Chop, chop! How and why did men become eunuchs?

Eunuchs have held an important role in imperial Chinese history, serving as the Emperor’s advisors and confidantes. (Rawpixel pic)

Castration is possibly one of the worst fates that could ever befall a man, yet for centuries, thousands underwent the painful procedures to become eunuchs.

But who in their right mind would want to become a eunuch?

Historically, three imperial courts employed eunuchs in large numbers; these being the Chinese, the Byzantines and the Ottomans. However, the history of eunuchs likely stretches beyond even before these empires were born.

The earliest records of eunuchs come from Assyria and even back then, they served as politicians and servants in the court.

It is interesting to note that there are no records that state eunuchs “gradually” appeared, and it seems likely that eunuchs existed before written records.

The same can be noted of Chinese eunuchs. The Zhou Dynasty records the presence of eunuchs, though it was only during the Qin Dynasty when eunuchs gained political importance.

So, who had the honour (or misfortune) of being chosen as a eunuch? It depended on the time period and location.

The Ottoman Turkish court received most of its eunuchs from a Coptic monastery called Abou Gerbe, where slave boys were sent.

Meanwhile in China, eunuchs were often provided to the imperial court by volunteering families. This wasn’t always the case though, as during the Qin and Han Dynasties, eunuchs were punished criminals.

In addition, some tributary states would provide the Chinese Emperor with eunuchs taken from their own population.

It can be said that there were actually two types of eunuchs throughout history.

One being the infamous “clean cut” which involved the removal of the eunuch’s entire genitals, the other being somewhat more merciful with only the testes removed.

The simple removal of the testes was most common historically.

Many eunuchs served as servants in the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Sultans and their families. (Pixabay pic)

This was done either by the testes being crushed in the scrotum with no surgery done, or through surgical removal of the testes, or through the removal of both scrotum and testes.

Few records also indicate a third variant in which the penis is removed but not the testicles, though this seems to be a rare occurrence.

Unsurprisingly, procedures to make someone a eunuch were extremely painful to say the least, without the use of any painkillers whatsoever.

As soon as the genitalia was removed, the castrator would insert a plug into the urethra and the unlucky child would be unable to urinate for a few days until it fully healed.

The child would be at their most vulnerable while their urethra healed, as they were kept in a dry room and provided no water.

After about three days, the plug would be removed and if the child was unable to urinate, they were as good as dead.

Even if they survived, the lack of a penis would result in complications, particularly urinary tract infections or incontinence.

Some eunuchs permanently used a plug to allow them some ability to control when they needed to urinate.

Unsurprisingly, for eunuchs who suffered the complete removal of their genitals, it was easy to die of blood loss or other health complications after the procedure.

Some experts put the survival rate at 66% or 75%, meaning one out of three or four boys who were sent to become eunuchs would die.

The Ottomans would divide their eunuchs into two groups, the “black” undergoing complete removal and the “white” only losing their testicles.

These eunuchs had separate rules dictating which parts of the palace were off-limits to them, and “white” eunuchs were strictly prohibited from entering the Sultan’s harems.

Admiral Zheng He, the famous Chinese explorer and diplomat, was a Muslim eunuch serving the Ming Dynasty.

The Chinese imperial eunuchs on the other hand, also served as a means of communication between the Emperor and the outside world, as well as on a smaller scale between the Emperor and his harem.

Interestingly enough, the Byzantine Empire held its eunuchs in high regard, drawing a parallel between how eunuchs loyally served the Emperor and how angels served God.

Byzantine art depicted angels akin to eunuchs, as beardless and rosy cheeked men.

Certain Byzantine stories also relate how angels were mistaken to be eunuchs, such as the legend of St Michael and Hagia Sophia.

It should be noted that despite the loss of their genitalia, eunuchs were still very much capable of gaining considerable amounts of influence and power in the court.

In China, the fall of the Han Dynasty can partly be blamed on the eunuch faction in the imperial court that proved to be holding the strings behind the child emperor.

And Admiral Zheng He, the famous Chinese navigator who dropped by Melaka, was a eunuch himself.

While eunuchs were generally uncommon in European courts, castration was not unheard of either.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, boys who had been castrated were used as opera singers called castrati. Some of these would eventually grow up to serve their monarchs in the courts.

As the imperial dynasties of China and Turkey began to collapse in the 20th century, the practice of eunuchs came to an end too.

In Turkey, the eunuchs continued to serve the imperial court until the end, and ultimately were seen as a symbol of corrupted imperial decadence.

The top eunuch ended up executed by the Young Turks, though his second-in-command, named Nadir Agha, cooperated with the revolutionaries and lived peacefully as a dairy farmer afterwards.

In China, as the Qing were finally ousted from power, Sun Yaoting would become the last surviving eunuch of China, being consulted frequently by writers and filmmakers about imperial life until his death in 1996.