Life inside the Forbidden City

chapter 2

How an army of eunuchs ran the Forbidden City

JULY 23, 2018


The presence of eunuchs in the Chinese court was a long-standing tradition. These emasculated men served as palace menials, spies and harem watchdogs throughout the ancient world. An army of eunuchs was attached to the Forbidden City, primarily to safeguard the imperial ladies’ chastity.

Confucian values deemed it vital for the emperor, seen as heaven’s representative on Earth, to produce a direct male heir to maintain harmony between heaven and Earth. Not wanting to leave anything to chance during a period with a high infant mortality rate, the world’s largest harem was placed at the emperor’s disposal to ensure enough heirs would survive into adulthood.

History and facts

A 2,000 year system

Court chronicles record Chinese kings keeping emasculated servants in the eighth century BC, but historians generally date the appearance of eunuchs in court to the reign of Han Huan Di (AD 146-167). The government role occupied by eunuchs meant that over time they were able to exert enough influence on emperors to gain control of state affairs and even cause the fall of some dynasties. The power of the eunuchs endured partly due to the ambitions of the consort families and partly as a result of the secluded lifestyle which etiquette prescribed for the emperor.

The eunuch system came to an end when it was abolished on November 5, 1924, when the last emperor, Puyi was driven out of the Forbidden City, where he had been living since the 1912 revolution.



About an eighth of those who became eunuchs were young children bowing to parental pressure. Families would receive a cash reward for donating their sons, but they also hoped their children would have a more comfortable and prosperous life in the palace


Some adults, with no economic means to lead an honest and acceptable way of life, preferred emasculation to a life of begging and stealing

Free choice

Some men, who could only envision a life of futility and hardship, were envious of the seemingly easy lifestyle enjoyed by palace eunuchs


Emperor Guangwu of Han (reign between 25 and 57 BC) commuted all death sentences to emasculation and successive emperors followed this edict

Bao translates as “the three preciouses” – the testicles and penis. The new eunuch’s bao was put into a container with a capacity of about 24 fluid ounces, sealed, and then placed on a high shelf

1 Every time a eunuch received an advance in rank he had to pass a strict examination. Promotion was impossible without the bao. The examination process was called yan bao, and was lead by the head eunuch. The inspection was often a source of profit for knifers, because sometimes careless or ignorant eunuchs forgot to claim their “precious” after emasculation. They would then be forced to pay a high price to recover the bao. Bao were sometimes borrowed, purchased or rented.

2 When a eunuch died, he was buried with his bao. If he didn't have his own, he would try to obtain another before his death. Eunuchs wanted to be as complete as possible when leaving this world because they believed they would have their masculinity restored in the afterlife. Tradition had it that Jun Wang, the king of the underworld, would turn those without their bao into a female mule. The ancient Chinese had a great fear of deformity.

Emasculation cuts off the supply of male hormones to the body, leaving eunuchs with high voices. It also affected their bladder control, so they often wet their beds and clothes. This is the source of the old Chinese expression “as smelly as a eunuch”. They were also rendered too weak to perform strenuous physical activities.

According to G. Carter Stent, in his article “Chinese eunuchs”, published in 1877, emasculation affected character and could make eunuchs appear much older. They were vulnerable to bouts of extreme emotions, including moments of uncontrollable anger.


Duties and influence

Eunuchs were required to preserve the air of sanctity and secrecy that imbued the imperial presence. Regarding outdoor employment, eunuchs acted as water-carriers, watchmen, chair-bearers, and gardeners; while their indoor duties covered work normally performed by cooks and chamber, parlour or scullery maids. In short, they were involved in every aspect of palace life.

