I appear to be getting myself a reputation. Whenever I meet anyone in the lift or entrance hall to my apartment block nowadays, it’s no longer "how ya doing man", pronounced in an American drawl by venturers from Her Majesty’s former colonies, but "been to any good museums lately?"
My foray this last weekend will surely supply a load of good party stories, much like my "last time I was arrested in Saudi Arabia" opening gambit I have been using for (probably) far too long.
Regular readers of this column will know that I am slowly working my way around Beijing’s 130+ museums, searching out the unusual; but this time I hit gold - the world’s only Eunuch Museum (or so the Chinese would have you believe).
I had casually dropped my plans into a conversation I was having with a work colleague, who immediately wanted to know if she could come along too. I had already discovered that there were precious few signs there in English, and of course told her that I would be delighted to have her along for company.
So 16 years after the death of the last eunuch in China, this intrepid duo set out for the very outskirts of Beijing in search of one of its most isolated museums. I gather from the web that visitors are so rare here that with its 8 yuan entrance fee the museum doesn’t even make enough to cover its electricity bill. Yes, we were the only visitors, which was certainly a welcome contrast to the armada of tour buses in the likes of Tiananmen Square (hmmm – can one have an armada of buses? Well, you know what I mean!).
Eunuchs have existed in civilizations across the world, most especially in Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia, Turkey and India. Even 18th century Europe had eunuchs - the castrati who were emasculated as children in order to preserve their male soprano voices. In fact, eunuchs sang in the Vatican choir up until they were banned in 1878.
But it is China where eunuchs have held the greatest historical significance. In ancient China, castration was used both as a punishment as well as a way to work for the emperor. It was believed that since eunuchs were unable to have children they would not be tempted to seize power and start their own dynasties.
Some eunuchs rose to great heights in the Imperial courts, with some even more powerful than ministers, so they probably posed quite a threat to the bureaucrats of their day. It is said that towards the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) there were some 70,000 eunuchs employed by the emperor. By 1912, however, the number had dwindled to just 470. China’s last eunuch, Sun Yaoting, was 93 years old when he died in 1996 at his home in Beijing. He had served as a eunuch for Pu Yi, China’s Last Emperor, as well as in the troubled puppet court run by the Japanese in the 1930s.
It is clear, when browsing the web for interesting eunuch facts, that many of them could have done with a good dollop of PR to improve their image. Take Li Lianying for example. He was a Qing Dynasty eunuch who persuaded Empress Cixi to divert funds meant for modernizing China’s navy to build the Summer Palace. No doubt today’s tourists are pretty thankful that he did. But when they dug up Li Lianying’s grave, his head was missing. Whether he was buried without his head or whether it was removed by those who hated him, we’ll probably never know.
Anyway, one of the good guys in the eunuch hall of fame was a certain Tian Yi - a Ming Dynasty eunuch who lived from 1534 to 1605. Although his tomb has been looted of all its treasures, his remains still lie here. The cemetery faces south and is encircled by a stone wall and contains stone carvings and sculptures. Tian Yi’s tomb is said to be the best-preserved eunuch mausoleum in China.
Tian Yi served under three emperors and it is said that when he died at the age of 72 in 1605, Emperor Wanli was so heart broken that the imperial court was suspended for three days and the emperor built this place to honour him. The cemetery occupies 6,000 square metres and contains five tombs of Tian Yi and four other eunuchs. These were the eunuchs who guarded the tomb of Tian Yi, and the tombs of these other four stand to the left and right of Tian Yi’s tomb.
The museum sits on the site of what was once Cixiang Nunnery. Nuns and monks once lived in this Buddhist temple, and interestingly, eunuchs once resided in Cixiang Nunnery too.
Anyway, any thoughts that we might have had that the location would be at a pretty little spot on BJ’s outskirts (since Pingguoyuan 苹果园 – the name of the last station** at the western end of Beijing’s Line 1 subway - means Apple Orchard) were cruelly dashed. The suburb of Shijingshan is more like an industrial waste land, with tall factory chimneys dominating the skyline. Still, it gave us the chance to walk through a small part of ramshackle old Beijing that is normally off the tourist beat.
Twenty minutes walking from the station, using the sun for direction finding and a Samsung Galaxy for more precise directions, got us to Moshikou Avenue which meandered its way to the west past endless street-side stalls. On asking directions from a local it was clear that a eunuch museum was not on her list of much visited attractions, though she thought that it might well be a little way further up the street. And so it turned out to be.
