Top 5 Most Despised Chinese Eunuchs in Imperial Chinese History
Chinese eunuchs occupy a curious position throughout Imperial Chinese history. They were pitied for the mutilation they had to suffer in order to work in the palace. They were also scorned for their inability to procreate, a sin considered as one of the worst acts of filial impiety under Confucian values.
At the same time, Chinese eunuchs were feared and despised as conniving schemers with a stranglehold on imperial power, to the extent that the term Tai Jian (太监) continues to imply a devious sycophant in modern spoken Mandarin. This is unsurprising, given eunuchs have repeatedly usurped power throughout Chinese history. Here are the five most despised Chinese eunuchs in Imperial Chinese history. In all but one case, these castrated lords amassed so much power, even their reigning emperors lived in fear of them.
1. Zhao Gao (赵高), Unknown–207 BC
One of the most ironic episodes in Chinese history was how short-lived the Qin Dynasty was. Despite unifying China for the first time in history, the house of Emperor Qin Shihuang lasted but a mere 14 years. There were many reasons behind this swift downfall, first and foremost being the rise of legendary warlords like Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, the latter who would eventually establish the next dynasty. Internally, the Qin court was also embattled by bitter power struggles. The worst contenders in these struggles were Premier Li Si and Imperial Aide / Eunuch Zhao Gao.
Originally a distant descendant of the defeated Zhao State, Zhao Gao was supposedly castrated at a young age because of his parents’ crimes. Thereafter, he rose steadily in power and rank, to the extent that by the time of Qin Shihuang’s death, he was one of the most powerful figures in China. Allegedly, Zhao Gao then conspired with Premier Li Si to falsify Qin Shihuang’s will, which resulted in Crown Prince Fusu being forced to commit suicide, while his younger brother Huhai was enthroned. Two years later, Zhao Gao turned on Li Si and had the premier and his family horrifically executed. Zhao only met his end when he made the mistake of assassinating Huhai and installing Fusu’s son, Ziying, as emperor. Well-aware of Zhao Gao’s wickedness, Ziying quickly had the eunuch assassinated before Zhao could hatch any scheme against him.
Of note, Zhao Gao once infamously staged an absurd act to test the extent of his power. One day, he had a deer brought before Huhai and insisted it was a prized steed for the young emperor. When Huhai laughed and corrected him, Zhao Gao turned to the courtiers and demanded their response. Out of fear, none of the courtiers dared acknowledge the mistake. Some even agreed that it was indeed a beautiful steed. This gave rise to the Chinese saying, Zhi Lu Wei Ma (指鹿为马, to call a deer a horse), a phrase that remains in use today. The saying refers to the act of distorting facts, typically for malicious gain, mischief, or demonstration of power.
2. Zhang Rang (张让), AD 135–189
Zhang Rang was the leader of the Ten Attendants, a group of Chinese eunuchs who wielded great power during the final years of the Eastern Han Dynasty. A confidant of Emperor Han Lingdi, Zhang Rang constantly manipulated the emperor into approving extraordinary taxes and selling imperial offices. So trusted was the eunuch, he was even honoured by being addressed as “Father” by the emperor. At the peak of his power, Zhang Rang had with eleven eunuchs as his personal servants. This was supposedly his reward for suppressing the Yellow Turban Rebellion of AD 184.
Zhang Rang’s expanding influence eventually irked He Jin, Yuan Shao, and Cao Cao, the leading warlords of that time. Upon Lingdi’s son Liu Bian ascending the throne, the warlords united and invaded the capital. Unfortunately, their coup was not initially successful, with He Jin captured and executed in the palace courtyard. To protect himself, Zhang Rang then took the emperor and his younger brother hostage. Two days later, he released the royal siblings and committed suicide by jumping into the Yellow River. Through his crimes and actions, Zhang Rang thus laid the groundwork for the demise of the Eastern Han Dynasty. In the aftermath of the coup, General Dong Zhuo took over the capital and assassinated Emperor Liu Bian. In turn, Dong’s brief tyranny splintered the Eastern Han Dynasty, ultimately bringing forth the tumultuous age of the Three Kingdoms.
The Chinese castration method entirely removes the genitals. Appallingly, the Chinese Court became so skilful with castration, Imperial China enjoyed an unusually high rate of survival.
