Reviews

The Real Lives of China’s Eunuchs

Jeremiah Jenne reviews two books that humanize a much-maligned group

In 2005, an elderly man in a wheelchair visited the Forbidden City. Entering through the northern Gate of Divine Prowess (神武门 shenwumen), 83-year-old Sun Yaoting began giving his helpers a tour of the back garden and courtyards of Beijing’s Palace Museum. There was the doorway threshold removed to make way for the last emperor Puyi’s bicycle. In another yard, two brass rings still embedded in an old tree were part of a long-removed swing once beloved by Puyi’s empress Wanrong. The man in the wheelchair was Sun Yaoting, and he was no ordinary tourist but a former resident returning to his place of employment. Sun Yaoting was China’s last living imperial eunuch.

History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs. Chinese literature is filled with stories of avaricious and ambitious eunuchs exploiting their position for personal gain and power to the detriment of the social and political order. Society treated eunuchs with a mix of fascination and revulsion. They were a source of anxiety for the court and its officials. They were third-sex creatures marked by their relative lack of facial hair and perceived physical deformities (early castration often resulted in eunuchs being taller, with longer hands and limbs). In the foreign gaze, eunuchs became an analog for a decrepit China, feminine symbols of a decaying imperial system – a view perpetuated by 20th-century Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. Today, when thought of at all, it is as stock villains or comic foils in palace costume dramas.

Hidden History

The Prince and the Rebel

A thwarted assassination that almost changed the course of Chinese history – Jeremiah Jenne

Beijing. Early spring, 1910. The early hours of morning. Two young men are furtively digging a hole in the hard dirt beside a small stone bridge in the hutong just north of Houhai. Most other residents are asleep. March nights in Beijing are usually cold, and most people sleep with the windows shut. But there are ears other than human. The clanging of shovels and scratching of earth draws the attention of the neighborhood dogs, whose barking threatens the men with discovery. They run off with the job half-finished.

The next night, they return and complete their excavation. They carefully lower an iron cask into the hole, covering it with dirt to conceal it. That is when they discover that they are missing a crucial item. Their mistake means another delay. After a visit to a local hardware store the next day, the two young men are back the following evening. Only now there is a human witness to their nocturnal activities.

Hidden History

The Peking Aesthetes

An alienated community of foreigners in interwar Peking – Jeremiah Jenne

In 1935, American scholar George N. Kates settled into a courtyard home in a Peking hutong just north of the Forbidden City.  “No electric light, no wooden floors, no heating apparatus except several cast iron stoves, and no plumbing did I ever install,” he wrote in his memoir The Years That Were Fat: Peking, 1933-1940, which Kates published in 1952 (and which later inspired the title of Chan Koonchung’s sci-fi novel The Fat Years). Long before anyone had coined the term “Hutong Hipster,” Kates and a group of like-minded cultural enthusiasts – dubbed the Peking Aesthetes – were learning Chinese, raising crickets, studying painting from elderly neighbors, and shunning the distractions of the city’s international community. Interwar Peking was a city divided along lines that would not be unfamiliar to foreign residents of Peking almost a century later.

Hidden History

The Refugee Emperor

How the Yongli Emperor was strangled in Kunming by a turncoat general – Jeremiah Jenne

Even researching a column titled Hidden History, this was getting to be a bit much.

Our impromptu guide in Kunming, capital of China’s mountainous southwest province of Yunnan, led us past a police guard post, into an underground garage, up three flights of stairs, through a pediatric hospital, and then out the lobby of what looked like the emergency room. “Turn left; it’s right there.”

And there it was: A stone tablet set slightly back in a small urban park, complete with exercise equipment and a signboard reminding us to “Learn from Lei Feng.” Inscribed on the stone in slightly faded red letters: “The site where Emperor Yongli of the Ming (1623-1668) gave his life for his country.” It was on this spot in 1661 that the last claimant to the throne of the Ming Dynasty was strangled to death by his captor, Wu Sangui (1612-1678).

Hidden History

The Chinese Doctor Who Beat the Plague

An epidemic averted in Manchuria – Jeremiah Jenne

In the winter of 1910, Dr. Wu Lien-teh stepped onto a frigid train platform in the northern Chinese city of Harbin. He was there to solve a medical mystery, at great personal risk. Over the past few months, an unknown disease had swept along the railways of Manchuria, killing 99.9% of its victims. The Qing Imperial court had dispatched Malayan-born, Cambridge-educated Dr. Wu north to stop the epidemic before it spread to the rest of the empire.