The Bodyguard

I am assigned to be the emperor's bodyguard. It’s mayhem here these last couple days with the largest fall of snow in years and the attempted assassination on the emperor’s life by a group of palace ladies. They were cut up into bite-size pieces yesterday. A detective is on the case. The emperor’s mind is distracted. His thoughts piled higgledy piggledy in a vast mound.

Waiting for the water to boil, I watch the palace servants make up the emperor’s bed. The son of heaven is next door with his barber. 'My life has become one protracted ceremony', says the son of heaven. 'I’m sick of playing the emperor, weary of all the banquets, and tired of hearing those bells and drums. My doctors keep reminding me the importance of coitus reservatus in prolonging my health and longevity. Everything I do is minutely scrutinized including my sex life.’ All the emperor’s resentments are suddenly being projected on a huge billboard and he is convinced that everyone is in the know about it.

I am bodyguard-cum-retainer-cum-comrade-in-arms. I am also a eunuch. I had my balls cut off by one of the certified cutters in the city in my teens. I was given a narcotic herbal tea and my memory of that morning was that my penis and testicles were numbed using a paste made from hot chili peppers. I do remember the imperial cutter grabbing my genitals and then the wounds bandaged. I was not allowed to drink any liquids for three days.

We eunuchs get a lot of bad press. Most of us are illiterate. Some like me have climbed up the rungs of the imperial ladder to become stewards in the Imperial Household Department. Some of us meddle in politics, others feather their pockets by doing shady deals in antiques, treating the palace like it was their own imperial gift shop. And then there are the pyromaniacs.

Remember the last emperor Pu Yi? He had ordered his eunuchs to make an inventory of antiques in the Palace of Established Happiness, but an audit would reveal that many of the imperial treasures had vanished, sold off to buyers and dealers outside the Forbidden City. Eunuchs burnt the Palace of Established Happiness to the ground. Firefighters from the Italian legation came in to extinguish the flames. A foreign couple who were standing on the roof top of what is today Raffles Hotel witnessed the fire and spirited off to help. When they arrived the last emperor was covered in soot among the cinders trying to salvage his treasures.

Before I became a bodyguard my daily tasks included cleaning chamber pots, and getting up at some ridiculous hour to beat drums in the drum tower. There’s a lot of bullying among us—we are as stratified as the palace women. When we are punished we are usually beaten by a eunuch lower down the ladder. A eunuch that once served his master is now in charge of beating him.

But you know we are as different from each other as chalk and cheese. There was a historian, one of our finest .He offended the emperor and chose castration rather than death. I can understand that having your lower parts tampered with is better than being killed, but this guy argued that his castration could enhance his masculinity by pouring his energies into literary texts. For the emasculated scholar-official, the writing brush, as one contemporary writer puts it ‘was a substitute for the penis.’

Not having a phallus does not make us lesser men or heroes, but if things were different, I’d rather have my brush and my phallus as well.


Huang, Martin, W. Negotiating Masculinities in Late Imperial China , Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006: 24.

Menzies, Grant- Hayter. Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling, Hong Kong: Hong University Press, 2008:132.

Rawski, Evelyn S. 'Palace Servants, in The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998:162-166.

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