There were 10,000 eunuchs in the palace by the end of the 15th century and 70,000 by 1644. This number was the result of an increasing number of men seeking work in the Forbidden City and undergoing voluntary emasculation. At the beginning of the Qing dynasty the number was reduced to 3,000, because the Manchus were concerned the eunuchs had too much influence in the royal court

The Qing Dynasty divided the eunuch administration into 48 departments, each with its own particular set of duties. Each department had its own superintendent, while a chief eunuch, or general supervisor, presided over all the departments; this office was usually ranked third grade

During the late Qing dynasty the salaries of eunuchs varied from two to four silver taels per month (US$49 to US$98), The highest salary a eunuch could receive was 12 taels (US$294), regardless of rank

The imperial city surrounded the forbidden city, functioning like a maintenance plant for both the government, and the imperial household. Most eunuch agencies were located in the imperial city during the Ming dynasty, which is also where thousands of eunuchs lived and worked The Chinese court and civil bureaucracies were located in the imperial city. Naturally, many rivalries evolved between the eunuchs and other ministers and officials whose offices were located just outside the walls of the imperial city


Eighteen lama priests, all eunuchs, attended to the spiritual welfare of the ladies of the palace. They drew a double allowance as salary. When a vacancy arose among the 18, it would be quickly filled by eunuchs wanting to be priests or those with a spiritual vocation

The ladies of the palace enjoyed theatrical entertainment. A dramatic corps of 300 eunuchs was maintained, under the control of a chief eunuch, because outsiders were forbidden to enter the palace. This troupe lived in the Nan-fu, in the imperial city, just outside the palace. Their sole duties were to rehearse and perform for the palace

Since eunuchs handled almost every palace issue, they had access to valuable information which they could use to wield power and influence, even over the emperor. As all rites and protocols were controlled by eunuchs, their power waxed and waned according to an emperor’s strength of character.

In 1655, Emperor Shunzhi issued the following decree: “The employment of eunuchs has been a tradition since ancient times. However, their abuses have often led to disastrous disturbances. They misappropriated power, intervened in government affairs, organised secret agents, murdered the innocent, commanded troops and brought their evil practices to the border regions. They even engaged in conspiratorial activities, framed those who were loyal and good, instigated factional struggles and encouraged fawning and flattery, until the affairs of state deteriorated day by day, and corruption occurred everywhere …

… From now on, anyone who is guilty of interfering with government affairs, misappropriating power, accepting bribes, involving himself in internal and external affairs, associating himself with Manchu and Han officials, reporting on things which are not his duty, or suggesting whether an official is good or bad, shall promptly be put to death, by slicing without mercy. This iron table is hereby erected so that it may be observed from generation to generation”

Eunuchs were subjected to arbitrary punishments, ranging from monetary fines, to execution. Beatings were common, as was the sentence to cut grass (zhacao), sometimes for life. The most common crime to be punished was for desertion. If a eunuch ran away from the palace, his absence was immediately reported to a kind of police corps, whose duty was to capture runaway eunuchs. It was rare for an escape to succeed and although the men working in the force were not eunuchs they knew all the palace eunuchs. The fugitive was tried and punished after he was captured


First time: the culprit was imprisoned for two months. At the end of that period he received twenty blows and was sent back to his palace duties

Second time: he was put into a cangue for two months and would resume his duties as soon as his punishment ended

Third time: banishment to Moukden (now Shenyang) for two and a half years. Once again, he would resume his duties upon completion of the punishment

Theft was also punished by banishment to Moukden. However, if the stolen object was a curio, jewellery, or other valued prize of the emperors, the offender would be taken to Chin-shan-k’ou, a destination about forty li, or 20km, from Beijing, and decapitated.

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Laziness, neglect of duty, or other minor offenses were punished by “bastinado”. This consisted being struck with a bamboo stick on the soles of bare feet. The culprit could receive from 80 to 100 blows

When the punishment ended, the eunuch was sent to a eunuch doctor, who dressed the wounds. In order to render the punishment more severe, the culprit would be flogged again after three days. The second session was called “raising the scabs”

This is the second chapter exploring the life in the Palace Museum

We would like to invite readers to navigate between the chapters as they are published. Other visual narratives will investigate daily life in the palace and follow the odyssey undergone by the royal collection. We hope you enjoy immersing yourself in the project much as we did making it for you

The Palace Museum

By South China Morning Post Graphic Team

Life inside the Forbidden City


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    Society For News Design
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  • Bronze Medal

    Society For News Design
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