The Great Without

Ninety degrees in the sun. “My legs are just covered in prickly heat,” my mother complains. “In what?” “Prickly heat. These little red spots on the skin.” “Shouldn’t you call them ‘heat prickles’?” “I don’t know, that’s what my mother always said.” It’s from her, too, that my mom got her intolerance for heat. Nanna couldn’t sweat.


My mother had an interesting conversation with one of the Amish women where she buys vegetables. They were talking about strategies to survive the heat without air conditioning, and the Amish woman – middle-aged and unmarried, as so many in her society choose to remain – said, “Do you still get hot flashes? Not me! I got a hysterectomy.” She strode confidently back and forth across the gravel driveway in her bare feet, helping my mom carry her groceries to the car. “How can you walk so quickly on those sharp stones?” “Oh, I’m used to it. The gravel feels so cool!”


We were driving over to my uncle’s house yesterday afternoon for a family gathering. The conversation turned to turtles: how so many species in Southeast Asia are being decimated by hunting for the international black market. As quickly as new species are documented by scientists, it seems, they’re winking out of existence. “What’s the demand?” “Oh, Chinese medicine, as usual,” Mom said. “You know, Chinese men and their, you know.” We knew. “Sometimes it seems like everything in the world is an aphrodisiac as far as Chinese men are concerned!”

I thought about protesting the unfairness of this generalization – in fact, endangered animal products are put to a variety of uses in traditional Chinese medicine. While turtle eggs are prized as an aphrodisiac, turtle shells are thought to “nourish yin and subdue yang, and to soften hardness and disperse nodules.” And as anyone with an email account must recognize, an obsession with penis size and performance is hardly limited to the Chinese. But I was fascinated by the philosophical implications of world-as-aphrodisiac.


A couple hours later, I was thumbing through the latest issue of National Geographic at my uncle’s house. There’s a feature article on Zheng He, the Ming dynasty imperial eunuch who led a fleet on several voyages around the Indian Ocean and down the coast of East Africa. I had been aware of this since taking a Chinese history course in college, but I hadn’t realized just how massive the fleet had been: 300 ships carrying 30,000 men. All the ships sailed by Columbus and Vasco da Gama in their initial voyages 80 years later could have been lined up side by side on the deck of a single one of Zheng He’s ships – the largest wooden vessels ever built.

I realized as I read the article that one reason for my prior lack of interest in Zheng He’s exploits stemmed from sexist prejudice. The simple fact that he lacked a penis made me unconsciously discount the claims of his greatness. But it was sexism – the desire to safeguard the “purity” of the harem and guarantee the paternity of all royal sons – that perpetuated the tradition of royal eunuchs in the first place, and it was sexism that led Chinese emperors to continually discount the possibility that court eunuchs might have ambitions of their own.

Zheng He was a Central Asian from what is now Xinjiang Province, captured in battle at the age of 11 and castrated at 13. He rose to prominence as the military strategist for a prince who eventually usurped the throne to become the third Ming emperor, Yongle, in 1402. The principal purpose of Yongle’s grand maritime expeditions was to display the superior cultural and military prowess of China in general and his reign in particular. He ended up bankrupting the government. As the Wikipedia puts it,

[U]nlike the later naval expeditions conducted by European nations, the Chinese treasure ships appear to have been doomed in the long run (at least in the eyes of economic determinists) because the voyages lacked any economic motive. They were primarily conducted to increase the prestige of the emperor and the costs of the expeditions and of the return gifts provided to foreign royalty and ambassadors more than offset the benefit of any tribute collected. Thus when China’s governmental finances came under pressure… funding for the naval expeditions melted away. In contrast, by the 16th century, most European missions of exploration made enough profit from the resulting trade and seizure of native land/resources to become self-financing, allowing them to continue regardless of the condition of the state’s finances.

Emperor Yongle died young, and the immense monolith he had intended to erect over his tomb remains where it was abandoned, next to the parent rock – too large to move. Zheng He, his achievements downplayed by the official chronicles, assumed a position of great prominence in Chinese folk cosmology. Said to be seven feet tall in life, he was deified after death and has temples dedicated to his worship in China and all over Southeast Asia. Not bad for a religious Muslim who made the pilgrimage to Mecca during one of his voyages.


The National Geographic website includes a brief article about imperial eunuchs by Elizabeth Snodgrass that is worth quoting in full.

