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Biography of last Chinese eunuch reveals a tumultuous life

Castrated at 8, Sun Yaoting hoped for an imperial life of riches. Instead, he experienced palace intrigue, war, revolution, scorn and, finally, recognition.

March 06, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Sun Yaoting was 8 when his father castrated him with a single swoop of a razor.

The year was 1911, and China was in turmoil. Just a few months later rebels deposed the emperor, overturned centuries of tradition and established a republic.

"Our boy has suffered for nothing," his father said, weeping and beating his breast, when he learned that the emperor had been overthrown. "They don't need eunuchs anymore!"

Little did he know that the child nevertheless would earn a place in Chinese history. The imperial court was resuscitated long enough to give Sun a chance to serve the wife of the boy emperor Puyi -- a position that gave him the distinction of being the last eunuch to the last Chinese emperor.

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.

It was not until the final years of his life that Sun was recognized as a rare living repository of history. A biography based on hours of interviews in the years before his death in 1996 was recently translated into English. The book arrives as a museum dedicated to eunuchs, built around the tomb of a 16th century eunuch, is undergoing a major expansion. It is scheduled to reopen in May.

Whether the interest is prurient or scholarly, the curiosity is definitely there.

Emasculation was thought to render eunuchs nonpersons, without ambition or ego, so their presence in the innermost sanctum of the imperial palace did not violate the emperor's privacy.

"The eunuchs were very mysterious and in some ways more interesting than the emperors themselves," said Jia Yinghua, Sun's biographer. Jia met Sun when he was researching a book about Puyi, and recorded 100 hours of conversations with him.

The biography, "The Last Eunuch of China: The Life of Sun Yaoting," contains everything you might want to know about the gruesome particulars of becoming a eunuch, along with much you probably would not want to know.

Suffice it to say the boys went through excruciating pain without benefit of anesthesia (other than chile peppers in some cases). In addition to a lifetime of impotence, they often suffered incontinence in exchange for entry to the palace.

Sun was unusual: Inspired by an older eunuch from his village who had become rich, he decided for himself that he wanted to follow this path. But then the emperor was deposed and the castration had left him too weak for farm work.

The emperor retained the trappings of power in the Forbidden City, however. Sun came to Beijing at age 14, still wearing the pigtail of Chinese boys at the time. He got a job with one of the emperor's uncles, and later with Puyi's wife.

He followed the imperial family to Manchuria after Puyi was installed in 1932 as puppet emperor of a Japanese colonial state known as Manchukuo.

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. Sun later told his biographer that Puyi was less interested in his wife than in a particular eunuch who "looked like a pretty girl with his tall, slim figure, handsome face and creamy white skin." He recalled that the two were "inseparable as body and shadow."

After the Communists came to power, many of the eunuchs became penniless outcasts. A few drowned themselves in the moats of the Forbidden City. Sun, one of the few who was literate, got a job as caretaker of a temple, where he lived until his death. The recollections of an adopted son and a grandson, together with the biography, make him one of the most documented eunuchs of modern times.

Scholars also will tell you about other eunuchs: Cai Lun was credited with inventing paper in AD 105. Zheng He became one of China's greatest explorers in the 15th century. But eunuchs are generally depicted in Chinese literature as conniving and greedy, the stock villains of many a palace intrigue.

The eunuch museum is in an overgrown cemetery with stone guardians and a tomb for the Ming dynasty eunuch Tian Yi, who died in 1602. Eunuchs were not permitted to be buried with their families, so several other favored eunuchs found their final resting place in Tian Yi's compound in the foothills of west Beijing.

Hidden behind what had been an elementary school, the tombs somehow escaped destruction during the Cultural Revolution and were opened to the public in 1999. The expanded museum is to display paintings of eunuchs, a photo collection about Sun's life and other 20th century eunuchs, and items such as the curved knives used to castrate them.

"The eunuchs are part of a long Chinese tradition that continues to this day in which the regular people had to do anything to serve the all-powerful central government," said Cui Weixing, a literary and cultural critic who has written about eunuchs.

"Maybe that's why the Chinese government isn't so anxious to publicize anything about eunuchs. But it is a good start that we'll have this museum so that people can begin to learn."

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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