3. Liu Jin (刘瑾), AD 1451–1510
An attendant of Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhengde, Liu Jin is notorious for being one of the most corrupted officials in Imperial Chinese history. The leader of a powerful group of Chinese eunuchs known as the Eight Tigers, Liu Jin thoroughly exploited Zhengde’s dissolute personality, to the extent of receiving petitions on the emperor’s behalf and rejecting all of them. At the same time, Liu Jin also vastly expanded the eunuch community within the Forbidden Palace, in addition to awarding important court positions to his relatives. All these led a phenomenal amount of wealth consolidated by Liu Jin. At his peak, not only was he the most powerful man in China, he was also the richest.
Liu Jin was ultimately betrayed by one of the Eight Tigers. Encouraged by officials Yang Yiqing and Li Dongyang, eunuch Zhang Yong reported to Emperor Zhengde that Liu Jin was plotting a rebellion. Though the emperor initially did not believe Zhang Yong, he ultimately did exile Liu Jin, before sentencing him to death by the gruesome Death by a Thousand Cuts execution method. According to historical records, a total of 12,057,800 taels of gold and 259,583,600 taels of silver were seized from the Liu Residence prior to the Liu’s execution. This astonishing amount led to the Asian Wall Street Journal listing Liu Jin in 2001 as one of the 50 richest persons to have lived in the past 1000 years. This Chinese eunuch’s crimes were so atrocious, he actually established a permanent international record.
4. Wei Zhongxian (魏忠贤), AD 1568–1627
Wei Zhongxian goes down in Imperial Chinese history as the most corrupted and diabolical Chinese eunuch to have ever lived. Conversely, he was also the most successful and feared. At the peak of his power, Wei was addressed as the “Lord of Nine Thousand Years,” a title that placed him second only to the “Lord of Ten Thousand Years” i.e. the emperor. During the reign of Ming Dynasty Emperor Tianqi, all imperial edicts were delivered by Wei and issued in both the emperor’s and his name. So great was his power that temples were even built in his name. Such a practice openly violated traditional Confucian values.
Much of Wei Zhongxian’s power stemmed from his close relationship with Emperor Tianqi and Madam Ke, the emperor’s wet nurse. Tianqi was an ineffectual emperor, far more interested in carpentry than courtly matters. He was also emotionally dependent on Wei and Ke, in many ways, considering the diabolical duo his surrogate parents. Wei Zhongxian’s stranglehold on power would thus have likely lasted far longer had Emperor Tianqi not abruptly died at the age of 21. Upon the emperor’s death, and because he had no living heirs, Tianqi’s brother was enthroned as Emperor Chongzhen. Knowing of Wei’s crimes, Chongzhen swiftly moved, first exiling the hated eunuch before ordering Imperial guards to retrieve him for further sentencing. On Dec 13, 1627, Wei committed suicide during his return to Beijing by hanging himself with his belt. As a warning, Chongzhen then executed Wei’s many allies. The new emperor also had Wei’s corpse dismembered and displayed in the despised eunuch’s native village.
Why Were There so Many Eunuchs in Ancient China?
Castration as punishment for crime, or substitution for the death sentence, long existed in China. In later dynasties, life as a eunuch in the Forbidden Palace was also a way to escape poverty. Through the suffering of one member, an entire family could be provided for.
5. Li Lianying (李连英), AD 1848–1911
In contrast to the other Chinese eunuchs on this list, Li Lianying did not monopolise power. He couldn’t, as he served under Dowager Cixi, one of the most ruthless women to have controlled China. Rather, Li Lianying achieved great influence and wealth by being the favourite attendant of Cixi. To put it in another way, Li’s power stemmed from being the middleman between imperial officials and Cixi. He had significant control over who was permitted audience with Cixi, a role that enriched him with plenty of bribes. He was also the one to pay and seek favour with, when one got into trouble with the dreaded dowager.
In contrast to the other eunuchs, Li Lianying was also supposedly spared a grisly end. After the death of Cixi, he retired and left the Forbidden Palace, before dying at home in 1911. Despite this, Li’s notoriety left a permanent mark on Chinese mentality, becoming the name associated with the Chinese xiao ren persona (小人, literally small person, a colloquial term for sycophant). During the Cultural Revolution, Li’s tomb was ransacked and destroyed. As raiders found only Li’s skull in the tomb, some believe he didn’t die of old age but was instead murdered. Other rumors also claim that Li was forced to commit suicide by the father of Last Emperor Puyi, or that he was assassinated by the underlings of Warlord Yuan Shikai. The truth of what really happened to this classic xiao ren is likely to forever remain unknown.
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© 2017 Kuan Leong Yong