THE LAST EUNUCH OF CHINA:
The Life of Sun Yaoting
By Jia Yinghua, translated by Sun Haichen
Publisher: China Intercontinental Press, 314 pages
(Published in The Star)
IN Chinese costumed dramas, the eunuch is often a hated figure; he flatters the top officials with his often falsetto voice but slyly plots their downfalls behind their backs.
But Sun Yaoting, a former eunuch in the court of Pu Yi, China’s last emperor, has a different story to tell in this engrossing biography. Although he mentions infamous eunuchs who manipulated their way into power, he also speaks of the less glamorous side: Eunuchs’ livelihoods, and their very lives, often depended on the whims and fancies of their often capricious upperclass masters. Eunuchs had to literally trade their genitals for the possibility a better life, enduring a painful and often deadly do-it-at-home castration procedure. Not only did they have to deal with the physical problems of castration for the rest of their lives, these men also had to bear the scorn of a society that regarded them as less than human. Even their families, who often benefited from their elevated status, held them in scorn.
Sun, though, wasn’t motived by just the riches and power; he wanted to protect his family from being bullied by powerful people and to help them escape crushing poverty.
Castrated by his father when he was eight – and that painful act is recounted in gruesome detail in the chapter simply called The Castration – Sun set out to become a eunuch in the glorious Forbidden City in 1912 – only to be told that the child emperor had just abdicated.
Fortunately, Sun managed to find a job at the home of the kind but tight-fisted Prince Zai Tao, Pu Yi’s uncle. From there, Sun, through sheer hard work and determination, entered the Forbidden City (when he was 15) and crawled his way up by serving one mean master after another. Eventually, he became an attendant to Empress Wanrong, Pu Yi’s wife, and later to Pu Yi, when he was the puppet emperor of Manchukuo (a state created in 1932 by still-loyal Imperialists with help from imperial Japan; it was abolished at the end of WWII).