Biographies & Memoirs

5

Eunuchs

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.

The eunuchs never left me. They were the main companions of my youth. They were my slaves and they were also my earliest teachers.

I do not know when the employment of court eunuchs began in Chinese history, but I do know exactly when it ended. It was at the end of World War II, when I lost my throne for the third time. At this time there were only about ten eunuchs left in the imperial entourage. It is said that the greatest number of eunuchs was recorded during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when there were over 100,000. During my own Ch’ing Dynasty, however, there were certain limits on their functions and number. But even so, there were at least 3,000 during the time of the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi. After the 1911 Revolution the majority of the eunuchs ran away, and although the Articles of Favorable Treatment specified that no more might be hired, the Household Department continued to take them on secretly. In 1922, there were still about 1,137 of them on the payroll. Two years later, after I had ordered their expulsion from the Forbidden City, their number was reduced to 200 of whom the great majority were in the service of the High Consorts and my wives.

In the old days in the Forbidden City, after a certain hour, there were no true males allowed within the walls, apart from the guards on duty and men of the Emperor’s own family. The duties of the eunuchs were very broad. Besides taking care of my food and daily wants, handling the umbrellas, carrying heaters and other such tasks, their duties, according to the Palace Regulations, included: transmitting imperial edicts; presenting high officials for audiences; receiving memorials; handling the documents of the various government departments; receiving money sent from treasuries outside the palace; managing fire prevention; filing my documents; tending antiques, scrolls, robes, belts, guns, bows and arrows; taking care of the ancient bronzes; guarding the awards to be presented to high officials and the yellow belts to be bestowed on meritorious functionaries; preserving the dried fruits and sweetmeats; fetching the imperial physicians for treatment of persons in the various palaces; obtaining construction materials to be used in the palace by outside builders; safekeeping the edicts handed down by my imperial ancestors; burning incense and candles in front of my ancestral portraits; checking the comings and goings of persons entering and leaving the various departments within the Forbidden City; keeping the rosters of the Palace Guards and the registers of the Hanlin academicians; safekeeping the imperial seals; recording the actions of my daily life; flogging offending eunuchs and maidservants; feeding the various living animals in the palace; tending the gardens; checking the accuracy of the clocks; cutting my hair; preparing the herb medicines; performing in palace shows; acting as Taoist monks in the City Temple; and substituting for the Emperor as lamas in the Yung Ho Kung, the temple reserved for visiting dignitaries and lamas from Tibet.

The eunuchs in the palace could be divided into two main categories: those in attendance on the Empress Dowager, the Emperor, the Empress and Imperial Consorts on the one hand, and all the others on the other. Both categories had very strict classifications and ranks. Roughly they could be divided into “general supervisors,” “chiefs” and “ordinary eunuchs.” The “general supervisors” served the Empress Dowager and the Empress as well as the Emperor; but the Imperial Consorts could only be served by “chief” eunuchs. The highest rank normally ever reached by a eunuch was the third grade; but the favorite eunuch of the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi was accorded the even higher rank of second grade, so that the Chief Eunuch in my service was also given this rank, which meant he had the right to wear the peacock feather and headgear of the second rank. Other than my Chief Eunuch, the highest were those of the third rank and they could wear the peacock feather of this rank. These were in charge of the eunuchs of the 48 administrative sections of the Forbidden City, under whom were the “general supervisors” of the nine sub-sections and these were classified from the third to the fifth rank; below these were the “chief” eunuchs from the sixth to the ninth rank, and below these were those who did not rate a rank, or the “ordinary” eunuchs. The lowest of these were those who did the cleaning and sweeping. Eunuchs who committed a crime or misdemeanor or who made an error were reduced to this rank. The monthly pay of the eunuchs were eight taels of silver for the highest rank, plus eight catties of rice a month,9 plus a monthly string of 300 iron coins. The lowest rank would receive two taels a month, one and a half catties of rice plus two strings of coins. In addition, however, the higher eunuchs enjoyed many legal and illegal fringe benefits. The result was that their real income exceeded by several times their official salaries. The Deputy Chief Eunuch of my entourage, for example was as rich as a prince. In the wintertime he could change his sable coat daily, and I never saw him in the same fur coat twice. The sea otter coat he wore on New Year’s Day would have represented a lifetime’s expenditure by a petty official. Nearly all of the general supervisors and many of the chiefs had their own private kitchens, “families,” and were waited upon by young eunuchs. They also had their own households consisting of serving women and maidservants.

The life of the low-ranking eunuchs was very hard; they suffered the whole year round. They often received beatings and other punishments, and had no pensions or old age assistance. If they were driven from the palace for a mistake, they could only expect a future of begging and starvation.

