Balls Out: The Last Eunuch in China

From October 2008 to January 2009, I was the Contributing Editor for the book section at The Beijinger magazine, a publication covering events and culture for English-language residents of Beijing. As Contributing Editor, I wrote the front of the section introduction, compiled event listings, and interviewed writers for the monthly feature.

In this feature, I interviewed Jia Yinghua, the biographer of The Last Eunuch in China, a fascinating look at imperial eunuchs, court intrigues, and the transition from imperial to modern China.

Below is the full text of the article.

Seedless Mandarin

The Last Eunuch in China explores a painful era

When the young Sun Yaoting declared, “I want to be a eunuch,” his mother was horrified at the prospect of her son “becoming a cripple.” Sun and his father had to carry out the castration secretly, cutting his genitals away with a razor. The healing process lasted nearly three painful months.

Some 80 years later, Sun was the last surviving imperial eunuch of what was once an army of imperial bureaucrats and servants. Towards the end of his life, Sun befriended a man named Jia Yinghua, who would go on to become one of the foremost histo­rians of the late Qing era – as well as his biographer. In The Last Eunuch of China, which was recently translated into English, Jia has meticulously reconstructed the storied life of the last imperial eunuch, based on his recordings over a 20-year friendship with Sun, as well as corroborating accounts from other key figures during the period.

Sun Yaoting – also known as Chunshou, his palace name – was born in 1902, during the waning days of the Qing dynasty. In those days, it was not an uncommon practice for peasant families to castrate their sons for service in the imperial palace. Although the eunuch tradition had originated in the use of castrated prison­ers of war to serve women of the imperial family, their role had long since expanded to include bureaucratic matters. As important functionaries who had access to the imperial family, eunuchs were men of power and sophistication.

As a young boy, Sun was struck by the earlier example of a local peasant boy who castrated himself to help his struggling family. That boy rose to become Chief Eunuch of the imperial court, with regional leaders as his servitors. With that in mind, Sun begged his parents to allow him to become a eunuch. Finally, Sun was castrated by his father in 1912, just one month after the abdication of the young Emperor Xuantong (more commonly known as Puyi).

Sun made his way to the Forbidden City during the non-ruling years of the emperor, eventually becoming a trusted servant to the Empress Wanrong and Puyi and accompanying them during Puyi’s unfortunate reign as the puppet emperor in Manchukuo. This is where he parted ways with his emperor. “He became concerned by his reputation outside of his palace, that he would become known as a collaborator with the Japanese,” Jia says.

Instead, Sun returned to Beijing, where many of the former imperial eunuchs still lived. They even had their own associa­tion to support each other in their old age. “Because of his gentle demeanor, he started out as the administrator of one temple, and then became the administrator of all the temples in Beijing,” says Jia.

Although Sun Yaoting was satisfied with the life of a temple administrator, he never stopped thinking of the life of the impe­rial palace. While Puyi and Sun’s paths did not cross again after Manchukuo, Sun often related stories of the last emperor, remembering exact details such as the complicated rituals that governed life at the court.

“Tellingly, he never called the last emperor Puyi. Sun always referred to him as the emperor,” observes Jia. The Last Eunuch of China is filled with intriguing anecdotes from the Forbidden City and a behind-the-scenes look at the Manchukuo regime. It also includes stories of a more personal nature, such as the story of how Sun came to lose his “treasure,” a eunuch’s severed genitals.

The author of several titles on the imperial family, Jia was particularly drawn to Sun’s life because of his childhood fascination with eunuchs, and because he felt that Sun’s story was a valuable document that needed to be remembered. “Sun Yaoting was born in 1902 and died in 1996,” Jia notes. “His story – from the end of the imperial era to the modern age – is the story of China in the 20th century.”