A trend in Chinese historical literature is the plotting, scheming eunuchs of the court. It’s hard not to find a story of a eunuch behaving badly in Chinese literature, which isn’t to say that there weren’t good eunuchs or that other countries didn’t have bad eunuchs, but that in China, eunuchs were typically demonized much more than other countries.
What is a eunuch? A eunuch is a young boy or man that is often put in the position of acting as a servant to a woman, typically an imperial lady or a noblewoman. Most commonly, they’re charged with guarding the harem, wives of a ruler or concubines. The problem present here is that if one of the serving men were to impregnate one of the women, it could cause a major scandal or lead to questions about paternity. The solution was that eunuchs were castrated to keep the lines of parentage clear.
A eunuch isn’t particularly rare in Western society, nor is castration. Sometimes boys were castrated to preserve the young voice that they had for the purposes of singing. They show up in the Ancient World - Byzantium, Greece and Rome, but they’re much more prominent in Asian cultures like the Ottoman Empire, early Malaysia (Malacca), Korea, Vietnam and China.
Castration in Asia was typically a mark of someone meant to serve others, particularly women. In various dynasties, China would take young Malay, Korean or Vietnamese boys and have them castrated and put into service. In its inception, castration was a punishment for prisoners of war to mark their defeated status and to make sure that the ones they defeated wouldn’t get a family together to assume vengeance.
China’s eunuchs appear as early as the Shang Dynasty but play important roles in stories set in the Han, Yuan and Ming dynasties predominately. And for other countries in Asia, eunuchs were often associated with tributes that the Yuan and Ming extracted from Goryeo (Korea) and Vietnam. They did exist in other places like Siam (Thailand), India and the Ottoman Empire but this varied in that it didn’t have China’s fingerprints on it.
In places like Siam, Malacca, Goryeo and other places in South Asia, those who were castrated were not always “eunuchs” in the sense of palace guards for women, but they were the markings of a slave. The procedures were often barbaric and led to death - particularly in the caliphates like Baghdad where castrated slaves were very in vogue - and left a mark of shame on a person as well as the obvious physical and emotional trauma.
Eunuchs were different in other countries, sometimes seen with more respect than in China or areas dominated by China. In the Ottoman Empire, the eunuchs played an important role in guarding the Seraglio - that is, the Ottoman Harem - being either White or Black (depending on race) who often worked as a spies or a kind of shadow guard. Daily intrigue in the Seraglio often dealt with the eunuchs in some way or another.
In India, the eunuchs were often referred to as a “third-gender”. Eunuchs used to guard the Mughal women, but as time went on they became known as hijra or hijrah which doesn’t often translate well so it’s usually translated as “eunuch” or “hermaphrodite” in English. The hijra became a byword for transgender individuals in modern society, in the sense that hijra were portrayed as a link between man and woman in older texts. Today, hijra has two basic contexts, where hijra can play an important role in some Hindu ceremoniesbut in modern society they often live on the fringes of society and are looked down upon. Hijra is now almost exclusively used as a pejorative term for an “effeminate homosexual man” or sometimes to indicate crossdressing men or transgender (iconically MTF) since hijra are stereotypically shown to wear a woman’s sari. They’re often regarded as beggars and are often depicted trying to embarrass men into giving them money either with crude language or by questioning the man’s sexuality in front of a large number of people.
In China, eunuchs are almost always viewed in a negative light. Castration in general is seen as such a terrible punishment because it makes a man unable to fulfill Confucian desires. Confucianism puts a heavy importance of having children and so when a man is castrated it means that he is unable to fulfill that. That’s an attitude that’s carried on today with the discussion of homosexuality, where the issue isn’t so much that someone is homosexual, it’s that having children was impossible for them (before the very recent present, assuming there was no opposite gendered person involved) and today it’s still difficult for a homosexual person to have children without an opposite gendered person involved.
Eunuchs were seen simultaneously as important and wicked. They guarded the women, which was an important job and there was really no other way that it could be done except to have women guarding women, but when women weren’t valued as being as strong or worthy as men in society, that wasn’t an option. But because eunuchs had such sway over the concubines, wives, head women [the woman of choice for the Emperor or ruler; the most favorite concubine], and young rulers, they were often vilified and not entirely unjustly.
Eunuchs in history are portrayed as scheming and ambitious because history is full of these people who used their position as the Harem Guard to whisper into the ears of the women. They also were the ones who knew which lady was the favorite of the ruler and knew who to lean on. In addition to this, they were typically present when a young emperor was growing up at his mother’s side and were often playmates or tutors to the young boys - able to be his friend or cunningly lead this boy onto the path that best suited them. So when eunuchs made a power play, as happens towards the end of the Han Dynasty - leading into the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the beginning of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms - the eunuchs are portrayed as entirely wicked. And while that’s understandable, eunuchs were usually portrayed as up to something, even if they weren’t, and seen as going against nature which vilified them more.
With the exception of religious castration and castration as a punishment, the practice of eunuchs mostly died out in Asia, specifically China, by the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Simply put, when the last dynasty ended, there was no need for harem guards when there was no emperor. Castration, physical or medical or religious, did continue to some extent particularly in violent inmates who were deemed criminally insane or for what were deemed the worst offenders. And although the practice may have ended, the implications and stigmas it wrought for people who can’t have children through natural means, whatever the reason, have been long-lasting and are still present.