Eunuchs were influential political figures in ancient Chinese administration. They began as trustworthy slaves in the royal household and aspired to utilize their advantageous position to acquire political power. The eunuchs were able to gain noble titles, develop a bureaucracy to rival the states, and even pick and dismiss monarchs of their choice by advising the emperor from within the palace and preventing officials’ access to their ruler. Their impact on the government would lead to the demise of dynasties and would persist until the 17th century CE.
1. They were regarded as trustworthy servants of the royal household
Eunuchs, sometimes known as ‘non-men,’ initially emerged in the royal courts of ancient pre-imperial Chinese nations and were employed as attendants in the palace’s inner rooms. They were essentially slaves and were typically acquired as minors from border areas, particularly those to the south. They were castrated and forced to work in the royal household, with no way of changing their fate. Eunuchs were regarded as the most trustworthy employees since they could not attract domestic women or father offspring who could start a dynasty to challenge the emperor.
2. They exclusively served women
A eunuch exclusively served the women of the royal court. Any other males were not permitted to spend the night in the palace, and anybody who entered without permission faced the death sentence. Eunuchs served as fetchers, carriers, bodyguards, nurses, butlers, maids, and chefs. Despite their privileged status, the general population held an unfavorable opinion of eunuchs, who were considered the lowest class of all slaves.
3. Some eunuchs were able to gain political influence
In contrast to the trust placed in them by monarchs, eunuchs were more likely to strive to exploit their privileged position and gain political power inside the court due to their physical deformity, scorn from the ruling class, and overall stigma linked to them. The eunuchs would not be satisfied with life as simple slaves for long. They frequently allied themselves with prominent Buddhist monks and counseled, scouted, and fascinated in equal measure in order to obtain top positions in the governmental machinery.
4. They had special access to the inner court
With their special access to the Inner Court (Neiting), where no ordinary officials were permitted, eunuchs could be especially prominent when the ruler was not yet an adult, and they fully exploited the possibility of not only filtering out communications from ministers to the emperor and vice versa but also appointments, so that ministers could not gain an audience with their ruler. Eunuchs ingratiated themselves with the emperor and were maybe more obedient than high-minded and principled scholar-officials, making the monarch more inclined to accept their recommendations.
5. They were underestimated
Another advantage the eunuchs had was that they had known their emperor for maybe his whole life and they were the only men the monarch ever encountered until maturity. Moreover, unlike politicians, the emperor was aware that the eunuchs lacked a power base and allegiance beyond the court.
The authority eunuchs wielded and the political intrigues they frequently instigated made them infamous, and they were especially despised by Confucianist professors. Huang Zongxi, a Neo-Confucianist scholar from the Ming dynasty, summarizes the widespread attitude toward eunuchs in Chinese history: “Everyone has known for thousands of years that eunuchs are like poison and wild creatures” (Dillon, 93).