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 continues to imply a devious sycophant in modern spoken Mandarin. This is unsurprising, given that eunuchs have repeatedly usurped power throughout Chinese dynasties. Here are the five most despised Chinese eunuchs in Imperial Chinese history. In all but one case, these emasculated lords amassed so much power, even their reigning emperors dreaded 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. After uniting China, 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 constant 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, and 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, something that resulted in Crown Prince Fusu being forced to commit suicide, while his younger brother Huhai was enthroned as the next emperor. Two years later, Zhao Gao turned on Li Si and had the premier and his family executed horrifically. 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.
Notoriously, Zhao Gao once 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 it was indeed a steed. This gave rise to the Chinese saying, Zhi Lu Wei Ma (指鹿为马, to call a deer a horse), which remains in use today. The saying refers to the act of confusing or distorting facts, typically for malicious purposes or mischief.
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. He was also honoured by being addressed as “Father” by the emperor. Lingdi even bestowed Zhang Rang with eleven eunuchs as reward for suppressing the Yellow Turban Rebellion.
Zhang Rang’s expanding influence eventually irked He Jin, Yuan Shao, and Cao Cao, the leading warlords of that time. Upon Lingdi’s succession by his son Liu Bian, the warlords invaded the capital. Unfortunately, their coup was not initially successful, resulting in He Jin being 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 Liu Bian. In turn, Dong’s brief tyranny splintered the Eastern Han Dynasty, bringing forth the age of the Three Kingdoms.
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. This naturally led to even more power and wealth consolidated under him.
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 did not initially believe Zhang Yong, he ultimately exiled Liu Jin, before sentencing him to death by the gruesome Death by a Thousand Cuts method. According to historical reports, 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.
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 built in his name. Such a practice openly violated 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 extremely attached to Wei and Ke, in many ways considering the diabolical duo his surrogate parents. Wei Zhongxian’s stranglehold on power would have likely lasted far longer had Emperor Tianqi not died at the young age of 21. Upon the emperor’s death, and because he had no living heirs, Tianqi’s brother was enthroned as Emperor Chongzhen. Chongzhen swiftly moved against Wei, first exiling him before ordering Imperial guards to retrieve him. On Dec 13, 1627, Wei committed suicide during the 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 latter’s native village.
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 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 turn to, 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 xiao ren (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 rumours 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.