The eunuchs with whom I was in the closest contact were those of the Mind Nurture Palace, especially the young Eunuchs of the Presence who dressed me and attended me at mealtimes. They lived in the east and west passageways behind the palace and each group had a chief eunuch. Those responsible for cleaning the palace also had a chief. All of these eunuchs came under the control of Chang Chien-ho, the Chief Eunuch and Inspector General of the eunuchs, and his deputy, Juan Chin-shou.

When the Empress Dowager Lung Yu was alive she sent one of her chief eunuchs to be my nursery tutor, a post in which his main duty was to look after my daily life and teach me palace etiquette. But I did not feel for him the affection and trust I did for Chang Chien-ho who was at that time about fifty years old and was a hunchback. Actually he was the one who taught me elementary reading. Before I entered the Palace for the Cultivation of Happiness to study, he taught me to recognize characters printed on cards and read with me through elementary texts including the Three Character Classic and the Hundred Surnames. After I started my formal schooling, he stood outside my bedroom and reviewed my lessons of the previous day and helped me to memorize them. Like the chief eunuch of any emperor, he would take every opportunity to show me his loyalty and affection. I could often tell from his face and from the tone of his voice, as he went over my lessons for me, the nature of the developments outside the Forbidden City which were affecting my prospects. He also lost no opportunity to tell me, before I entered my schoolroom, of the evil deeds of Yuan Shih-kai, the erosion of Ch’ing prerogatives by the Republic, and the unfriendly behavior of former Ch’ing officials serving the Republic.

Just as any other child, I loved being told stories. The tales that Chang Chien-ho and the other eunuchs told me always seemed to be of two types: ghost stories about the palace and myths about the spirits who helped the sacred son of Heaven. If I could recall now all the ghost stories I was told, I could write a book that would be thicker than the famous classic Ghost Stories. According to the eunuchs, everything in the palace—the bronze crane, the golden jars for fish, the trees, wells, rocks, each and every item—had at some time or other turned into a spirit and shown its magic powers. From these stories which I loved to hear, and of which I never tired, I came to believe that all the ghosts and spirits tried to flatter the Emperor, and although there were some who did not succeed, this only went to show that the Emperor was the most respected and exalted creature in the world.

The eunuchs especially liked to tell me the story of the bronze crane in the palace which had a dent on its left leg because it had once become a spirit and flew down to guard the Emperor Chien Lung (1707-1798) during a trip to the South. Unfortunately, however, it was accidentally struck by an arrow from the Emperor’s own bow. Crestfallen and humiliated, the crane flew back to its original stand in the Forbidden City. The rusty dent on its left leg was supposed to be the arrow wound received during this unfortunate trip. The eunuchs also claimed that the ancient pine tree that grew by the Western Fish Pond in the Imperial Garden near the wall had once served as a shade umbrella for Emperor Chien Lung during one of his southern tours. When he returned to the palace he was supposed to have written a poem to thank it for its kindness and had it inscribed on a nearby wall.

Also, on the northwest corner of the terrace of one of the palaces in the Imperial Garden, there was a certain brick under which was said to be a fairy footprint. During Chien Lung’s reign a fire had broken out and the fairy king stood on the terrace and pointed at it. Immediately the flames were extinguished and, for this reason, the footprint had been specially preserved at the order of the Emperor. Although I knew this story was nonsense, I loved to hear it.

There was also a fairy tale associated with the big pearl in the imperial hat. One day, Chien Lung was strolling along the stream in the Yuang Ming Yuan Palace outside the Forbidden City. He noticed a glittering light issuing from the water and shot at it with his fowling piece. The light vanished. He then asked a retainer to drag the stream and the man found a large mollusk in which there was a big pearl. After it was put on the imperial hat, the pearl would sometimes fly away by itself only to return just as mysteriously. Finally, after the priests ordered a hole to be drilled in the pearl and fastened it to the hat with a golden mount, it stayed put. I myself wore this particular hat several times. After I abdicated from my throne in Manchukuo it was lost in one of the northern rivers.

The impact of these ghost stories on me when I was a boy can be explained by the following story. Once when I was seven or eight, I wasn’t feeling well, and Chang Chien-ho, my Chief Eunuch, brought me some purple pills and gave me one to take. I asked him what kind of medicine it was. “Your servant was sleeping,” he explained, “and dreamed of a man with a white beard who held some pills in his hand. He said they were the pills of immortality which he had especially brought as a present for the Lord of Ten Thousand Years.” After I heard this, I was happy and forgot about my illness. Then I remembered the famous twenty-four stories of filial piety. I immediately took the pills to the four High Consorts and asked them each to take some. Perhaps Chang Chien-ho had given them some previous information, for all of them laughed loudly and praised me for my filial piety. Some time later, I went to the Imperial Dispensary to get some medicine, and I discovered unintentionally some purple pills that looked just like my “pills of immortality.” Even though I was a little disappointed I still believed the story of the old man with the white beard.

