The first Ming emperor had a dim view of eunuchs, noting "not one or two of these people out of thousands are good . . . These people can only be given sprinkling and sweeping jobs," but upon the accession of the Wanli emperor (reign 1573-1620), the Imperial City housed nearly 20,000 eunuchs (huanguan, later taijian), from powerful bureaucrats enjoying their own mansions, down to junior eunuchs scraping by through petty graft. This cemetery was built in 1605 for Wanli's favorite eunuch, Tian Yi, who served three emperors and acted as Wanli's mentor and confidant. It has a spirit way, an underground tomb complex, and memorial stelae wreathed in dragons, an unprecedented honor for a eunuch. It's away from the city center, best combined with a visit to Tanzhe Si or Cuan Di Xia (see chapter 11 for both) and Fahai Si, a 10-minute walk to the northeast. The cemetery has survived almost intact, and provides insight into their fraught spirituality. Buddhist and Taoist motifs are carved onto their graves, along with images depicting morality tales.

A small exhibition hall is set to the left of the entrance, but all captions are in Chinese. China's last eunuch, Sun Yaoting (1902-96) is pictured making a visit to the Forbidden City in 1993, his first since Puyi was driven out in 1924. He is said to have taken issue with the accuracy of the captions there. On the right a naive letter describes his years in service. Castrated at the age of 8, he was devastated when the emperor abdicated months later, although he continued to serve Puyi. He earned enough money to adopt a son, but lost his "treasure" during the Cultural Revolution.

Cixi is photographed with a large entourage of eunuchs at the Summer Palace, and the temples pictured were sponsored by eunuchs. Buddhism, with its emphasis on celibacy and renunciation, had more appeal for eunuchs than Confucianism. Wealthier eunuchs would adopt sons, but most relied on Buddhist monks to tend their graves. A second eunuch museum will be opening soon inside a late Qing temple, Lima Guandi Miao. Built for one of Cixi's most trusted eunuchs, Liu Chengyin, the keeper of the imperial seals, it stands south of the Summer Palace in an area akin to a eunuch retirement village.


Eunuchs: The Unkindest Cut

The practice that created eunuchs is said to date back 4,000 years, when it was an alternative to the death penalty, often used in the case of political crimes. By the Ming dynasty, most eunuchs submitted to this operation voluntarily, usually as a way out of poverty. The eunuch's abdomen and upper thighs were bound tightly with coarse rope or bandages; his penis was anesthetized with hot pepper water. He was then seated in a semireclining chair, with waist and legs held down by three assistants. At this point, he was asked if he would have any regrets. Consent given, the small curved blade flashed and "fountains of red, white, and yellow liquid spouted from the wound" as both the testes and the penis were removed. A goose quill would then quickly be inserted into the urethra to prevent it from closing, and the wound was plugged with cloth previously dipped in wax, sesame oil, and pepper. The surplus organs (or "treasure") were plopped in a jar and jealously guarded, as they were necessary to establish a eunuch's credentials for promotions, and to pass into the next life as complete men. After the patient (often unconscious by this point) had endured 3 days without food or drink, the plug was removed. If urine gushed out, the operation was a success, and a lifetime in service waited. If not, there would be a horrible, lingering death. A less violent alternative involved slitting the scrotum and removing the testicles. Both operations were preferable to criminal castration, where the testicles were beaten off with a club.