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The Chinese Eunuch Hall of Fame

China Eunuch hall of fame

What makes a man a man? No, not that. That only makes him a male monkey. No, being a real man lies in manly actions no other be-testicled animal would undertake. The male essence is exalted in acts of courage, innovation. That same essence clouds when it turns into failed ambition. Although deprived of their reproductive organs, all of the following Chinese men were indisputably male in deed, reminding us that we make far too much of our bodies, and little if anything of our spirits.

 

Chinese eunuch Zheng He

Zheng He

Think bravery springs from twin glands, do you? Zheng He no doubt knew gut-bursting fear when the Chinese army routed his Muslim village in Yunnan and kidnapped him. If a father’s operation on his son to give him a career as a eunuch was gory (see below), one can only shudder at the cruel efficiency young Ma He suffered at his prison camp emasculation. Although his father had been to Mecca, and taken the name Ma to serve Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, Ma He became court eunuch to Prince Zhu Di, fourth son of the Chinese emperor.

Not content to placidly stand watch over a harem holding a fan, or mince about intriguing behind screens, Ma He grew skilled in all arts of war. Extraordinarily comfortable in the saddle (coincidence?), he survived having his horse shot out from under him, leading the Prince to rename him Zheng He, after the besieged city where he nearly lost his life.

Ah, but the combination of mastery and vision to be granted charge of the emperor’s fleet, for not one but seven journeys to lands all but fabled. That’s true manliness. For his orders, sang out in alto-soprano though they were, carried out to floating cities – from 50 to 100 ships, some given to horses, other supplies, yet others trade goods.

He was making embassy in East Africa at the same time Prince Henry was nosing around the north coast. More than once he fought Sumatran pirates half the way home, and wound up capturing the leader and bringing him to justice at the Nanjing capital, and earned the ultra-ironic nickname San Bao, Three Jewels. Captain of a fleet. Explorer extraordinaire. Swashbuckler. A man with gonads could do no more. 

Cai LunChina eunuch Cai Lun

Boys, like monkeys, can chatter and swagger, but men get things done. And great men find even better ways to get them done. Imagine the trouble Eastern Han government officials, chroniclers, and poets went to in order to share info – scratching on heavy bamboo slats, dabbing paint on costly silk. In 105CE, Cai Lun had an audience with Emperor He and revealed a wonder.

First, he mixed the bark of mulberry trees, hemp leaves, and cloth rags in a cauldron of water. He pounded them and stirred them, before straining the mixture into coarse cloth. The concoction dried and flattened into a thin matted sheet of fibers far more suitable for writing on and carrying around than anything the world had known, at least the world where papyrus didn’t grow.

His discovery was the crowning touch to a long career of crafting and innovating. Introduced to the court as a eunuch, Cai Lun was nonetheless promoted to chief weapons manufacturer. How wistfully he must have surveyed his newly forged cannon balls, a sturdy battering ram. Still and all, he displayed the responsibility and craftsmanship of any man with full jockey shorts.

Alas, the whirlpool of intrigue at the typical Chinese court could have dragged in John Wayne and spit him out a tiptoeing flunky. Empress vs. Consort, Prince vs. Regent, Cai Lun played the ice cold war of dynastic chess with discretion and boldness, until he was trapped in endgame. Ordered to prison, he chose rather to drink poison and die in fine robes. To choose the hour of one’s own death, godlike, according to some philosophers.

In any event, Cai Lun has a temple dedicated to him, the stone mortar he used to pound pulp in back, and we have paper What wonders some of us accomplish, when sex is no longer an issue.

Chinese eunuch Sun YaotingSun Yaoting

Do wolves mourn missed opportunities? Do moles fear being buried less than whole? Only man can step out of the now and live in his past, morbid though the practice may be. Only man can accept taboos and let them fester into rotten instinct.

Born in 1903, Sun Yaoting became the last eunuch not by attrition, as Tom Cruise became the last samurai, but rather by a remarkably short-sighted father, who decided in 1911 that, with the Qing empire freshly overthrown, hey, let’s go ahead and see if we can’t improve the boy’s chances with a swipe of the knife.

His eponymous book substitutes the operation for much of the biography’s action quotient. Held prone inside their mud hut, Sun Yaoting watched his father bring down the blade, nothing but oil-soaked paper for a bandage, a goose quill poked in his curtailed urethra to prevent closure. He lay unconscious for three days and could not move for sixty more.

All for naught. On learning of the Qing’s end, Sun’s father wailed and pulled his queue, “Our son has suffered for nothing!” Still, he did secure work at the palace, attending one of the emperor’s uncles, later Puyi’s wife. There the castrated one was privy to the secrets of an emasculated court, spiritless dalliance, the attentions of Puyi on another eunuch rather than his wife.

A doomed interlude, ending with the ascendance of the PLA. Cast out and spurned with the few remaining of his kind, Sun found a position as a temple caretaker, comforted only by the possession of his severed member, which would accompany him in burial and make him whole in heaven. This he lost during the Cultural Revolution, when his family destroyed the jar it lay in.

A cruel oriental tradition believed in the merits of mutilating a man and letting him live. His inherited superstition kept him miserable for years. By the end though, he could joke about it, telling his biographer, “When I die, I will return as a cat or a dog.” When he did die, in 1996, he could laugh at his fate, a triumph for any human, man or otherwise.

 

This article originally appeared on www.chinaexpat.com.

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