"China's Last Eunuch" Less Salacious, More Interesting Than Headline Implies

We love this Reuters headline: "China's last eunuch spills sex, castration secrets." Well, among other things.

While headlines like the above evoke a prurient interest, the new English translation of The Last Eunuch of China, by amateur historian Jia Yinghua, reveals a glimpse into that country's tumultu0us 20th Century history. In Imperial China, eunuchs, thought to be lacking in ambition and ego after their castration, were the only men allowed in the inner sanctum of the Imperial City. As such, they were privy to many secrets and often rose to positions of political prominence.

Sun Yaoting asked to become a eunuch at 8, inspired by a prosperous neighbor and determined to reclaim his family's land from an unscrupulous landlord. The castration, performed by his father with only a razor, sesame oil and ash - and no anesthetic - was excrutiating, resulting in three days of unconsciousness and months of physical inactivity. And it was all for naught; just as Sun planned to travel to Beijing and take his place in the Emperor's court, the Qing dynasty was deposed. A shadow of its former self, the imperial court reformed briefly in the Imperial City, and later in Manchuria, and Sun was made a servant of the wife of boy emperor Puyi — making him the last eunuch to the fabled Last Emperor. Says the LA Times, "Sun was privy to the court's most intimate secrets, the opium addiction and out-of-wedlock pregnancy of the emperor's first wife, Wanrong, and the emperor's ambivalence about his own sexuality."

Eunuchs were subject to abuse and degredation at the court, but Sun's life became even more difficult in the years to come. Says the LAT,

After the Communists came to power in 1949, Sun and other surviving eunuchs were despised as freakish symbols of the feudal past. He was nearly killed during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, and his siblings were so fearful of persecution that they threw away his bao, or treasure: the severed genitals that eunuchs kept pickled in a jar so they could be buried as complete men.

Although apparently many eunuchs drowned themselves, Sun found work as a caretaker at a temple, where he lived until his death in 1996. In his later years, his recollections became prized as a link to the past, and the biography, along with the stories of an adopted son and grandson, provide a comprehensive portrait of a lost world that feels, today, unbelievably antique. Sun, who unlike others never took anything from the Forbidden City and even in his later years was unwilling to tell the emperor's secrets, was a figure of another age in other ways as well: someone rooted in feudal tradition and philosophical about the hand life dealt him.

Biography Of Last Chinese Eunuch Reveals A Tumultuous Life [LA Times]
China's Last Eunuch Spills Sex, Castration Secrets [Reuters]
The Last Eunuch Of China By Jia Yinghua [Time Out]