A eunuch is a castrated human male. The castration can be only of the testes, or also include the penis, known as a penectomy (often with a tube inserted to keep the urethra open, called a urethral rerouting). The practice was established before 700 BC and accounts of eunuchs are known throughout history.
The English word eunuch is from the Greek eune ("bed") and ekhein ("to keep"), effectively "bed keeper." This would suggest the traditional role of the eunuch as a reliable keeper of a ruler's harem. However this is somewhat of a stereotype, servants or slaves were often castrated in order to make them 'safer,' as a servant of an imperial court, where physical access to the emperor meant great power, where such seemingly simple functions as making the emperor's bed, bathing, cutting hair or even relaying messages could impart great power on the servant. Eunuchs were perfect servants because they did not have loyalties to the military, families or aristocracy, and were thus more trustworthy, and they could be easily replaced or killed without repercussion.
Eunuchs were also valued and trained in several cultures (especially the Catholic Church), for their exceptional voices, which retained a childlike and other-worldly flexibility and pitch. Such eunuchs were known as castrati.
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In ancient China castration was both a traditional punishment (until the Sui Dynasty) and a means of gaining employment in the Imperial service. At the end of the Ming Dynasty there were 70,000 eunuchs (宦官 huàn'guān, or 太監 tàijiān) in the Imperial palace. The value of such employment—certain eunuchs gained immense power that may supersede that of the prime ministers—was such that self-castration had to be made illegal. The number of eunuchs in Imperial employ had fallen to 470 in 1912, when the employment ceased. The justification of the employment of eunuchs as high-ranking civil servants was that, since they were incapable of having children, they would not be tempted to seize power and start a dynasty. Concurrently, a similar system existed in Vietnam.
The tension between depraved eunuchs in the surrounding of the emperor and virtuous Confucian officials resisting their tyranny is a familiar theme in Chinese history. In his "History of Government", S.E. Finer points out that reality was not always that clear-cut. There were instances of very capable eunuchs, who were valuable advisors to their emperor, and the resistance of the "virtuous" officials often was procrastination on the part of a priviliged class which blindly resisted any change, whether it be for the good or the bad of the empire.
Eunuchs are also known in India and throughout the East. In India, eunuchs are often reffered to as "hijiras". They usually dress in saris, or Indian garb worn by women, wear heavy make-up and are castrated.
The practice was also well established in Europe among the Greeks and Romans, although only rarely for court functionaries as in Asia. For example in late Rome, emperors such as Constantine were surrounded by eunuchs for such functions as bathing, hair cutting, dressing plus bureaucratic functions, in effect acting as a shield between the emperor and his administrators from physical contact. Eunuchs were loyal and dispensable. It was only after the Muslims conquered parts of the Roman Empire that they acquired eunuchs from the Romans, and not knowing what else to do with them, made them into harem guards.
In religion especially, followers of the goddess Cybele practiced ritual self-castration, sanguinaria. Even in Christian times the practice continued; however the Church did not follow the example of the theologian Origen, who castrated himself because he wanted to avoid sexual sins.
The 18th-century Russian Skoptzy (скопцы) sect was an example of a castration cult, where its members regarded castration as a way of renouncing the sins of the flesh. Several members of the 20th century Heaven's Gate cult were found to have been castrated, apparently voluntarily and for the same reasons. It is still practiced in India by some members of the Hijra caste, although there is debate about what their gender actually is. Historically, however, they have been referred to as eunuchs, particularly in the West.
As women were sometimes forbidden to sing in Church, their place was taken by castrati. The practice, known as castratism, remained popular until the 18th century and was known into the 19th century. The last famous Italian castrato, Giovanni Velluti, did not die until early in the 19th century. The sole existing recording of a castrato singer documents the voice of Alessandro Moreschi, one of the last eunuchs in the Sistine Chapel choir. Unfortunately, the early 20th century recording is of poor quality and Moreschi, who was never trained for the stage, is not considered a great singer.
The body dysmorphic disorder or dysmorphophobia characterized by desire to be a eunuch is called skoptic syndrome, named after the Skoptzy sect. This desire is still present in modern populations, as evidenced in the large membership in message boards on the Internet related to the topic. Alternatively, some men derive sexual excitement from the idea of being castrated or otherwise having their genitals mutilated, usually by another person (see masochism and paraphilia). There have been frequent news coverage of incidents of self-castration (autocastration) and underground networks of people without medical licenses performing castrations. Most urologists have experience with patients who have attempted castration on themselves. According to a June 12 2002 article by Detroit Free Press: self-castrations tend to be more common than leaving the job to someone else, said Dr. Dana Ohl, a urologist at the U-M Medical Center who has operated on botched amateur castrations. "Usually, when these people just chop their own testicles off, they don't pay attention to the blood supply," he said.
According to Tom Burnham's Dictionary of Misinformation, a common misconception about eunuchs is that, since they were castrated, they were either unable or unwanting to defile or perform sexual intercourse with the women in the harem they were employed to watch over. This was not always true, however. If a eunuch was castrated after puberty, which was common, he would still be able to achieve an erection and engage in coitus, though no pregnancy could result. According to Burnham, many women preferred eunuchs as lovers since they never ejaculated and could, therefore, maintain erections longer.
- Shu Diao Intrigant eunuch who was responsible of a successor civil war in the feudal state of Qi
- Cai Lun (lived around AD 105), conventionally regarded as the inventor of paper
- Zhao Gao (died 210 BC)
- Zhang Rang Head of the infamous "10 Changshi" of Eastern Han Dynasty
- Huang Hao Eunuch in the state of Shu; also appears in the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms"
- Gao Lishi A loyal and trusted friend of Tang emperor Xuanzong
- Li Fuguo The Tang eunuch who began another era of eunuch rule
- Yu Chao'en Tang eunuch who began his "career" as army supervisor
- Tong Guan A eunuch of Song dynasty; also appears in the novel "Water Margin"
- Zheng He (1371–1435), mariner and explorer
- Wang Zhen First Ming eunuch with much power, see Battle of Tumu Fortress
- Liu Jin Another "famous" eunuch despot.
- Wei Zhongxian Most infamous eunuch in Chinese history.
- An Dehai Corrupt eunuch of Qing dynasty- Favourite of empress dowager Cixi.
- Li Lianying Another despotic eunuch of the Qing dynasty.
- Sima Qian Confucian astrologer and historian; castrated at the age of forty-six by Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty, after he defended a renegade general against the charges of the Emperor.
- Sun Yao-ting (1902–1996) last imperial eunuch of Chinese history.
- Bagoas, a favorite of Alexander the Great
- William Chester Minor, while not an eunuch, per se, did cut off his own penis.
- Boston Corbett-shot John Wilkes Booth approximately 7 years after castrating himself to resist the temptations of prostitutes.