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The Eunuchs are Expelled

Roger Hudson tells the story behind a moment of violence in 1923 outside China's Forbidden City in Peking.

Eunuchs, formerly part of the Chinese imperial household, scuffle with police outside the emperor’s palace, the Forbidden City or the Great Within, in Peking after they have been expelled in 1923. In fact the empire itself had ceased to exist and the Qing dynasty had come to an end in 1912, but the child-emperor Hsuan T’ung, or Puyi, then aged six, was allowed to go on living in the Forbidden City. He never liked the hundreds of eunuchs that still formed part of his entourage: ‘By the age of 11 flogging a eunuch was a part of my daily routine . . . Whenever I was in a bad temper the eunuchs would be in for trouble.’ So when his Scottish tutor, Sir Reginald Johnston, blamed the eunuchs for starting a fire in order to destroy the evidence that they had been selling off works of art from the imperial collection, Puyi, by now 18, used this as an excuse to send them packing.

The Chinese court was not alone in employing eunuchs, but did so on a far greater scale than any other. It was said that under the Ming dynasty there had been 20,000 of them, so many sexless drones around the emperor, the only functioning male within the inner sanctum, whose sole duty really was to produce an heir by an empress, consort or concubine. The most auspicious times for the emperor to have sex so as to produce one were determined by astrologers and much invocation of yin and yang. A eunuch offered him a collection of bamboo slips with names of his ladies on them and, after he had selected one, she was brought in wrapped in a blanket at the chosen moment. A eunuch then stood in a handy alcove so he could shout ‘Time is up’ once the window of opportunity had passed.

Many eunuchs did much more menial work; mostly Muslim, they also served as a counterweight to the influence of the Confucian mandarin scholar-officials around the emperor. The Qings employed far fewer eunuchs than the Mings, but the notorious dowager-empress Cixi, de facto ruler of China until her death in 1908, still had 2,000 of these ‘palace rats’. In Peking opera they were caricatured as scheming, fat, mincing and made-up. Cixi’s death had been followed, mysteriously on the next day, by that of the Emperor Guangxu, who had been imprisoned by her since 1898 for being foolish enough to suggest some reforms. He had no heir, so the succession went sideways to the three-year-old Puyi, son of Prince Chun.

A few months after throwing the eunuchs out of the Forbidden City, Puyi relented and they were allowed back in, but in 1924 the warlord Feng Yuxiang evicted Puyi himself, together with his entire entourage. As the chaos of the warlord era continued, in 1928 Puyi went to live under Japanese protection in Tianjin, until he was installed by them in 1932 as nominal Chief Executive and then in 1934 as Emperor of Manchukuo, the puppet state they had created in Manchuria. After Russia seized Manchuria in 1945 Puyi and his followers were interned in Siberia until 1950, when he was handed over to the new Communist regime in China. After ‘re-education’, he married a nurse and worked in the archives until his death in 1967.

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