These fairy tales which the eunuchs told me made me feel very important, but at the same time they made me fearful of ghosts. According to the eunuchs, ghosts and spirits were everywhere in the Forbidden City. In the lane behind the Lasting Peace Palace, they claimed, ghosts strangled people, and in the well outside the Ching Ho Gate there lived a swarm of she-devils, but, fortunately, these were kept at bay by a piece of iron over the gate; otherwise they would come out every day. Every three years the bridge across the lake in the Summer Palace was supposed to witness the kidnapping of a passer-by by a ghost. The more I heard these stories the more frightened I became. But the more frightened I became the more I wanted to hear about these ghosts. From the age of eleven, I became engrossed in books of ghost and fairy tales which the eunuchs bought for me, and these, combined with the continuous sacrifices to gods, plus the devil dances of the wizard, made me afraid of the dark, of thunder and lightning, and of being left alone in a room.

At sunset, the Forbidden City became truly mysterious. Those who had come into the palace for the day had gone; and, in the sudden quiet, from the Palace of Cloudless Heaven one heard the cries: “Shoot home the bolts, lock up, careful with fire and the candles.” These chants would soon echo in ghostly response from all corners of the Forbidden City as the eunuchs from their various stations would take up the cries and repeat them. This routine, which had been started by the Emperor Kang Hsi (1654-1722) to keep the eunuchs alert, filled the Forbidden City with such an eerie atmosphere I did not dare go out of my room. I felt that all the ghosts and demons and spirits and immortals had gathered outside my window.

The eunuchs did not tell me all these ghost stories to frighten me. They themselves were very superstitious, Chang Chien-ho perhaps more than most. Whenever he was in doubt, he had to consult a book titled the Record of the Jade Box before he could make up his mind. In general, all the eunuchs dutifully worshipped the palace divinities—in the guise of snakes, foxes, weasels and hedgehogs. In fact, in the palace there were a great many different gods worshipped by the imperial house; but the palace divinities were not included in the offerings made by the royal family. According to the eunuchs, the palace gods had been made divinities of the second grade by some emperor. A eunuch once told me that one night, when he was climbing the steps outside the Palace of Cloudless Heaven, a man wearing a hat button, robes and insignia of the second grade had suddenly grabbed him and thrown him down the steps. This, he said, had been one of the palace gods. The eunuchs would not dare to eat beef because one of them said that if they violated this taboo the palace gods would punish them by making them rub their lips against the bark of a tree until they would bleed. Whenever a eunuch approached an empty hall of one of the palaces he would shout clearly and loudly “Open the palace” before daring to enter in order to avoid unintentionally colliding with a palace god. On the first and 15th of every month, at New Year and other festivals, the eunuchs would make offerings of eggs, dried bean curd, spirits and pastry to the palace gods, but on special occasions they would offer whole pigs and even sheep. The low-salaried eunuchs gladly paid for their share of these offerings because they hoped the palace gods would protect them from beatings or other forms of ill treatment and bring them good luck.

The eunuchs had many ways of augmenting their incomes. There are descriptions in plays and novels of how even Emperor Kuang Hsi (1871-1908) had to give money to the Chief Eunuch of the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, since he would otherwise delay reporting his presence to the Dowager. However, I do not really believe this happened. I have heard a lot of stories about how the eunuchs made money from the palace officials. At the wedding of Emperor Tung Chih (1856-1874) a Household Department official had neglected to distribute money to one of the sections of eunuchs. On the wedding day, the eunuchs of this section told an official of the Household Department that there was a crack in a pane of glass in one of the palace windows. According to regulations, a Household Department official could not dispatch a workman to the palace unless he was sent for. Thus, from a distance, the official stared at the palace and saw a big crack in the glass. He was terrified. He would be in dire trouble if Tzu Hsi heard there was anything so ill-omened as a cracked window on a wedding day. At that moment the eunuch said, “You don’t need to find a workman to fix the window. We can do it for you.” Although the official of the Household Department knew he was being taken, he willingly handed over a large sum of money to the eunuch for the immediate repair of the window. This was not difficult since the glass was not broken; the crack was simulated by a strand of hair pasted to the glass.

Once, when the Comptroller of the Household Department in Tzu Hsi’s time failed to distribute enough presents on a special occasion, some of the eunuchs waylaid him when he was en route to pay a visit to the Empress Dowager by purposely throwing a pail of water from a window. The Comptroller’s sable jacket was drenched. The eunuch apologized and begged for punishment, but the Comptroller, knowing that this was not the time to lose his temper, asked the eunuchs to think of some way to extricate him from his position since he could not wait upon the Empress in a wet jacket. The eunuch hastily produced another beautiful sable jacket saying: “This humble place of ours will be grateful to be able to share in your good fortune.” The Comptroller had no recourse but to pay a handsome rental fee for the use of that particular sable jacket.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!