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A museum dedicated to China's cruelest cut

By NBC News’ Bo Gu

BEIJING – It’s a small museum in a quiet and grubby village, and few people pay attention to it. Yet, despite its low profile, any man who walks into the little exhibition hall will no doubt feel a chill down his spine: it’s a museum dedicated to China’s 2,000-year history of eunuchs.

Built in 1998 and recently refurbished, the museum sits next to a tomb for the high-ranking eunuch Tian Yi from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In a space the size of a 2,000 square foot apartment, five exhibit rooms give visitors a brief but complete account of how the system of castrating men came into being, how the eunuchs' institution grew to become powerful political cliques and how the system finally ended with the death of the last eunuch in China, Sun Yaoting, in 1996.

Bo Gu/ NBC News

The museum dedicated to China's 2,000-year history of eunuchs displays a knife that was used in castration.

The etymology of “eunuch” is the Greek word for “bed keeper.” Young boys’ penises and testicles were castrated before they were sent to serve in royal and aristocratic families as slaves – the practice was meant to ensure there was no chance of them sleeping with female members of the household or concubines.

Records of eunuchs have been found in ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome, Turkey and Persia, but none of the other countries maintained the system for long. But the practice lasted for thousands of years in China.

It’s hard to trace when exactly the first eunuch appeared in China, but the museum shows a picture of an oracle bone inscribed with the hieroglyphic word that means "eunuch" – a penis-shaped character with a blade right next to it. Hieroglyphics evolved during the Shang and Zhou dynasties (17th century B.C.-256 B.C.), but it wasn’t until the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 A.D-220 A.D.) that only castrated men were allowed to serve in royal families.

The system of eunuchs reached its zenith in China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when eunuchs became the de facto rulers who controlled the imperial power and founded their own political parties and secret police. In the late Ming-era court officials even had to bribe the sterilized men to get access to the emperor.

Zhu Youjian, the 16th and the last emperor of Ming Dynasty, had more than 100,000 eunuchs during his rule. The eunuch clique was so powerful, yet corrupt, that when Li Zicheng, the leader of an uprising during the late Ming dynasty, finally conquered the capital city, he kicked out all the eunuchs.

The museum lists all of the best-known eunuchs in one exhibit room, of which the most famous is probably Zheng He (1371-1433), the mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet admiral, who commanded voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Africa. His travels were later remembered outside China as “Eunuch Sanbao to the Western Ocean.” The list of luminary eunuchs also includes Cai Lun (60-121), who is revered in China as the inventor of paper.

Cruelest cut
The most chilling and vivid display room shows the actual process of castration. A life-size diorama shows a young boy lying on a bed with his limbs tied down while three other men – one holding a simple apparatus like a knife, the other holding the boy’s legs, and one performing the surgery – conduct the operation without any anesthesia.

The patients would stay in bed for months after the surgery until they could finally move again, others simply died in pain.

Bo Gu, NBC News

The tomb for the high-ranking eunuch Tian Yi sits right next to the museum.

The penis and testicles, after being removed, were usually carefully wrapped up, put in a fine case and hung up on a roof beam in the boy’s house. They would eventually be buried together with the body when the man died, following the Chinese tradition of “dying a full-body death.”

Some of the other museum displays show nicely sculptured tombstones, silk outfits senior eunuchs used to wear and a mummy excavated from nearby.

One corner is devoted to Sun Yaoting, who served the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty and his concubines. Sun died at 94 years old in 1996; “The Last Eunuch of China” is a book about his life.

Losing a man’s most important organ was never easy, which may explain why so many eunuchs donated the bulk of their money to Buddhist or Taoist temples in order to secure a different – and complete – afterlife.