Why get the snip?

One thing I’ve often wondered about when I’m reading about baguazhang is why Dong Hai Chuan became a eunuch. None of the reasons I’ve read really satisfy me. If it was to assassinate the Emperor, it was a pretty dumb idea; I’m pretty sure that the Imperial Guards would keep a very close eye on the Palace Eunuchs. Hiding out from the police? It’s a pretty extreme way to lie low; he must have been very desperate – and such a sought-after fugitive would surely have risked ultra-severe punishment if he was discovered to have infiltrated the Court itself. There would have been much better, and less painful and risky, ways to avoid attention – even migrating to Malaya or Singapore, for example, was an option at that point in time.

Maybe it was just to get a nice income?

In trying to understand why on earth someone would submit to castration late in life, I’ve not understood:

  • What would be the motivation?
  • How did people actually get selected to be eunuchs?
  • What exactly was the status, role and ‘career path’ of eunuchs?

I’ve been reading Osbert Sitwell’s 1939 book, “Escape with me!”, in which he describes his impressions of Beijing after living there for a winter in the mid 1930s. At one point, he goes out of the city towards the Western Hills, in order to visit a colony of eunuchs; former servants of the Imperial Court who were driven out in the 1920s, and who were living out their old age forgotten, in poverty. This section sheds some light for me on why Dong may have chosen this ‘career path’.

My readers may well demand why any human beings should voluntarily surender themselves to such treatment, especially when they must have known beforehand what was in store for them, and when, furthermore, the Chinese emphasis, civil and religious, on the virtues of paternity, and belief in them, are taken into account?…

But the answer is a very simple one: China was a country vast and poor, and the profession of Palace Eunuch was the only certain road in it to riches for the man who was both destitute and uneducated. In order to qualify, no competitive examinations were necessary, as in almost every other walk of life. Not seldom, too, it led, through the favour of Emperor or Empress, to a great career. Moreover, the Palace Eunuch lived at the centre of things, in the Imperial Palace. For these reasons, the appointment to such a post was eagerly sought after, and its drawbacks minimized in the popular mind.

Thus, quite apart from those whose parents had chosen them, and prepared them, for the role at an early age, hoping themselves to profit by ot, or whose cast of mind had, to a certain extent, fitted their characters in advance to their new situation, manifesting a cunning and love of intrigue, a feeling for dress and ceremonial, and, above all, for money, that sought its outlet in such an existence as only the Forbidden City could supply, in addition many a poor married man, with wife and children, and without any special ability for the life of an oriental palace, would have the operation performed on him in order to obtain the chance of providing for his family after his death.


  1. Not everyone (in baguazhang circles) believes that Dong was really a eunuch.

    Not everyone survived the operation (an unlucky few died a painful death instead)… Eunuchs were known for their strange voices and characteristic bodies.


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