Eunuchs played important roles in the Chinese Imperial Court since before the Tang Dynasty.
Prior to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), eunuchs were drawn chiefly from peoples kidnapped or abducted during war. During the Tang, this practice of using war captives declined dramatically, or came to an end, and the majority of eunuchs now came from non-Chinese origins among indigenous peoples of the south and southwest; a great many came from Fujian province in particular.
Eunuchs were generally castrated at an early age, and raised within the court, taking on the family names of senior eunuchs by whom they were adopted. Most served within the women's quarters at Court, though many also served as messengers to (and spies on) military governors and other military commanders.
Following the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), eunuchs came to hold considerable power within the Court, maneuvering themselves and their adopted sons (including some who were not eunuchs) into influential positions, particularly within the Imperial army. By the ninth century, a Eunuch Palace Council had formed alongside the regular system of court ministers; eunuchs came to serve as direct advisors to the emperors, and as messengers and spies, becoming significant rivals for the court ministers in matters of court influence and intrigues.
By the Ming Dynasty, palace eunuchs came to play essential roles in the administration of government, and in the management of the palace. Roughly 20,000 eunuchs lived within the Imperial City at the height of the Ming, and though they are sometimes characterized as mere "domestic servants who rose to meddle in state affairs," many were officially appointed to administrative roles, often on the basis of genuine merit (talent, skill, intelligence), and so were not necessarily overstepping their bounds. Some eunuch officials were dispatched to the province to oversee tax collection and other matters, and some were sent overseas as Imperial envoys to tributary states. Zheng He, the admiral who famously commanded a Ming treasure fleet across the Indian Ocean, as far as India, the Persian Gulf, the Horn of Africa, and Mozambique in the early decades of the 15th century, was one such palace eunuch.
By the middle of the period, eunuchs came to play indispensable roles as the emperor's personal secretaries, conveying palace memorials, presenting to the emperor the business of the day, and otherwise handling edicts, decisions, imperial rescripts and so forth between the Emperor and the various arms of government. A number of these eunuch secretaries briefed the emperor each morning in closed-sessions, enjoying an intimate access to the emperor which none but the highest-ranking scholar-bureaucrat officials enjoyed. This became especially true during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572-1620), who went for long periods of time without leaving the Inner Palace; as only eunuchs and not officials could enter this portion of the Forbidden City, they gained considerable power as intermediaries. Many even began to charge fees (or bribes) to officials & others who wished them to carry messages to the Emperor for them. One eunuch of this time, Wei Zhongxian, gained so much power that he was able to publish histories defaming his political rivals & even arrange for their execution, as well as having temples built in his honor across the empire.
Most palace eunuchs, even if from rather lowly origins, were educated at the Inner Palace School, established by the Xuande Emperor, from a young age. The content of that education differed little, if at all, from that of the scholar-bureaucracy, and often their teachers included some of the top teachers from the Hanlin Academy.
The Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty drastically reduced the number of eunuchs active in the palace, as well as the extent of their powers. Eunuchs continued to be employed as servants in the women's quarters, but most other administrative court tasks were given over to Chinese bondservants. The semi-military status enjoyed by eunuchs under the Ming was also abolished, and members of the banners were appointed to serve as palace guards.
- Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 231.
- Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance, Yale University Press (1981), 19.
- Huang, 19-20.
- Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 17.
- Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 247.
- Spence, 39.