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Inside the World of the Eunuch

A Social History of the Emperor’s Servants in Qing China

The history of Qing palace eunuchs is defined by a tension between the role eunuchs were meant to play and the life they intended to live. This study tells the story of how a complicated and much-maligned group of people struggled to insert a degree of agency into their lives. Rulers of the Qing dynasty were determined to ensure the eunuchs’ subservience and to limit their influence by imposing a management style based upon strict rules, corporal punishment, and collective responsibility. Few eunuchs wielded significant political power or lived in a lavish style during the Qing dynasty. Emasculation and employment in the palace placed eunuchs at the center of the empire, yet also subjected them to servile status and marginalization by society. Seeking more control over their lives, eunuchs serving the Qing repeatedly tested the boundaries of subservience to the emperor and the imperial court. This portrait of eunuch society reveals that Qing palace eunuchs operated within two parallel realms, one revolving around the emperor and the court by day and another among the eunuchs themselves by night where they recreated the social bonds—through drinking, gambling, and opium smoking—denied them by their palace service. Far from being the ideal servants, eunuchs proved to be a constant source of anxiety and labor challenges for the Qing court. For a long time eunuchs have simply been cast as villains in Chinese history. Inside the World of the Eunuch goes beyond this misleadingly one-dimensional depiction to show how eunuchs actually lived during the Qing dynasty.

236 pages | 10 b&w illus., 1 table | 6 x 9

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