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Famous castrated males in China

In China, for thousands years, there existed a special group of males, who were castrated. 

Generally speaking, after genital mutilation, these males would serve in the palace or households of princes, to ensure the sexual purity of palace women. They were usually referred to by their job title, 太监 (tài jiàn), translated to “eunuch” in English. The last eunuch in China was Sun Yaoting (孙耀庭, 1902 - 1996). 

Although “eunuch” is really just a job title, due to the physical mutilation it is entailed, it becomes a word capable of making many people cringe and uncomfortable. To make the matter worse, there existed some powerful and corrupted eunuchs in Chinese history, such as Zhao Gao (赵高, ? — 207BCE) and Li Lianying (李莲英, 1848 — 1911). Because these eunuchs’ political influences had had detrimental effect on China, their names gave an extra layer of evil to the word “eunuch”. When I was watching TV series or movies about past historical events, eunuchs were always despicable. 

Having said that, let’s remind ourselves the fact that most eunuchs were all regular folks who were in a legitimate business at the time and only trying to make a living. Like everyone else, they all had their strengths and weaknesses.

Interestingly enough, there were a few castrated males, who had had positive and significant impacts on China and on human history. They were highly respected and admired to the extent that we frequently overlooked the fact that they were also castrated.

In this article, let me share three famous castrated males.

Sima Qian 司马迁 (about 145BCE — 87BCE?) 

Sima Qian was bright and hardworking. His father was a court historian. After his father died, Sima Qian inherited his father’s position. 

In 99 BCE, an unfortunate event happened. 

General Li Ling (李陵) and five thousand troops he led were besieged by a hundred thousand enemy troops at the border. Li Ling and his troops fought courageously. But there were too few of them, and they were eventually overpowered by the enemy. After killing ten thousand enemy soldiers, Li Ling surrendered.

Learning what had happened, the emperor was enraged. The court officials all condemned Li Ling for he lost the battle and became a defector. But Sima Qian defended him, saying Li Ling did his best and he had no other options but to surrender. 

The emperor was infuriate by Sima Qian, and punished him by gongxing (宫刑), which was genital mutilation.

Sima Qian was disgraced. But he didn’t drown himself in shame. Instead, he completed his monumental work, Shiji (史记), Records of the Grand Historian, which tells us what had happened in China for three thousand years up till Sima Qian’s time. 

Shiji was the first general history in China. It inspired many and set a pattern for later historians to emulate. 

If you want to read a little, a short selection of Shiji is included in Mandarin Express Intermediate Level B. 

Cai Lun 蔡伦 (61CE? — 121CE)

Why Cai Lun was castrated I do not know. There were a few versions of the story. 

What we do know is that Cai Lun was castrated at a young age and became a servant, i.e. a eunuch, in the palace.

Cai Lun was smart, industrious and eager to learn. During a palace intrigue, the side he was with prevailed. Later, he was promoted to become a court official and got involved with state businesses.

What made Cai Lun special in Chinese history, and the world history, is that he invented paper. 

Before Cai Lun’s invention, Chinese people wrote on bamboo or wooden sticks, which were heavy. The alternative was to write on silk, which was very expensive. 

Then came Cai Lun. He successfully made paper using tree barks, hemps and fish nets. The paper he produced was soft, thin, easy to make and easy to use. It was quickly spread out to the entire country, and later to the world.

Cai Lun’s invention forever changed human history. 

Zheng He 郑和 (1371 — 1433)

Zheng He was born in Yunnan (云南) in a well established family. 

In 1381, Ming dynasty armies conquered Yunnan and the young Zheng He was captured and became a prisoner of war. Soon afterwards, he was castrated and sent to serve in the household of the Prince Yan. He became a eunuch. 

What happened later was that Zheng He and Prince Yan bonded. During all the palace intrigues and power struggles, Zheng He fought for Prince Yan faithfully. And Prince Yan trusted him completely. 

Later, Prince Yan triumphed and became the third emperor of Ming dynasty, and Zheng He became a general.

Starting from 1405, the emperor sent Zheng He on a series of sea expeditions to Southeast Asia, Indian subcontinent and East Africa to meet with kings or leaders of various countries along the way, presenting them with exquisite gifts and spreading the emperor’s glory. 

Zheng He did his job splendidly. He was truly a capable admiral and a skilled diplomat. 

Detailed stories about Zheng He and his expeditions are included in Mandarin Express Intermediate Level A.