'The Loyal Servants'
"By suffering that small change I could be sure of an easy life in surroundings of beauty and magnificence."
About the eunuchs
Eunuchs were men who had been castrated. Some chose their fate, but many were prisoners, poor men, or boys, sold into service to help their families. Although eunuchs lived a life surrounded by luxury, they experienced none of it.
Inside The Forbidden City, being a eunuch went well beyond that definition. Once numbering 70,000, they were the largest group within the walls. They were cooks, cleaners, gardeners, guards of the women, banner carriers, bearers – the list of their duties goes on and on. Select few were favoured by the emperor, but most were shown no respect. "A eunuch must not consider himself a human being!" advised an old eunuch to a newcomer.
Within the Forbidden City
By definition, and as personal servants to the emperor, eunuchs had access to all areas of the Inner Court, including the Palaces of the Inner Court, where the emperor's concubines lived.
Empress Dowager Cixi being carried by eunuchs
Although this picture is not in the exhibition, it shows eunuchs at work. They were the only men, other than the emperor, who were regularly in the presence of the emperor's women. Whether to fix their hair, or transport them from place to place, a eunuch's job was never done.
Ingeniously designed, the tiers of this open-work set of "containers with a container" would house everything the emperor needed for a picnic outside the Forbidden City. A eunuch would always carry the box for the emperor. Once locked by the bar across the top, he would slip the bronze hook over a pole and carry the container on his shoulders.
Eunuchs lived under strict rules and had to be careful. They could not miss a step when serving tea (from beautiful pots such as this)… one tiny mistake could mean punishment, even a beating.