Zheng He was only one among hundreds of eunuchs in powerful positions at the Ming court. Since at least the Zhou dynasty (circa 1045-256 B.C.), official records document eunuchs in the service of the Chinese emperor. By the fall of the Ming dynasty in A.D. 1644 there were more than 100,000 eunuchs living in Beijing, reports Dorothy Perkins in the Encyclopedia of China.Why so many? At first eunuchs were in large supply because captured enemies–boys and men–were often castrated, probably to ensure the end of their bloodline. The procedure was high-risk, involving excision of both penis and testicles. Many died from the operation or complications afterward, but those who lived often became workers in the imperial harem or the harems of high officials. Later, castration was used specifically as a way to gain employment at the palace, and courtiers were even required to furnish the Manchu palace with sons to be castrated. For this elective surgery, more care was taken with the health of the patient–it is claimed that only about two in a hundred cases were fatal.

Since the eunuchs were often the only males in close daily contact with the emperor and top government officials, they gained vast political power and were able to sway the policies of the day. The Confucian bureaucrats who ran the government were in constant struggle with the eunuchs for supremacy. Over time, the eunuchs took part in imperial power plays at the highest levels, sometimes even effecting a change of emperor or running the show from behind the throne. Their power waxed and waned throughout the different dynasties, running strong in the Tang, weaker in the Song, and again quite strong in the Yuan (Mongol) and Ming dynasties.

The last eunuch to serve a Chinese emperor was Sun Yaoting, who served Henry Puyi, the last emperor. Sun Yaoting passed away in 1996.

A longer online essay, Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China, by Mary M. Anderson, explores the political and cultural underpinnings at greater length.

Down through the centuries of China’s dynastic rule, officials repeatedly memorialized the Dragon Throne, pleading that eunuch interference in state affairs be curbed. However, almost none recommended that the ancient eunuch system be abolished. This is but one indication of how deeply ingrained in Chinese thinking was the custom that allowed only sexless males to serve the Imperial Presence, the ladies of his royal family, and his thousands of concubines, all amassed together in the “Great Within” behind forbidden palace doors.It should be pointed out that Chinese dynastic histories were all written by mandarins, the educated elite who, as a class, despised the palace eunuchs. Mandarins alone were eligible to hold office in the bureaucracy, the “Great Without.” …

Much speculation exists as to why most monarchs of China so trusted their eunuchs – one emperor praised them as “creatures docile and loyal as gelded animals” – when bodily mutilation was universally abhorred in orthodox Chinese culture. Loss of limb or castration rendered a man unfit to worship before the carved wooden spirit tablets to which the ancestral souls descended during memorial services. More deplorable still, a eunuch, since he was incapable of siring sons, had no one to perform the obligatory sacrificial rites for his own soul after death. Thus, one who suffered this most shameful of deformities was deemed outside the pale of Chinese society.

The belief was prevalent that a castrato, since he would always be childless, would not covet political power and position to pass it to sons, according to the Chinese tradition. Similarly, he would have no need to accumulate riches by selling inside palace information or stealing the treasure and tribute that flowed to the imperial coffers. Yet history repeatedly proved this faith in eunuch passivity and loyalty unfounded. (Corrected for scanning errors.)

The largest junks in Zheng He’s fleet were called the Treasure Ships. Treasure (bao) was also the euphemism most commonly used for the eunuch’s severed genitalia. Anderson’s article unfortunately translates bao as “precious,” which immediately makes me think of Tolkein’s Gollum:

The severed parts, euphemistically called the pao, meaning the “precious,” were preserved in a hermetically sealed vessel, and were highly valued by the eunuch. They were always placed on a high shelf to symbolize that the owner should rise to high rank. The eunuch also treasured his “precious” because, to be promoted to a higher grade, he was obliged to first display his emasculated parts and be reexamined by the chief eunuch. If his “Precious” should be lost or stolen, at promotion time he had to buy one from the eunuch clinic, or he could borrow or rent one from another eunuch. It was also vital that the eunuch’s organs be placed in his coffin at his death in the hope of hoodwinking the gods of the underworld into believing that he was a complete man: otherwise he was doomed to appear in the next world as a she-mule.


Incomplete, they say of a man without a penis or a woman without a man. But to a hermaphrodite, we’re all missing something.

Source of seed, they say, but the seed forms only in the womb.

Source of power, they say. Tell it to the mules.

Thoroughly pure, they said of eunuchs in imperial China who had been castrated before the age of ten. But no man can win a pissing contest with a nine-year-old.

Recover your manhood, the ads promise, but we will never again have such erections as we did when we were boys and it didn’t matter.

Oyster, tiger penis, rhinocerous horn. But only for the pre-pubescent can the whole world become an aphrodisiac, shimmering, complete.

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