Eunuchs popularized in 'Game of Thrones' have historical parallels to Imperial China

Fri, 05/02/2014

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Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service
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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.



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