I particularly liked a sign on the back of a parked car near our destination whose meaning had quite obviously not been fully grasped by its owner. It was certainly a different take on the "Baby on Board" signs you see on so many European cars. Well, the majority of the letters were there, so who is complaining?
When we got to the museum there was no one to be seen. We wandered along a little lane until we found a man who walked us back to the ticket office, carefully unlocking the door and inviting us in to relieve us of 16 kwai before carefully locking up the office again and disappearing once more, leaving the place to ourselves.
We started off with the cemetery itself, which we discovered was divided into three sections. On either side of the entrance was a 3m tall statue of Tian Yi – one dressed as a warrior and the other a scholar.
It was quite clear that this Tian Yi was definitely one of the "good guys“. Apparently, 259 eunuchs came to pay tribute to him at his tomb after his death; and the names of all these eunuchs are inscribed on a stone column that stands close by.
Tian Yi was born in Shanxi and was just 9 years old when he was castrated and sent to wait on the emperor and his entourage. He served three Ming Dynasty Emperors – Jiajing, Longqing and Wanli – during 63 years of service. His mausoleum has all the features of an imperial mausoleum, the only difference being that it is smaller than the mausoleum of a member of the Imperial Family.
Moving in to the middle section, there are three pavilions, each of which has a stone tablet on which is recorded Tian Yi’s achievements. The pavilion in the middle stands out from the other two, having a round shaped dome and motifs of lions, reflecting a mix of east and west.
Putting the pavilions behind us, we arrive at the "Shouyu Gate“, once believed to be the dividing line between this world and the netherworld. In ancient times, this gate was never opened and sacrificial rituals were performed in the memorial hall outside it. Today, though, we can just walk straight through and into an area with the tomb mounds of Tian Yi and his four fellow eunuchs.
The stone carvings are pretty neat and are one of the most striking features of Tian Yi’s mausoleum. There are dragons, lions, deer and plants, all in pretty good condition, as well as carvings of eunuchs serving the emperor. The tomb mounds and most of the sacrificial altars are carved from marble
You can even go down some steps to visit the actual crypt of Tian Yi. It’s pretty dark down here, and you feel pretty thankful for a banister rail to hang onto for dear life as you descend the steps...
... though even with the VERY low wattage light bulbs they have installed (still trying to cut down their electricity bill, no doubt) you find yourself stumbling forward with your hands stretched out feeling for a wall that may or may not be there. I get the feeling this is how Indiana Jones might have felt on some of his forays.
Tian Yi’s tomb is totally empty, though. It was raided long ago and its treasures stolen to raise troop funds during the early years of the Republic of China.
There’s also another tomb which is darker and murkier than the first. We peered into the gloom, using the screen of a mobile phone to add some precious lumens, without much success. Next time, if ever there is a next time, I must remember to bring a torch with me!
Close to the entrance of the cemetery, hidden away down a side passage, is the actual museum part of this site. Not "one room“ as has been reported on a couple of other web sites I came across, but five, all bristling with every possible piece of information you might care to learn about the life and times of eunuchs. This is where having a Chinese speaker with you is a definite advantage, though there are some notices in English as well; and some displays you frankly don’t need any written explanation for...
Not only are there graphical renditions of the operation itself – performed without anaesthetic with the boy tied down to stop him struggling – but also a copy of what the knife itself would have looked like. It reminded me of the coverage given to a "Mrs Bobbit crime“ that had been written up in the UAE newspapers with artists’ impressions of the knife used by an Ethiopian servant who had emasculated her employer.
Apparently some castration businesses held a monopoly in their particular localities and it does make you wonder about some of the more unusual professions that some people get themselves into. (Many years ago on British television there was a game show called "What’s My Line“ in which a panel of four would have to try to guess the profession of a contestant just by asking ten questions. It would start off with the contestant miming something he did in his actual job. One doesn’t need much imagination to wonder what one of these guys would have done for their mime!)
Unlike the kind Turks, who "only“ chopped off the poor guys’ balls, they didn’t believe in doing things by half here in China. Makes you wonder whether said eunuchs went into the Gents or Ladies when on an evening out!
Of course, there were a number of reasons why a guy might get elected to have his manhood removed. Many of the eunuchs came from very poor places like Hebei and Shanxi province where becoming a eunuch was one of the only ways out of poverty then. They were virtually dying of starvation so the family might decide to give up one of its lads to become a eunuch in the hope that they would reap handsome rewards.
And amazingly some of these palace eunuchs actually married in later life, coupling up with serving wenches who, of course, had to make do without certain benefits in the marriage bed. No matter. They were able to make do with dildos – which are also on display here.
