Eunuchs were castrated male palace servants who wielded a fluctuating level of political and military powers from the Shang (1766–1045 BCE) to the Qing (1644–1911). The Qing retained the imperial bodyguard and bondservant traditions that put all the eunuchs under the jurisdiction of the Imperial Household. As personal and menial servants of the emperor, eunuchs were expected to accompany him on hunts and imperial tours. Yet the number of eunuchs hired was reduced from 100,000 in the Ming to 2,000-3,000 in the Qing, and no Qing eunuch acquired the economic, political, or military powers of the Ming eunuchs who threatened the survival of the state.
This paper will examine the presence and representation of eunuchs from 1500 to 1800. It will argue that the process of sinicization does not adequately explain the practice of employing eunuchs in the Qing court. The diminished roles and functions of Qing eunuchs are better explained by the Manchu Altaic system, which shared residual tribal traditions with other conquest dynasties—the Khitan Liao, the Jurchan Jin, and the Mongol Yuan. In particular, the paper will re-examine the place of eunuchs in the Qing ethno-dynastic order on the basis of their representation in two paintings in the University of Alberta’s Mactaggart Art Collection—Kangxi’s Southern Inspection Tour Scroll 7 and Qianlong’s Southern Inspection Tour Scroll 2.
About the Speaker
Jennifer Jay is a graduate of the Australian National University, where she submitted a thesis on the Song and Yuan dynasties under the supervision of Professor Wang Gungwu and the late Dr. Igor de Rachelwiltz. Currently she is professor of History and Classics at the University of Alberta, where her teaching fields have led her to do research on the history and politics of other dynasties, women’s studies, and the history of drama. She is completing a manuscript on the social history of eunuchs in Imperial China.
After the Seminar