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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 registration, or follow this link for more information.

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

New M.A. Program

The Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS) at The University of Kansas is offering a new M.A. program in Contemporary East Asian Studies, beginning in the 2014-2015 academic year. Full-time students with prior East Asian language training will be able to complete the degree within 12 months. For more information about this M.A. program including specific requirements for admission, visit www.ceas.ku.edu/degrees, or contact Ayako Mizumura, Assistant Director of CEAS, by email (ceasma@ku.edu) or call 785-864-1478. You can also download our program flyer (PDF) Please share this information with your friends, colleagues and students! We are looking forward to hearing from you.

New CEAS Study Abroad Program

The University of Kansas recently participated 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.

KU Students: Tomorrow CEAS and other KU area studies centers will be in the Kansas Union from 10 to 4 talking about how to add an international dimension to your KU experience. Come check it out!

KU Students, come visit us tomorrow at the International Expo in the Kansas Union! http://t.co/DO60ZAPENK
Boy with autism benefits from KU student’s undergraduate research Two-year-old Mark’s first haircut in a salon was pretty traumatic. He screamed. He cried. His dad had to restrain him – Mark has autism and a haircut wasn’t part of his routine. But there’s a happy ending. The experience led KU senior Kristin Miller to seek an Undergraduate Research Award (see http://bit.ly/1xod9VT) to develop ways for children with developmental disabilities like Mark to learn how to accept routine health care treatment, such as going to the dentist — or even getting a buzz cut. Watch the video to see why it has been especially rewarding for Miller to help children like Mark.


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