The Influence of Eunuchs on the Ming Dynasty Political Power

The tradition of getting the services of eunuchs in the Imperial China and other countries by emperors and royal families goes back to ancient times. The role and influence of eunuchs in Chinese history are significant as they ensured high quality of life for the nobles and royalty. The most important aspect of being a eunuch was the castration before they could enter the palace of the nobles or the royal people. It was done because the emperors did not trust the men who could come in contact with the members of their families. Therefore, the eunuchs could be on good terms with the royalty and get close to them; it gave them an opportunity to get high positions in the society. For instance, in the course of the Chinese history, the eunuchs in the times of the Ming Dynasty were the most powerful and could rule the country in the most effective way. One of their prominent achievements was the establishment of certain authoritative organizations of their own, in particular the Western Depot and the Eastern Depot.

When the Ming Dynasty was at the earliest stage, just starting to found the nation, the government was afraid of any people who could interfere with the politics and affairs of the nation; therefore, they tool a number of precautions to prevent eunuchs from having a lot of power in the society. For example, Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Dynasty Ming, aimed at total prohibition of participation of eunuchs in the royal political affairs; so, he used the experience obtained from the previous dynasties to prevent the eunuchs from interference in the important decision making process at the state level. One of his orders implied placing iron boards with the instruction not to allow the eunuchs to be involved in the affairs of the empire. The eunuchs were threatened with beheading if they did not follow the order. The eunuchs were eager to change their position in the society and achieve their ambitions. Being desperate and willing to pursue the future, they formed collusion and decided to assist Zhu Di, the son of Zhu Yuanzhang. With their help, he managed to become an emperor instead of Zhu Yunwen, his nephew. This action was a turning point in the fate of the eunuchs. Starting from that year, they took an active part in the political life of the country to get sufficient power and change the direction of state development or even the future of the Dynasty Ming.


The power of eunuchs was so great that could get involved in the struggle against the enemies. There were eunuchs who could take part in the work of the arbitrary government, being its members. The emperors trusted them and depended on them so much that they even entitled the eunuchs to participate in the court proceedings instead of them. The eunuchs represented the emperors with all the corresponding rights. Both the internal and external situation of China in the times of the Ming Dynasty was not favorable. In 1449, the Emperor Yingzong started the battle being incited by Wang Zhen, his eunuch despite the negative attitude to this of all the official parties. This battle is well known as Tumu Turmoil. According to Dardess, the battle resulted in the killing of all generals, the minister of war, two grand secretaries, and even Wang Zhen, the eunuch. The Emperor Yingzong was captured by Esen, the future Khan and the Mongol young leader. The flourishing Dynasty Ming got into the stage of deterioration and decadence. According to Dardess, the governance of the Ming Dynasty was affected by the debacle in the long-term perspectives. Those repercussions can be explained with the serious damage done in terms of the institutional reputation and prestige of the royal dynasty. It is important to mention that the role of the Emperor in the crucial battle was not as significant as that of his eunuch Wang Zhen. Despite his mistakes and fight against the dissidents, the eunuch was still liked by Yingzong Emperor. The eunuch was considered to be a faithful official and a devoted servant although he accused the upright officials with false claims. Having the admiration of the Emperor, Wang Zhen had significant power; so, there is a question about the origins of such enormous influence of the eunuchs in the sphere of politics in the times of the Ming Dynasty. Another important issue for discussion is related to the reasons for the dynasty destruction.

The eunuchs managed to influence the royalty in such significant way because of the high quality education they received. The achievements of the most prominent eunuchs were outstanding, while the emperors demonstrated their incompetence and weakness at the late stages of Ming Dynasty development. This situation served as a trigger for the destructive processes in the dynasty and considerable waste of talented people. Because of the extensive knowledge of the gifted eunuchs, their influence on the political life of the country in the period of the Ming Dynasty became more and more significant. Taizu Zhu Yuanzhang was the first emperor who realized the threat that the eunuchs posed for at the early stages of development of he Ming Dynasty. He understood that Chinese imperial power was losing its stability, and he was against the participation of eunuchs with good education in the political life of the country. He was also against their participation in the court proceedings. Hence, he told the eunuchs not to get involved in the political affairs of the state. He also insisted on forbidding the eunuchs to get education or even to learn how to read and write. Furthermore, during his lifetime, he also decided to prohibit wearing the government official uniform by the eunuchs. In addition, he limited the grade of their rank by the fourth one.

As the eunuchs were castrated, they did not have any chance to have children. Their only mission was to serve the members of the royal families and nobles in their palaces. It was evident that the eunuchs were not satisfied with their status, and that was the reason for the help they provided to the fourth son of Taizong, Chengzu who waned to be on the throne instead of Emperor Jianwen, his nephew. The situation in the country after this assistance changed drastically. The gratitude of the new emperor was expressed by providing high ranks to the eunuchs and granting them with particular favors and benefits. Some of the most outstanding eunuchs could even be involved in military affairs. The next step of Renzong was the establishment of a small educational institution for eunuchs called Neishufang; it was done to enable them to get excellent education from the best Chinese teachers and scholars. At that historical stage, the majority of eunuchs could not either read or write as they were from poor families. They were used only for doing some physical manual work for their royal masters. The situation changed completely with the establishment of Neishufang School. Good education enabled the eunuchs not only to be able to read and write, but also to get involved in serious matters in the empire. The best scholars in the times of Ming Dynasty provided the eunuchs with superior education; so, they could assist he royalty in doing various official tasks and assignments.

