"You didn't live a good part of your life with the cagey conniving eunuchs in the Forbidden City. I learned a lot there," admonishes Li Chung, the star of Beverley Jackson's The Beautiful Lady Was a Palace Eunuch. The novel, published in 2011, is set during the end of the Qing dynasty in early twentieth-century China.
Li's mother, desperate to keep her son from starving, brings him at the tender age of six to a hut outside the Forbidden City where he is castrated with only pepper-water as anesthetic. He is formally asked for his consent but is too young to know exactly what he is consenting to. The surgeons force him to walk for three hours and deprive him of water for three days. His mother is not allowed to stay with him, and he never sees her again.
Shortly after his recovery, Li's feet are bound, initiating a painful process that takes years. Foot-binding was a custom among Han Chinese women that involved gradually breaking the arch of the foot. A "dreadful old eunuch" tells the young Li about the procedure for the first time as he simultaneously performs it on the child "with absolutely no sensitivity or compassion."
Li undergoes this procedure because, as a eunuch, he will be trained to play women's roles in Chinese operas, such as the leading role in Spring Romance (Mou Tan T'ing). The author indicates that foot-binding was not customary within the Forbidden City, which was under Manchu, not Han, influence, and thus Li's feet will distinguish him within the palace even as they will help him pass as an ordinary poor woman outside the palace. Li sings, dances, plays a string instrument called the ching hu, and becomes skilled in martial arts – particularly a French art of kicking called Savate – despite the handicap of his bound feet.
There are over three thousand eunuchs in the Forbidden City when Li enters it in 1904. The high-ranking eunuchs are "splendidly dressed, their mustard color robes of silk adorned with embroidered clouds and Buddhist and Confucian symbols, and stripes of many colors representing the sea. Their sleeves hung well over their hands." However, while outwardly beautiful, the Forbidden City is full of "lonely unhappy people."
Word of seven-year-old Li's talents reach the Empress Dowager Ts'u Hsi, who rewards him with a luxurious private room apart from the other eunuch boys and one of her own Pekinese puppies accompanied by its own eunuch caretaker. "Happiness," Li addresses the dog by name, "you are mine, you are mine. I'm not alone anymore. And you are neutered just like me." For good reason, Li is particularly drawn to jewels that contain flaws: "beautiful, but secretly imperfect," like himself.
Following the Republican revolution, the Empress Dowager Longyu signs an abdication declaration in early 1912, ending the Qing dynasty. Among its Articles of Favorable Treatment is a statement ending the recruitment of palace eunuchs: "The services of all the persons of various grades hitherto employed in the Palace may be retained, but in future no eunuchs are to be added to the staff." Eunuchs react by looting the palace and exiting with lamentations. They go on to live "sad lives of poverty, [as] bad smelling unkempt old men with squeaky voices, generally looked upon with disdain."
Li vows to earn his own wealth legitimately through performance art. He has permission to come and go from the Forbidden City as he wishes. When he leaves, he always presents as the lady Lily Ying; no one outside the palace knows he is a eunuch.
The narrator announces that "Li had become a woman, the way he moved, talked, even the way he thought," followed by the oddly placed line, "He steered clear of everything political." It is not demonstrated how Li thinks as a woman, rather than as a man or a eunuch (whatever this would mean). The author always uses masculine pronouns for Li. There is almost no mention of how Li psychologically manages his dual-gendered life, except that he is in the habit of wearing gowns while bathing in the manner of European nuns, although this is less for modesty and more for the protection of his privacy against possible intruders. He also remains thoroughly chaste. That is not for lack of opportunity, but rather to maintain his dignity.
The most amusing part of the tale is that Li sets himself up as an early-twentieth-century Dexter: a hit man who targets only evil people. His three-and-one-half-inch bound feet in their silk lotus shoes are deadly when he feels inspired to kick someone in the head. He styles himself as a defender of vulnerable young eunuchs who have been brutally raped and of Chinese babies slaughtered by Japanese soldiers. He perpetrates his superhero antics in secret, of course, not wishing to appear to the world as a serial killer.
The narrative is rough in a few places. When his friend Kai has an emergency requiring financial support, Li pinches the six pearls entrusted to him by the costumers of his opera, and after some time, the pearls (or symbolic substitutes) are returned by Kai in the form of a necklace that Li wears every day. Why would Li flaunt pearls that he stole? Furthermore, when the two friends meet in a crowded banquet hall after a long separation, Li divulges the details of one of his killings, and the author doesn't suggest that Li so much as lowers his voice when revealing this sensitive information. This is a little disorienting for the reader and makes it difficult to infer the characters' serious thoughts and feelings.
Such hiccups aside, the story is entertaining. The author helpfully grounds the story for readers unfamiliar with Chinese history, using background information describing settings such as "the same ballroom of the Majestic Hotel where Mei-ling Soong and Chiang Kai-shek had been married on December 1, 1927." The story is framed by imperial characters who were also real people.
Li's story continues through an outbreak of war with Japan in 1937 when he attempts to evacuate the country by boat. This was a time of rapid change for China, seen in this book through the eyes of a fancifully creative fictional character.
Originally posted Aug. 27, 2012 to Helium Network.
Photo: Unknown. From the Smithsonian Institution Archives. © No known copyright restrictions. Flickr.