This fictionalization of a 15th-century Ming dynasty rebellion of the palace eunuchs features many eunuch characters. It is a long action story with combat descriptions like “the arterial spray sullied the wall” and dialogue like: "You fool! Do you know who I work for? I am the Emperor’s personal eunuch! He is afraid of the smell coming from the burnt animals rotting, so the Empress Dowager wants me to personally make sure the Pit of Hair and Blood is cleaned. Do you understand?"
It is the second book in a trilogy, sequel to The Emperor's Prey.
Political context of the palace eunuch system
At the beginning, Grand Eunuch Kong Wei, “vice-director of the Office of Ceremonies and one of the highest ranking eunuchs in the empire,” plots against the boy emperor. Kong asks a younger eunuch to spy on the Empress Dowager. "Punishment for spying was swift, but Kong could turn his life into a living hell within the vast world of eunuch slavery, where having a patron, or an enemy, could make all the difference."
“The fear of government officers colluding or military commanders conspiring was deeply entrenched, so the [Ming] monarchs introduced a third element into the system of governance: the eunuchs. Grand eunuchs held as much power as a government minister or a general. Sometimes powerful castrates held dual appointments such as military and civilian. This had led to systemic rivalry between the three institutions – the civil service, the military and the eunuchs. The eunuchs were personally appointed by emperors and thus were not accountable to the official hierarchy of the government.”
Emperor Yong Le’s son Emperor Hong Xi had given formal education to the eunuchs. This increased their power. But they were still slaves. “The power of the castrates was not usually formalized, but depended largely on their relationship to the royal family.”
Grand Eunuch Kong Wei wears “the uniform of a high-ranking eunuch.” He watches the scribes issuing edicts, actually given by the Empress Dowager, but given the seal of the Emperor. He thinks to himself: “I am a slave, a highly prized animal in a gilded cage.” He goes on to reflect:
“He had seen how eunuchs rose and fell, good, dependable men who served with distinction discarded as political scapegoats. Often emperors put blame on their most loyal of servants, the eunuchs, to appease the military or the civil service. If they were lucky, they were demoted to become the ordain of tombs and if not, they were imprisoned and executed after years of dedication. In his mind eunuchs were the most dedicated simply because they had nowhere else to go. Their fate rose and fell with an emperor’s favor, hence they always worked hard to gain it. But emperors were political creatures who had to balance the military and the bureaucracy and sometimes the Son of Heaven had to throw his hunting dogs a bone to appease them. Few grand eunuchs had died holding their post. The grand admiral Zheng He who died at sea was a rare example.”
One eunuch is described as "lean and tall," and when he is considered together with another eunuch, it is said that "both of them had smooth cheeks that hardly ever needed to be shaved once their bodies had been altered by castration. They were both high ranking and powerful taipans ‘castrates’, and as they spoke their voices sounded too high for ordinary men.” Referring to someone as wearing the uniform of a "purple tunic" was understood to indicate that he was a eunuch.
At the end of the novel, one of the eunuchs killed in combat is said to have an “Adam’s apple.” It is worth noting that the Adam's apple of a male castrated before puberty would typically resemble a female's.
One eunuch reflects on how he “had seen how eunuchs were treated as emotionless creatures just because they were sexually neutered.”
Ten-year-old Wang Zhen equates being "made castrate" not with his physical castration but with his social emasculation:
“He was sold. He had failed to protect his brother. He had been weak and defenseless.
He was made castrate.”
Eunuchs do not have romantic or sexual relationships in this novel. The only brief mentions of the topic are contradictory. In one place: “Contrary to popular belief, castration did not eliminate a eunuch’s sex drive, the mutilation merely preventing them from impregnating woman. [sic] Some of the devious ‘half-men’ used their positions to extract [sexual] favours from desperate concubines.” Later, Grand Eunuch Kong’s speech: “We may not feel sexual desire anymore but we yearn to have families too.”
When the carnage begins in earnest:
“All the corpses bore the same mutilation: their body structure was clearly male but they had no genitals. Their pubic area bore pink, rough scarring, a sign that the flesh there had healed from a hideous wound. They had a hole to pass urine, but it was not finely shaped and delicate like a woman’s vagina. The opening was rough, deformed and had a wooden plug inserted to prevent urine leaking. It was a known fact that castration damaged the genital nerves, rendering the victim incontinent. It was the only thing that gave a clue to who they were. In fact, it was conclusive. Such a mutilation was reserved for only one class of people in society.
They were eunuchs. Sold at a young age into a life of humiliation, the deceased were people who had suffered in life, and they had not chosen the path that led to their dying tonight. Zhao and Li did not miss the significance of the disfigurement as they observed the dead bodies.”
The dead eunuchs are called huanguan (‘half-male servants’) by those standing over their bodies. The massacre is seen as an indication that the palace believes that eunuchs are plotting against the whole Eastern Depot and ultimately the emperor.
Ji Gang, commander of the Eastern Depot, explained that the Empress wanted “a strong regent to bring stability, someone who is not tainted by the influence of the eunuchs. The past emperors were firm, and the castrates, though powerful, behaved.” With the death of Jian Wen, “there is no longer a soft option to deal with the eunuchs.” They might have to be massacred to the last man. “But the eunuchs are so entrenched in the system it is like a disease. To fight them, you may have to destroy vital organs in the process.”
On a boat, Ji Gang says “Bring all the eunuchs before me.” Four men are brought before him. He commands them: “Strip,” and three are revealed to be castrated. He ordered them pushed overboard. They protest: “What have we done? Spare us! We are good sailors," but they are tossed over nonetheless. A man challenges his decision immediately after the fact: “There are thousands of eunuchs. Is every one of them your enemy?” Ji Gang replies: “I do not know if they are innocent or not, but I cannot take that risk. I must assume any one of them could snitch and reveal your identities.”
To fight back, the Western Depot forms its own eunuch army of "secret police" trained in combat and sorcery. Ji Gang comments, “Just because they don’t have balls does not mean they can’t fight. But what makes them deadly is their utter loyalty to [Grand Eunuch] Kong.”
It should not come as a historical surprise that the Ming Dynasty prevails over the eunuch rebellion.