The Most Damaging Institutions in Chinese History: Eunuchs and Official Harem

  Category: East Asia: China
While there were certainly other institutions that also caused great damages in various dynasties, I chose these two in particular because their inherent nature leads to instability.
In all fairness, there were loyal and upright eunuchs as well as concubines who contributed to the welfare of the country. However, these were far and few.

The eunuch institution
While no means unique to China, eunuchs were mainly recruited from the lowest level in society. Consequently, many of them tried to make the most of opportunities to gain wealth, and power and status, though the last one is usually most elusive as traditionally, castrated men were considered less human.

Their constant presence in the palace and daily personal attendance to the Imperial family placed them in the position privy to restricted and confidential information, which many readily capitalised for personal gains. Their inability to have children make them less likely as potential rivals to the crown, and hence more readily entrusted with certain powers. Having watched emperors born and grew, they knew the temperaments of the rulers well enough to manipulate their masters.

Despite several attempts to curb their powers throughout various dynasties, their constant presence in the imperial household placed them right in the centre of authority. As caretakers of imperial scions, their influences were brought to bear when the princes ascended to the throne.

At times, they were the only people an inexperienced emperor could turn to in the power play between court officials and the clans of the in-laws to the emperor.

Some examples of eunuchs who cause emperors their thrones and empires
Historically, there were many eunuchs whose influence cost rulers their states.

During the Spring Autumn Era, Shu Diao of the State of Qi undermined the Duke Huan of Qi. Duke Huan was considered the first hegemonist of the era, establishing himself as an overlord of the feudal lords on the pretext of being a faithful defender of the royal House of Zhou. Shu Diao indulged the Duke his fancies, and thus gained great influence to place whoever afforded his bribes into positions of power. This directly led to breakdown of order in the court, giving opportunity to the numerous sons of the duke to fight openly to succeed the duke. In the ensuing turmoils, the aged and ill duke lay helpless in his palace when one faction imposed a blockade around the palace, using the physical custody of the duke to issue orders in his name, but isolating the duke and preventing any access to him. The once most powerful man in China died of starvation in his own palace.

After the State of Qin finally conquered all other feudal states and established the first Empire, the eunuch Zhao Gao, who was the former tutor of Qin’s second emperor Hu Hai, gained great power due to his influence over the young ruler. His obsession with power caused him to alienate the able ministers and generals, persecuting and murdering many of them, thus fatally weakening the empire, which was unable to deal against wave after wave of rebellions.

The eunuch Zhang Rang drove the nobles of the Eastern Han Court into summoning border generals to march into the capital with their armies. This directly led to usurping of power from the bureaucracy by military strongmen, dooming the dynasty to be torn apart by ambitious warlords.

Whispers from the eunuch Gao LiShi was sufficient to mislead Emperor XuanZong of Tang Dynasty into dismissing able generals and promoting wicked men. During the outbreak of the An Lushan rebellion, the loyalist general Li GuangBi had secured the strategic Tong Pass that protected the Imperial Capital. This caused the rebels to be stranded far away from their homebase, and leave them open to be crushed when loyalist reinforcements arrive from different directions. Out of personal spite, the eunuch Gao persuaded the emperor to order the general to engage with insufficient forces against the rebels. Unable to defy a direct order, the general marched out and met his doom, leaving the pass vulnerable and soon to be seized by the rebels. Emperor Xuanzong was forced to flee and abdicate his throne to his son. The eunuch Gao also lost his influence when the new emperor took control. The very short-sightedness of his foolish decision was oft quoted as proof that eunuchs should not interfere in state affairs, but the lesson was usually lost on future emperors.

Another eunuch who was tutor to the future emperor, Wang Zhen, caused the Ming Dynasty's emperor YingZong to be captured by the Mongols when he overrode objections from generals to march the army through terrains without cover or water, rendering them most vulnerable to the Mongol attacks.

A look into the “ecology” of the eunuch
Historically, there were eunuchs who made significant contributions, such as Cai Lun of Eastern Han Dynasty who invested paper and Zheng He who led maritime expeditions from China to as far as Africa.

Many people who became eunuchs were victims of their circumstances. Most were sold into servitude because of poverty. Some like Zheng He were “war captives”.

Their lowly and despised status as eunuchs meant there was nothing they could look forward to in the orthodox circles.

Mistreatments were probably common, especially for those down the ranks. Senior eunuchs lord over juniors, and promotions depend on winning the good graces of their superiors.

They probably realised early on there was nothing they could look forward to in life. Knowing they could never be venerated scholars nor respected statesmen, they learned the only thing they could depend to survive in their retirement was money. And the ability to gain money was directly tied to them being in proximity to those in power.

Each time they encounter a royal family member, they had to debase themselves by referring to themselves as a slave, e.g., addressing themselves as “Your humble slave.” The inferiority complex emphasised by such protocol would breed resentment in most human beings, and a desire for redress.

Though most eunuchs received some education, their castrated bodies meant their social status were far below those of scholars, and they were not allowed to become officials. Hence, most did not develop lofty ideals of service to the country or aspire to be well-versed as a gentlemen of noble character. Therefore, as unofficial advisors to the rulers (or the wives of the rulers), their primary interest was to themselves, to keep themselves in the good graces of their patrons, and to keep their patrons in power.

Apart from directly giving emperors unsound advice, eunuchs also abetted the establishment of elaborate protocols and rules to keep a distance between the emperors and his officials. Sometimes, it was connived with the emperors themselves, especially young emperors who found affairs of the state mundane and prefer the fun and games devised by the eunuchs to indulge them. Eunuchs encouraged the emperor to be in contact only with officials approved by the eunuchs, or rather, discouraged contact with the officials disapproved by the eunuchs.

