Face-to-Face with a Dowager Eunuch
There was a bit of the daredevil in Katarina which I liked. I remember one time I was at Forbidden City with Su Fung and we saw a few old men sitting on a bench in front of the temple sunning themselves. I asked who they were and she said they were the last of the court eunuchs. “You mean some of them are still alive?” I asked in astonishment. Immediately “There are many, many,” she explained. “I remember hearing only recently about one old man who lives behind the walls. His name is Sun Yaoting.”
“I would love to meet him,” I said. “Can’t we go and find him?”
“That would be impossible,” she snapped. “Eunuchs are from the past. The practice was outlawed. I am sorry that I even mentioned it to you.”
With Katarina it was the opposite. When we were visiting the Forbidden City I casually mentioned that the old men out front were eunuchs. She was as surprised as I the first time I heard it. I then remembered the old man that Sui Ying mentioned. I even remembered his name-Sun Yaoting.
“Let’s see if we can find him,” she suggested.
“I would like nothing better,” I said. “When do you want to go?”
“Now, right now,” she replied.
At a cluttered tiny office in the rear of the temple we approached a shaven-headed monk writing in a ledger with a quill which he dipped into a cup of black ink. I asked in my best Mandarin where we might find Sun Yaoting. He didn’t answer, nor did he even bother to look up from his desk. “He’s a eunuch,” Katarina said, and upon hearing a female voice, the monk looked up.
“I know who he is,” he said after studying us for a moment, “and you are not the first to ask about him.” I thought for sure he would ask why we wanted to see the eunuch but he didn’t. He willingly told us the room number and pointed out the direction. Katarina insisted that we go back out into the street to where we saw vendors selling their wares. One vendor was roasting chestnuts over a brazier. She bought a bag of roasted nuts and we returned to the temple. As we started down the corridor looking for his room number above the doors, I told Katarina what I knew about eunuchs from the Dowager Empress that I had heard about the USS Napa, the same stories I had told the guys when we were under the lifeboat. “You know it’s a pretty bloody operation,” I said. “They use a round knife and with one whack they cut everything off.” I remembered some of the details and told her that at the end of the Ming Dynasty there were more than 70,000 eunuchs in the palace, possibly 100,000 throughout the empire. When China banned eunuchs in 1912, there were only 470 left. “That was only 35 years ago, and some of them must be alive today.”
We found Sun Yaoting’s room and knocked. The door creaked open and there in the dim light, clad in a saffron-colored robe, stood a wrinkled old man. I told him we would like to talk to him, and when Katarina handed him the bag of chestnuts, he bid us to enter.
The room was sparse, more like a cell, with only a cot for a bed, a small writing table and a single chair. The walls were whitewashed and a musty dampness permeated the room. The only air came from a small barred window high up on the outer wall. Katarina and I sat on the edge of the cot. There was a long moment of silence, and finally I asked if he minded us intruding. I explained I had never met a eunuch before. This amused him and he smiled, causing his face to wrinkle even more; he seemed to take pleasure that we had singled him out. “Yes, I was ten when I became a servant to the emperor,” he said in Mandarin. His voice was high-pitched and not like any I had heard before. It was almost comical and had the circumstance been different, I could have chuckled. But he was serious.
“And what year was that?” I asked.
He didn’t answer questions directly, but replied in a way that made it sound like he was programmed what to say. I guess he had a long time to think them out. “My father did it himself using only hot chili sauce as a local anesthetic,” he said. “I remember quite well him taking a curved knife to my genitals and with one whack they were gone, penis, testicles, all gone. All to make me eligible for service in the Forbidden City, home of the Imperial family.”
As a eunuch he was trusted to enter the inner courtyards of the palace, where the women of the imperial family and harem lived. Other men, including officials, military guards and even the emperor’s male relatives, were often required to leave the palace grounds at night.
“And what year was it that you had the operation?” I asked again.
“I received 20 Yuan a month salary, which was a lot of money in those days, and had to do very little for it.” I then asked what was court life like, changing the subject. “One year after my operation, the republican revolution came and ended the empire.”
I knew the revolution came in 1911. Quick calculation and I placed him at 45 or 46. I couldn’t believe it. My father was about the same age and he was filled with life, even planning on starting an electrical appliance and repair shop when I got out of the Corps. I tried hard to picture this withered old man at 45, housed in a simple room at the rear of an old Buddhist temple, a far cry from the days when he lived in splendor in the Imperial Place.
Sun Yaoting went on to tell his story and I had no need to interrupt him again. He explained that after the revolution and when the Empress was exiled, he served with the court of the last emperor Pu Yi for eight years. He waited upon Empress Wang Rong, Pu Yi’s wife. He told how some eunuchs before the revolution had great power and wealth, and they lived freely among the concubines, not only dining with them but bathing with them as well. Sun believed he was heading for great things, too, except that the revolution suddenly changed the rules. It all ended in 1924 when Feng Yuxlang, the converted Christian warlord, who baptized his army with a fire hose, threw the former emperor and everyone else out of the palace.
Surprisingly Sun Yaoting had no regrets about his being forced to become a eunuch. He explained that traditionally a eunuch preserved his genitals in a jar to insure that they would eventually be buried with him, in the belief that this would guarantee his reincarnation as a “full” man. He kept his family jewels not in a jar but in a small leather bag around his neck. Maybe he was still a eunuch, dedicated to the cause, but I watched him eyeing Katarina seated in his room, with her legs exposed. The spirit was still there. I tried to imagine this 45-year-old man, as a young boy, living in a Chinese harem, maybe sitting in a bathing pool with a bevy of young naked Chinese dolls. There was so much more I wanted to ask him, but some things are best left to the imagination.
Katarina was also helpful in the hutongs. In the afternoons when it was warm, I saw old Chinese women sitting on benches in front of their mud houses. They kept themselves busy conversing with other women. Gossiping, no doubt. Many of these women had bound feet and I was curious about this ancient Chinese tradition. I had seen a few old women in Tsingtao with bound feet, including the old woman who sold her services the first night in the compound when we arrived. Katarina didn’t mind sitting down with the women and talking with them, something my Chinese student friends would never do. One old lady, with only a few of her teeth left, and those were stained black, explained the process to us. “When a young girl’s feet are being bound, the pain is something terrible,” she said. “Their skin is inflamed and the flesh decomposes, smeared with blood. At this time they moan and cry, and can neither eat in daytime nor sleep at night for the pain, and they develop all kinds of sickness.”
“Why would any girl submit to this kind of torture?” I asked.
Through her rotted teeth she smiled and said, “To make us look beautiful. Girls cannot be beautiful without small feet!” “Of course,” I said and she beamed. A strange custom indeed. Chinese men once regarded girls who had disfigured feet and walked with a kind of tortured gait as beautiful!