Monday, July 30, 2018

Charles Pettit's 'Son of the Grand Eunuch' (1927) and the Rodgers & Hart adaptation 'Chee-Chee' (1928)

In Charles Pettit's early 20th-century novel Son of the Grand Eunuch, "His Excellency the Grand Eunuch, Li Pi Siao," is the powerful character whose commands incite all the action. A footnote suggests a historical basis:

"Li Pi Siao's predecessor was named Ngan Te Hai and was nicknamed Siao Ngan Eul. He was assassinated at Tsentsin in 1864 by order of the Empress of the East, Tsen Ngan. He was the favorite of the Empress of the West, Twen Hi, and had been despatched by her on a mission to buy her gowns. His murder occasioned a lifelong feud between the two Empresses." (p. 22)

Pettit seems to be referring to the eunuch An Dehai who served Empress Dowager Cixi and was executed in 1869 with the consent of Empress Dowager Ci'an. His successor as the chief eunuch — whose character apparently is heavily fictionalized in this novel — was Li Lianying.


On the opening pages, he is introduced wearing "long yellow gown" with "green dragons with scarlet maws" and "his official headdress, square in shape but surmounted by a species of folded peak of black satin" from which dangle ribbons with "two scarlet pompoms at the level of the clavicles." He has oiled his "long pigtail" that ends with a "fine tassel of black silk." He carried a "fly-whisk, official attribute of his honorable situation!"

"The long sleeves of his robe flapped like ghostly wings in the evening breeze! Within their voluminous folds, like spiders in their lairs, appeared the restless hands, the length of the lean fingers almost doubled by nails of extraordinary dimensions, enclosed in pointed sheaths. A green jade ring worn on the left thumb suggested a great scarab held captive by one of the spiders."


"His head swayed gracefully upon his heron-like neck and his face, hairless and wrinkled, resembled that of a highly respectable old lady.

A sallow fleshiness weighed down with dignity his flabby cheeks on either side of his pointed chin and between his narrow lids the brilliant glance of two little oblique black eyes like squashed fleas seemed constantly prying into every corner."

His nose was a "little mound" and he wore "enormous tortoiseshell spectacles such as are affected by all self-respecting scholars, but these were always removed, as decreed by court ritual, the moment he found himself in the presence of His Majesty the Holy Man, Son of Heaven." He was "the most deserving and the most estimable of Grand Eunuchs that anyone could desire. He was moreover of a fine intelligence, crafty of spirit and vengeful of heart." He also had fattened himself through his fondness for food — as Buddhist monks typically did, thus the emperor excused his "disfigurement" — which seemed in "singular contrast to the falsetto modulations of his shrill and strident voice."


Hs first act in this novel is to ask the emperor to choose a concubine for the evening. The jade tablets with their names were on the Table of the Golden Dragon. The emperor picked one randomly. Li Pi Siao has "avoided the useless mental effort of memorizing the literary names of eighty and one concubines" so he refers to a notebook to find the number of her dwelling. He tells her to prepare herself: "to cause the Holy Man to wait for you would be of an unthinkable impropriety, even though His Majesty doubtless awaits your impending visit with the most complete and haughty indifference!" When she is beautified, he "summoned a gigantic eunuch" to carry her, as her feet had been deliberately "broken in infancy," to the emperor.

In the second chapter, armed eunuchs guard the ramparts overnight. Outside Li Pi Siao's pavilion are bronze lions. When he hears a tomcat calling to a female cat, he seems envious, as the cat's yowling is "so unpleasantly evocative of the harmonies of his own name," and he yells back to the cat: "within these walls the Holy Man alone has license or power to love." Eunuchs appear and chase away the cat. Then he sits down to dinner with other eunuchs. The conversation includes his own insistence that food is better than sex. In response to this topic, a young eunuch, taken by self-pity, keeps moaning "Women..." so Li Pi Siao, annoyed by his ingratitude and ill humor, banishes him from the palace to work as a rural swineherder.

Li Pi Siao's relative and predecessor, Ngan Te Hai (nicknamed Siao Ngan Eul), was favored by the Empress of the West, Twen Hi. He was murdered in 1864 on orders of the Empress of the East, Tsen Ngan.

Li Pi Siao was formerly married. His eldest son, Li Pi Tchou, is to become Grand Eunuch succeeding his father. However, Li Pi Tchou is married to his beloved Chti and refuses the position, which upsets his father. The Grand Eunuch gives his son a large sum of gold in one last gesture of tenderness but angrily tells him to go away with his wife. Li Pi Siao's second son is thrilled to accept the mantle in his brother's place.

The novel occupies itself in the farce of Li Pi Tchou's misadventures. He is repeatedly beaten by other men who have sex with his wife, which she enjoys. At the apex of violence, monks want to roast him alive to make him a saint unless he can find a man to volunteer to take his place. He encounters the exiled eunuch, the one who missed women, and they identify themselves to each other. Li Pi Tchou escapes being roasted alive, but he does eventually have to be castrated, and his father suddenly beheads Chti. (p. 130) From the father's perspective, "It was needful to be revenged upon all those who had profaned the estimable name of Li." (p. 131)

Musical adaptation

A year after its publication, this story was made into a Rodgers and Hart musical called "Chee-Chee." The book was by Herbert Fields and the lyrics were by Lorenz Hart. The storyline is loosely adapted from the novel's. According to Thomas S. Hischak's The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia (see the entry online), Li-Pi Tchou (played by William Williams) and his wife Chee-Chee (Helen Ford) “hatch a plot to inherit the Grand Eunuch position without his losing his manhood. They have a friend kidnap the royal surgeon and substitute himself as the replacement” and they “play dominoes while the supposed emasculation takes place.” The Grand Eunuch was played by George Hassell. It was only performed 31 times over one month in 1928.

Upon the entrance of the Grand Eunuch at the beginning of the play, the eunuchs exclaim:

The most majestic of domestic officials
The Great G.E., we fear his mighty initials!

But the Tartar chief, not realizing he's speaking to the grand eunuch, refers to him as a "pompous old capon".

"No. 7: Food Solo" praises the concubine Li Li Wee — here, the daughter of Li Pi Siao — by comparing her body parts to "licorice," "peas," "Edam cheese," "hominy," wine," "roast beef," "oranges," "eel," "lamb," and "pig's feet."

Another ditty, "No. 20: Better Be Good To Me," has lyrics that sound like they belong in a popular song 50 years in the future:

I was once a glad boy.
Something tells me you soon will say
He was not a bad boy.
This has got to stop. Maybe I'll pop.
Love is like TNT.
Better be good to me.

Scene 4, "The Gallery of Torments," does not correspond to the book at all. It has the stage direction: "against a black drop are wax figures representing Theft...Lust...Avarice...Drunkenness...Murder...Infidelity. The figure Infidelity is modeled in the likeness of Chti herself. These figures are not seen because of the darkness in the chamber until she lights each one separately with her candle. All figures except Infidelity are male."


Charles Pettit. The Son of the Grand Eunuch. (1927) New York: Avon, 1949.