wei Zhongxian, whose name literally means loyal and wise, began as a former hoodlum and illiterate. He was, however, a master of the art of flattery. Wei became a eunuch to escape from his creditors. After entering the palace, he got close to Madam Ke, the nanny of the future Ming emperor, and began to manipulate the emperor. The emperor’s favor later gave Wei absolute power over the court.
It was Wei who led the monarchy manipulated by eunuchs to its peak in history. He persecuted anyone who opposed his decisions, resulting in the death and imprisonment of many officials. Wei also built many shrines and erected god-like statues of himself. What’s more, Wei even proclaimed himself to be “Nine-Thousand Years (九千岁)”. Since the emperor was called “Ten-Thousand Years (万岁)”, Liu was effectively announcing that he was the second most important person in the country (apparently there was no nuance left for a “9,500 years”).
In 1627, when Emperor Tianqi died, his brother and successor promptly eliminated Wei. Wei was forced to commit suicide (some sources say executed by strangulation).
But the reality was of course not always a clear-cut. There were also some eunuchs who were upright, loyal and talented, making great contributions to the country. For example, paper-making, one of the Four Great Inventions of ancient China was closely related to a eunuch, Cai Lun (蔡伦) in the Eastern Han Dynasty.
Cai Lun became a eunuch in palace during the reign of Emperor Ming, and was promoted from the post of Xiao Huang Men during the reign of Emperor Zhang to paperwork secretary during the reign of Emperor He.
As for papermaking, the paper made during the western Han Dynasty discovered in a tomb at the Fangmatan site Gansu Province in 1986 is believed the earliest paper in the world so far. Cai made some improvements by trying materials like bark, hemp, rags and even old fishing net in a series of processes such as breaking, smashing, frying and drying. Paper was thus made with its quality further enhanced by means of boiling the raw materials with lime. And this kind of paper was called “Marquis Cai paper(蔡侯纸）”.
And there was also Zheng He (郑和), of the Ming Dynasty, one of the greatest maritime emissaries, who was also a eunuch. Even though being a eunuch is today associated with malevolence, almost every individual in China knows Cai Lun and Zheng He as heroes.
Mastery Image from duitang.com