Even the most senior officials often found themselves helpless against the bad eunuchs.

The institution was a vicious cycle that perpetuated harmful environment in the palace.

For all the bad advice they gave to the emperors, eunuchs had not been taught lofty ideals or to consider long-term views of the state or the greater good of the community over self. In comparison, officials who were corrupt were worse because they were supposed to know better, being better educated and much more favourable social positions.

The eunuchs appeared to be less harmful in other cultures. It appeared that in the Muslim states, the eunuchs continued to be lowly servants while religion formed the basis of the state.

In other Asian countries, the degree of autocracy and centralisation of power were less than that of China's, and the power of the eunuchs' were less than that of the courtiers and nobles.

The fact that kingdoms without eunuchs rose and fell testified that eunuchs were not the only cause of downfalls of empires. Abuse of powers by officials or nobles could do just as much harm to a state as eunuchs.

However, the difference between abuse of powers by officials/nobles and the eunuch institution was that the eunuch system was fundamentally unsound.

The institutions of officials in Chinese bureaucracy, or vassal nobles in feudal China, at least had the noble purpose of assisting the monarchs to rule the country. Theoretically, these men were appointed to positions of authority and power based on individual virtues and talents. Various mechanisms were put in place to prevent abuses. As such, one can say the theory had some sound basis, but the implementation varied with the integrity of the people in the system.

In contrast, the eunuchs got to their positions through their very base background, and yet the system is such that these people, despised for their very office (and disfigurement), got access to the very centre of power.

There was absolutely no incentive for them to be noble in conduct and character, to behave and to perform their duty "professionally", but there was every tempting opportunity for them to abuse the confidence they gained by their proximity to the imperial household.

The Imperial Harem of China
The other institution which was most damaging to the country was the one that was mainly responsible for the establishment of the eunuchs - the harem.

Carnal men often found excuses to indulge in their own sensual pursuits. Emperors were no exception. In fact, their unique position offered them practically unlimited opportunities to engage licentious conduct with any one, including women already married to others.

Impetus for emperors to have harems
Conjuring some Daoist crackpot theories, sycophants told the emperor that he was supposed to represent the ultimate paragon of the Yang essence. To achieve a harmonious balance, the emperor has to constantly mate with many females who represented the Ying essence.

A more practical reason for encouraging emperors to have harems was to increase the chance of having male heirs who could not only survive infancy at a time when infant mortality was high, but also a talented heir who could succeed the throne and maintain the dynasty.

Absence of direct heirs usually led to political instability, which did occur in ancient China, though only on rare occasions. Most of the time, it was proliferation of sons that led caused volatility as they vied for the right of succession.

While polygamy almost certainly pre-dated Daoism in China, the harem size of thousands was only possible after the establishment of Imperial China.

Rivalries in the harem
Apart from distracting the ruler from the job of ruling the country properly, the primary harm caused by the harem was in the palace intrigue of producing the heir to the throne. As most concubines were banished to the Cold Palace after the passing of the ruler, the favoured treatment enjoyed by the women was brief and it was the only window of opportunity they have to bear children of the ruler. Even if their child was not chosen as heir, the concubine who produced a prince or princess could look forward to being looked after by their own offsprings in the future. The more ambitious women wanted to the mother of the future king, aware that in the end, there could only be one.

It was improbable that emperor could impregnate all his concubines. To make things worse for the concubines, the emperor, having satisfied himself, could arbitrarily decide whether he wanted the union to have any fruit. If he chose not to, specially trained eunuchs or servants would proceed with their job, either by removing the semen physically from the concubine, or some other method.

It was inevitable that catfights, physical or virtual, would result among the harem. A vindictive winner who got to be the Empress Dowager (mother of the emperor) could inflict revenge on her rivals. Thus, it was no exaggeration that the women in the harem could be fighting for their own survival.

To strengthen their positions, the women turn usually to the eunuchs for support, creating factions within the Palace. Sometimes, a high-born concubine would have access to relatives serving in the Court or noble families. Being related to a favoured concubine usually brought benefits, so even external clans became involve in the intrigue.

Eventually, it became a matter of which concubine could please the emperor (sensually), and which could launch a successful propaganda campaign against her rival. None of these were helpful to the welfare of the state.

Costs to the state
Ancient texts were precise in the hierarchy of the imperial harems, such as one formal empress of the first rank, four senior uniquely titled concubines of the second rank, eight junior uniquely titled concubines of the third rank, etc., though there was no limit of the number of girls to fill the lowest ranks.

Each member of the harem was entitled to varying quarters and number of servants according to their rank. The budget for each could easily exceed that of a middle-class household, considering that they had elaborate protocols to abide, including making offerings at the temples twice a month, ironically, for the emperor’s health and welfare of the state.

For especially favoured concubines, emperors had spared no expenses commissioning grand palaces. Or like Concubine Yang of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, a series of courier riders bringing fresh lychees from thousands of miles away in Canton to Xi’an.

By their very nature, Imperial harems were breeding grounds for bitter and often bloody rivalries between scions of the Imperial household.

The institution of the harem also caused great harm to other Asian countries. In Europe however, after the introduction of Christianity, the practice of official polygamy was halted. Though rulers continue to have affairs, only legitimate children have any claim to the throne. Henry VIII only got more than one legal wife by legalising divorce, the institution of the harem disappeared, and along with it, the potential damages caused by harems.

The eunuchs and the harem cost the Imperial coffers a tremendous amount of money. The eunuchs could number into tens of thousands while the harem into thousands. This was a cost savings for European monarchs. Though they were not above lavishing generous gifts on lovers, the expense was a trifle compared to the cost of maintaining a harem and the eunuch institution.