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KU Professor Examines Role of Eunuchs in Imperial China

Friday, May 02, 2014

LAWRENCE – A shadowy eunuch who is a behind-the-scenes power player in a royal court full of deceit, murder and sexual intrigue? No, it isn’t Lord Varys, the character nicknamed “the Spider” on the popular HBO show “Game of Thrones.”

A fictional character in the fantastical television and book series, Varys’ position draws historical parallels to several instances in Imperial China where eunuchs were among those closest to the emperor and in some cases rose to become de facto rulers. Among them is Wei Zhongxian, a eunuch who nearly usurped power from the next to last Ming emperor during the 1620s.

This summer, Keith McMahon, a professor of East Asian languages and cultures, will publish “The Potent Eunuch: The Story of Wei Zhongxian” in the Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture. McMahon uses fictional and historical accounts of Wei Zhongxian and other eunuchs in Imperial China to examine their role in palace life, how and why they became eunuchs and their alleged sexuality.

According to McMahon, since ancient times, men in China would voluntarily castrate themselves to serve their ruler. Eunuchs were valued as loyal servants who could be trusted not to become sexually involved with the emperor’s wives and consorts. By the end of the Ming dynasty, there were thought to be 80,000 to 100,000 eunuchs in China.

The reasons for eunuchs entering the palace varied — from impoverished families castrating their young sons so they would have a chance to serve in the Imperial Palace to grown men who were idealistic and wanted to prove their loyalty. Others were captives of war. The diary of 17th century eunuch Liu Ruoyu relates that he decided to be castrated as a result of a strange dream.

“Eunuchs were seen as so worthless that they would be thankful to be a servant of the emperor,” McMahon said.

Inside the palace, a eunuch’s duties could include supplying and manufacturing food, medicine, clothing and furniture; recruiting women, eunuchs and other personnel; and managing palace temples, animals and entertainment. Others were actors and musicians. More powerful eunuchs handled documents and communications with court officials, managed imperial agencies, directed military operations and went on diplomatic missions to other countries.

“Some of them were handsome, charming and adored by the emperor and empress. Others were talented entertainers,” McMahon said. “And, there were ones who became manipulative and powerful. There were four eunuchs in particular who became virtual dictators during reigns when emperors didn’t care about ruling or who trusted them with great powers.”

McMahon became interested in eunuchs while researching the role women played in the Chinese imperial palace. In 2013, he published “Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao.” He is working on a second book that studies later dynasties.

“While studying imperial wives, you are going to come across eunuchs again and again,” McMahon said.

Among the more fascinating eunuchs in Imperial China was Wei Zhongxian, who rose from a low social rank to become a close adviser to Emperor Zhu Youjiao, second to last in the Ming dynasty. Officials objecting to the influence of Wei Zhongxian and Zhu Youjiao’s wet nurse, Madame Ke, who was rumored to be in a relationship with Wei Zhongxian, were brutally purged and killed.

After the emperor’s early and unexpected death, Wei Zhongxian attempted to have Zhu Youjiao’s empress make his own nephew heir apparent. One account even had one of the emperor’s consorts pretend to be pregnant and claim the nephew’s son as hers.

As for Wei Zhongxian, he committed suicide by hanging, but such was the hatred toward the eunuch that he was exhumed and posthumously executed by slicing, McMahon writes.  His ally Madame Ke was flogged to death in a women’s prison.

While there aren’t any spoiler alerts on the fate of Varys in “Game of Thrones,” the examples of powerful eunuchs in Imperial China aren’t promising.

“In no case does a eunuch’s dictatorship come to a good end,” McMahon said.


SWCAS & MCAA Joint Conference, 2014

CEAS will host a joint conference of the Southwest Conference of Asian Studies (SWCAS) &
the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs (MCAA) in Lawrence, KS on October 3-5, 2014

Please click here for more information.

Panel and Individual Paper Proposal Deadline:     June 15, 2014
 

Program Chair: J. Megan Greene, mgreene@ku.edu

New CEAS Study Abroad Program

CEAS is very pleased to announce that the University of Kansas has been selected to participate in the Kakehashi Project-Bridge for Tomorrow, a 10 day study abroad trip to Japan for 23 students from Kansas universities. In the 2014-15 school year CEAS will host a group of students from Japan.

More Information

Wow, old British newsreels about Hong Kong.
Historic Hong Kong seen in newly released British video archives | South China Morning Post
Newsreel maker Pathé's archive offers rare glimpse into city's past

Inside KU: Military language training, bullying, arthritis and KU's Panorama "Inside KU" explains how a Department of Defense grant is helping to provide real-world language training to military personnel soon to be deployed around the world. Learn more about KU Graduate Military Programs at (http://bit.ly/1rZHgAh). Also: KU researchers are working with Kansas schools to develop policies to stop bullying (See http://bit.ly/1jvhpxL). Bioengineering students at KU work on a potential treatment for arthritis (See KU-BERC at http://bit.ly/W1zAR5). The historic Panorama in KU's Natural History Museum is being expertly preserved (See http://bit.ly/1mPqJNd). The Time Warner Cable Sports Network's "Inside KU" is hosted by Jeannie Hodes.


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