The power of the eunuchs was continuously growing, and they started to be active participants in the political life of China. According to Dardess, the eunuchs were no longer used as merely servants and staff for services in the palaces; instead, they got involved in the army, military, civil, and political affairs. They became emissaries, diplomats, commanders, spies, and other officials at the ruling apparatus of Yongle. Ming Xuanzong founded the school for eunuchs to use them for doing tiring and involving official jobs; however, they not only learned how to write, but also got interested in the political affairs of the empire. Having acquired education, the eunuchs realized that a lot of doors were open for them. Hence, some of them contributed to the development of the empire and the Ming Dynasty, while others enhanced the gradual deterioration of the situation and the consequent tragedy.

The history of Ming Dynasty saw certain examples of prominent eunuchs who made an outstanding contribution in the development of the empire. For instance, Zheng He’s life and activity resulted in the increased trust of the emperor in his eunuchs. He managed to lead the fleet to the West Pacific Ocean and get to the Indian Ocean; they sailed along the coastline of China and conquered some important dependencies. As a result, they started paying significant tributes to the emperor. The role of Zheng He in the development of marine industry was important as he contributed to the development of corresponding technologies and worked a lot on the exploration of the ocean trade routes. In addition, he enhanced spreading of the civilization so that Maritime Silk Road in China flourished. His contributions in the development of China were important not only for his generation, but also for the following centuries. Furthermore, he brought glory and respect to the eunuchs restoring their reputation and gaining the trust of the emperor. However, not every eunuch used his abilities for the sake of the empire’s development. Some of them acted to worsen the progress of China and caused the decline of the Ming Dynasty.

It is clear that the climax of the power in the hands of eunuchs was at the time when the emperors’ power was weak. According to Dardess, most of the Ming Dynasty emperors got the power when they were teenagers. This tradition started when Yingzong Zhu Qizhen, the sixth emperor in the dynasty inherited the throne. As the emperors were too young to make their own decisions, they had to be dependent on other more experienced people. As the young politicians were too vulnerable because of the family politics and problems in the state, they had to trust their eunuchs and their relatives. In some cases, the eunuchs were so close to the young royalty that they treated them as their brothers. However, eunuchs frequently used the young emperors to gain more power trying to manipulate with their actions and important decisions.

One of the brightest examples of the relationships between the emperor and eunuch is the relation between Zhu Qihen (Zhengtong emperor) and Zhang Zhen. According to Dardess, the emperor inherited his thrown being an eight-year-old boy; so, his actions were guided by the eunuch Wang Zhen inspired by the idea of war. Empress Zhang, the grandmother of the emperor, and Empress Sun, his mother, were in charge of all the state affairs at the national level. After the death of Empress Zhang, the trust of Yingzong in his eunuch Zhang Zhen got limitless. He considered his eunuch to be his teacher and mentor, trusting him entirely. Thus, it was easy for the eunuch to get enormous scope of power without any problems. Zhang Zhen was the first eunuch in the history of China, who got huge power and interfered in the politics.

Furthermore, Wei Zhongxian was another eunuch who obtained enormous power in the empire in the times of the Tianqi, Emperor Ming Xizong. The latter was interested only in carpentry; so, he disregarded all the important affairs in politics and relied on the decisions of his eunuch. He entitled Wei Zhongxian tto be responsible for all the affairs in the state. According to Dardess, Wei Zhongxian even got the official title of the head of the Eastern Depot. He also ran the investigation agency and police. The Chinese people were absolutely unaware of the activity of the emperor; instead, they knew a lot about the decisions of his eunuch and his boundless power. His actions resulted in great disturbances in the empire of those times.

There is an opinion that the power of eunuchs was insignificant in the times of Ming Dynasty. There are researchers who consider eunuchs to be only the tools in the hands of emperors used to exert control over the activity of the ministers. Furthermore, not all eunuchs were entitles with enormous power; only some of them had access to the state affairs. However, there is an outstanding counterargument of Shih-Shan Henry Tsai to this statement; he says that “[the weak emperors and the unscrupulous eunuchs] perhaps because the relatively few eunuchs who achieved and abused power gave a bad reputation to all eunuchs”. It should also be noted that the offices of eunuchs were entitled with huge power in comparison with that of the bureaucracy and the military officials; in addition, they formed extensive relations with the network of civil bureaucracy factions. Thus, every eunuch who worked for the offices obtained significant power and opportunities to influence the political life of the empire. The majority of eunuchs focused on faction; however, they avoided responsibility for the fate of the country in terms of internal and external affairs. Moreover, the destruction of the Ming Dynasty was also the result of their influence. According to Robert B. Crawford, eunuchs were used only as tools in the hands of the emperors to monitor the decisions made by the ministers. He says that the first Ming dynasty emperor T’ai-tsu needed balance against the official scholars and used eunuchs for that. It should be mentioned that at the late stage of the Ming Dynasty ruling, the stability of power and balance of influence among the eunuchs were not strong. The dependence of emperors on their eunuchs was significant, while the power of ministers was not as important as that of the eunuchs. So, the balance of the power was not kept.

To sum up, the role of eunuchs in the history of China and the development of the Ming dynasty was significant. They obtained huge power and influenced all fields of political life; however, they did not always take an active par in enhancement of the empire’s progress. On the contrary, their main aim was to increase their own power and influence. The statuses of eunuchs at that time were different, and the level of power and control of emperors of the Ming dynasty also varied. However, it is not possible to underestimate the role of eunuchs in the political life of China even at the late stages of the dynasty.

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