Sundays in Peking:
The Eunuch Museum

Tomb of the Ming Dynasty eunuch, Tian Yi, who served the realm

Eunuch guard

First cut is the deepest, baby I know, the first cut is the deepest. –Cat Stevens

Take Beijing’s subway Line 1 all the way to its eastern terminus and you will find yourself in the suburb of Pingguoyuan, literally ‘apple orchard’. There are few orchards anymore in this home of the industrial mammoth Capital Steel and the more humble Eunuch Museum. The museum is located at the Tomb of Tian Yi (田义, 1534-1605 AD), a Ming Dynasty eunuch who served three successive emperors. It is a calm and secluded courtyard, cut off from the lively vitality and carnal distractions of the world.

The history of eunuchs in China is a long and distinguished one, with eunuchs serving their lives in most imperial families from the earliest Shang Dynasty to the last Qing Dynasty, making the penultimate sacrifice for a real chance at power, influence, and wealth. The start of the Republican era in 1911 thus marks the division, a kind of separation of Chinese history into two sections: that with eunuch power, and that without.

EMP

The history is also a painful one. Throughout Chinese imperial history, court eunuchs consolidated considerable power at the expense of China’s extensive imperial bureaucracy, resulting in bitter rivalry between the two, sometimes in internecine violent. During both the Han and Tang Dynasty attempts were made to massacre eunuchs to excise their influence and cut short their earthly existence.

The Han Dynasty Eunuch Massacre, not a bad name for a punk metal band, was a win for the bureaucracy and is dramatized in the Chinese classic novel Romance of Three Kingdoms. (If you have any interest in politics or interpersonal relations in China and Korea and haven't read this book, do so right after you finish this blog post! Mao is said to have kept a copy by his bed, other leaders no doubt knew the stories). The eunuchs settled the score during the so-called ‘Sweet Dews Incident’ during the Tang, the falsely reported appearance of mythic ‘sweet dews’ in the imperial gardens code for planned ambush of the eunuch by court officials. The eunuchs caught wind of the condensing plot and counterattacked, putting officials under the chopping block for a change.

Upon entering the courtyard at Tian Yi’s tomb, first take a right to a small detached hall, which is the Eunuch Museum itself. The museum describes, in excruciating detail, the comparative experience of eunuchs around the world and the various methods by which castration was done throughout the ages. You won’t learn it at the museum, but in medieval Korea there were a special type of ‘dog eunuch’, whom had been attacked and bitten at a young by a canine, rather than the more conventional cutting by a sharp blade. Words, no doubt, cannot describe the agony. For this reason, the museum designers decided to show how the deed was done in diorama form (below).

First Cut is the Deepest

The removed bits and bobs of the man were kept in small earthen-ware jars for storage. If a eunuch left the imperial palace before death, the jar was returned to their possession. How is that for severance pay?

This museum hall is also the new resting place of an unknown eunuch, now mummified. Diminished in size by the hormonal imbalance caused by castration in life and desiccated in Beijing’s dry climate in death, the mummy seems child-like compared to the stature of modern, living humans.

Behind the museum hall is a small yard full of broken carvings, assorted remains of monuments and statuary in a kind of junkyard. Many are quite beautiful despite being incomplete and detached from their original roots.

Broken bits
Stele

From here, head further into the grounds. You will first come across a number of phallic steles, erected to commemorate the deeds of eunuchs. Passing these you will find yourself at an open courtyard containing a tomb mound and backed with a semi-circular screen wall of about five meters tall, giving the feel of a kind of the mud walls of the Roman legionaries' castra.

Fittingly, on one visit to the tomb, high voices in castrato rang out from above, breaking the silence of the sacred grounds. No, not the ghost of eunuchs past, but three young local girls, standing like the Frenchmen atop the wall in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

“Hello! Where are you from?” the eldest called out in Chinese rather than a bad French accent.

“America,” I responded in Chinese.

“Really? Prove it! What is ‘pingguo’ in English?” they challenged.

Pingguo is ‘apple’.”

First consulting the others, the leader then called out “You are right!"

After a few more exchanges, the wall’s defenders departed satisfied of my authenticity and leaving the tomb of Tian Yi once again in quiet.

In the yard, there are a set of stairs that lead underground to the chamber where Tian Yi was put to rest. The underground depths are chilly and barren. The tomb was raided sometime after the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the damage done by the tomb raiders can be visibly seen on heavy stone door. Little remains but the foundation of the funerary casket and traces of faded paint on the grey masonry.

Carvings
Tomb of Tian Yi
Tomb Decor

In life the eunuch Tian Yi wielded considerable influence, serving the realm under the Jialing, Longqing, and Wanli emperors, at time when eunuch power grew at court. His influence reached its zenith during the reign of Wanli (1572-1620 AD), during which it was said that Tian Yi was one of the emperor’s favorites. The last years of Tian Yi’s life, saw the Japanese invasions of the Korean peninsula between 1592-8 AD, known as the Imjin War, and eunuch no doubt advised the Wanli Emperor about the Chinese intervention in the war with Ming forces active around Pyongyang.

If you have a spare morning or afternoon, a trip to the Eunuch Museum is highly recommended and deserving of a much higher rank on Trip Advisor. Only #468 of 1,606 at the time of writing? Come on, guys! In all seriousness, the museum is worth visiting even for those who cannot read Chinese. The grounds are historic and beautiful and the tranquility of the place stands in contrast to the ups and downs of eunuch life and history. Today it is a good place to reflect on days gone by and things now lost to the ages.

Or perhaps not so lost entirely. It was after all the real or perceived dismissal of the imperial bureaucracy and career officials in favor of eunuchs, whose power derived directly from their personal relationship to the emperor that led to so much strife in imperial China. Let's just say, this writer knows of one professor of later imperial Chinese history, whom was once booed off stage in the American south for comparing Oliver North's role in the Reagan administration to that of a eunuch. Perhaps the days of eunuch's monopolizing power aren't so far away or even, dare we say, in the midst of a come back. That discussion is probably best left for another time and place.

As the world turns, the museum is faithfully open everyday from 08:30-16:30. Take Beijings's Subway Line 1 (red line) all the way west to the terminal station of Pingguoyuan. There catch a cab to Tián Yì Mù. The address is Moshi Kou Dajie 80. The entrance fee is 10 RMB.

For a general portrait of the Ming imperial court and all its intrigues during the reign of the Wanli Emperor, see 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline by historian Ray Huang (1981).

Screen Wall

'Sundays in Peking' introduces sights and activities in Beijing with even the slightest connection to Korea. Last time we looked at Fayuan Temple, Beijing oldest Buddhist temple which was originally founded to honor Chinese fallen during an invasion of Korea in the 7th century. Sometimes we just write about other stuff happening around Beijing. A la the Strugatsky brothers, 'Sundays' comes on Fridays to help you prepare for the upcoming weekend!

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