The five-room museum contains a varied assortment of mementoes. In one glass case, for instance, is a chair and walking stick of the last eunuch, Sun Yaoting. There are also a couple of his calligraphy paintings.
Another glass case displays a wooden model of a ship captained by Zheng He - China’s famous 15th century mariner, explorer and diplomat who was castrated at the age of 11 and sent to the Imperial Court after the Ming army crushed a Mongolian rebellion in the Yunnan region where he lived. Once at court, he was named San Bao, meaning Three Jewels (hahaha - oh you really do have to admire the Chinese sense of humour!)
He went on to become a trusted adviser of the Yongle Emperor, assisting him in toppling his predecessor. In return for his services, he received the name Zheng He and set sail on an expedition that would reach Africa.
Around the walls of one of the rooms you can see the faces of some other famous eunuchs, as well as read about them. Did you know for instance that Cai Lun, the inventor of paper, was also a eunuch? Born in 50 AD Cai Lun invented the composition of what we recognize today as paper at the age of 55, and he also invented the papermaking process. Before that, writing was generally made on tablets of bamboo or special silks, all of which were very heavy to carry and difficult to store. Cai Lun’s invention was therefore a significant turning point for Chinese civilization.
The technology we use today still utilizes his papermaking process. But it would take many more centuries before paper was introduced to Europe. It was only after Chinese papermakers were captured by Arabs in the 8th century Battle of the Talas that papermaking knowledge started to spread westwards. Paper was first introduced to Europe in the 12th century, and so we have a eunuch to thank for one of the world’s most important inventions.
One of the more surprising displays in the museum that you may not be expecting to come across is a well preserved mummified corpse lying in a glass cabinet that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in over 20 years (the glass case, that is; not the corpse!). Depending on whose web site you believe he is either not a eunuch, but a high ranking officer whose body was found in the surrounding area. Or else he was a eunuch from the 17th century in the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi. (As my companion was suffering from shock at this point, a corpse being the last thing she had expected to see, I never did find out what the Chinese explanatory panels said.) Either way, the mummy was found in West Shijingshan in 2006.
By the way, in the suburb of Shijingshan there are also other buildings built by eunuchs during the Ming dynasty, including an unusual fortified temple, as well as the Fahai Temple (法海寺) – a 15 minute walk away from the cemetery at the foot of Cuiwei Mountain – renowned for its magnificent Buddhist wall paintings.
Construction of the Fahai Temple started in the 4th year of the reign of the Ming Emperor Zhengtong (1439 A.D.) and was completed four years later. It is built on three terraces - the first being the Hall of Gateway; the second is the Hall of Four Gods, and on the third is the Grand Hall of Buddha, around which is the Hall of Masters.
Fahai Temple is noted for its 240 sq m of murals, which adopt the traditional Chinese realistic painting method characterized by fine brush work and close attention in detail (it says on an official web site). Fine, delicate strokes, meticulous painting and exquisite colouring have made the murals distinguished among murals found in Beijing, it adds as an afterthought.
According to historical records, the paintings were executed by famous artisans recruited from all over China under the supervision of renowned court painters. It is said that the murals rival Western masterpieces.
What the web sites don’t tell you is that your 20 kwai entrance fee only gets you into the grounds of the temple and allows you to see reproductions of the murals (though if I hadn’t been told that I would never have been any the wiser). You have to fork out 100 kwai if you want to be shown the real things. For that each visitor is given a flash light to inspect them in a darkened room.
I have to say that philistine me was perfectly happy to see a reproduction of the murals and would rather not have been told that they weren’t the real thing. I guess sometimes it’s better to be left in the dark, so to speak!
** For the purists among you, or for those who dabble in Trivial Pursuit, Pingguoyuan is not actually the last station on Line 1, which extends further west into a military base where there are three more stations that are not open for public use.
Old subway maps actually include Fushouling Station which was initially planned as the terminus and is located near the Metro Drivers' Vocational School. Line 1 trains stop by this station a few times per day to allow students of the Vocational School and workers to alight.
Gaojing Station and Heishitou Station are in the military area and according to Wikipedia there is a secret bunker-like facility used as an underground command centre by the Chinese military dating back to the 1950s (similar to the Pentagon), thus rendering this part of the Western Hills inaccessible to the public.
Beyond Heishitou Station the line then connects through to two other Chinese railway lines - Sanjiadian Jingmen Railway and Sanjiadian Fengsha Railway.