Eunuchs vs Gentry

So spandrell’s greatest work so far is probably is theory of Biological Leninism, where one of the central arguments is that people who would naturally be high status cannot be trusted. Well, the Hàn-Wèi-Jìn transition in Chinese history is actually a pretty good setting for looking at the problem of lack of trust.

During the final years of Hàn, one of the big conflicts going on was who had real control over the government. Of course, the Emperor is the one nominally in charge, but he’s only one man. He can’t run the whole government by himself, especially if he’s a little kid, which most of them ended up being during the second half of Hàn. After the second Emperor of Later Hàn, not a single one ascended as an adult or lived past forty. That means regency.

Despite the classical ideals of keeping women out of government, regency powers often ended up with the Dowager and her family, based on the logic that even the Emperor was still a son and should respect and obey his mother (though in this case usually stepmother, and not necessarily even that much older than the Emperor). In fact, when the Emperor died without any explicit heir, the Dowager claimed the authority to be the one to to choose any member of the Imperial clan to be the posthumously adopted heir, since she was, theoretically, the one adopting a son.

So the fourth to last Emperor of Hàn, Liú Zhì, posthumous name Huán, grows up under the control of his stepmother the dowager and her family the Liáng family, and decides he doesn’t very much like being a puppet. But he can’t take back power alone. He needs friends. And who is going to be friends with some kid when the Liáng family are the big shots that have controlled the government for years, and have all the powerful members of the gentry in their pocket? Emperor Huán can’t trust members of the gentry to help him retake power. So who can he trust?

Well, as Bioleninism would predict, Emperor Huán finds he can trust the ultimate biological losers: eunuchs. They can’t get jobs outside serving the Emperor because they don’t even count as men, and have nothing to live for besides their service to the Imperial Palace. With the eunuchs as his loyal agents, the Emperor was able to purge the Liáng family and retake control of the government. And of course, he showered rewards on his eunuch favorites that had put him back in power.

The gentry was pissed. Even those that had been enemies of the Liáng family were furious, because at least the Liáng were a respectful enough family, and far preferable to the mutilated not-even-men that were suddenly as wealthy and powerful as they were. Emperor Huán and the eunuchs ended up banning a lot of these angry protesting members of the gentry from office.

Like all his predecessors, Emperor Huán, died relatively young at thirty-six, and left behind no sons. His widow the Dowager Dòu selected the son of some distant cousin, Liú Hóng, then aged twelve, and there was hope among the gentry that her respectable father Dòu Wǔ and their ally, conservative scholar Chén Fán, would be able to restore a proper government with their regency, but by this time the eunuchs were a strong enough team to launch a coup against them. They took the young Emperor, posthumous name Líng, into their custody, and used this claim of Imperial authority to take command over the army. Dòu Wǔ and Chén Fán were killed, and the Dowager Dòu removed and replaced by Liú Hóng’s birth mother, Dowager Dǒng.

Emperor Líng grows up surrounded by eunuchs, even calling two of them mommy and daddy, and perhaps unsurprisingly turns out to be a pretty terrible Emperor who has no idea what’s really going on outside the Palace. During his reign, the famous Yellow Scarves rebellion erupted, but it was crushed relatively quickly; the gentry may have been pissed at the Imperial government, but they still found it preferable than a bunch of religious fanatics claiming the sky would turn yellow to signal a new age of prosperity.

Things go to hell after Emperor Líng dies. Trying to summarize things here wouldn’t do the time period justice (I mean, a pretty famous novel has been written about it). The short version is that the gentry gets fed up with the eunuchs and kills them all. A power vacuum is left in the capital that gets filled by a frontier general, who seizes power just because he happens to have troops nearby, pretty much everyone in the provinces refuses to accept this situation and rebels against him, and 30 years of civil war follow.

At the end of this 30 years, the heartlands of the Empire have some measure of stability again, thanks to the efforts of the energetic warlord Cáo Cāo, who became Emperor in all but name. After his death, his son Cáo Pī, posthumously Emperor Wén, decides to makes things official and accepts the abdication of the Hàn dynasty, formally starting the Wèi dynasty.

Now this leaves the Cáo family in an odd position. Though by the time of Emperor Líng they had become gentry with local land and wealth (Cáo Cāo got his start by using family resources to fund a small personal army when the civil war first broke out), they only came to such country-wide prominence because Cáo Cāo’s adoptive grandfather was a eunuch favorite of past Emperors of Hàn. Cáo Cāo’s father was an adopted son of uncertain origins, and during the civil war Cáo Cāo’s enemies loved pointing out his family lineage wasn’t exactly top of the line gentry. Cáo Cāo himself could dodge a lot of these concerns because he ruled by the sheer force of his leadership ability and at least nominally was serving the very prestigious name of Hàn, but now Cáo Pī had to win over followers with the less proven name of Wèi. Basically, Cáo Pī needed friends.

Well, looking back at the Hàn dynasty, everybody blames the eunuchs, so one of the first things that Cáo Pī, posthumously Emperor Wén, does is ban eunuchs from government. People blame the consort families too, so Emperor Wén bans empresses and dowagers and their relatives from participating in government too. He of course continues Hàn’s ban on close male-line relatives of the Imperial clan too (your younger brothers and nephews are all potential usurpers after all). But now he doesn’t have many potential friends left.

So Emperor Wén turns to the gentry because, hey, he’s sort of gentry too, and his father was only successful because he was able to make friends with gentry and get them to accept his leadership during the civil war. He makes friends with the Zhōng, Xún, Chén, Wáng, and Sīmǎ families, the powerful gentry clans that threw their support behind his father during the war. Though Emperor Wén dies suddenly of illness, his son Cáo Ruì, posthumously Emperor Míng, is a full adult. But then Emperor Míng dies suddenly of illness, with a seven year old heir. So regency.

So which friends can Emperor Míng trust with the regency for his seven year old adopted son? He trusts a distant relation Cáo Shuǎng (too distant to be a potential usurper), and an old friend from the gentry, Sīmǎ Yì.

Roughly ten years later, Sīmǎ Yì kills Cáo Shuǎng and wipes out his family. Sīmǎ Yì’s sons dominate the comparatively powerless Dowager (remember all those restrictions on consort families?), deposing one puppet Emperor and killing another, who have no eunuch allies to help them fight back, and twenty-five years after Sīmǎ Yì takes full power, his grandson accepts the abdication of the Wèi dynasty, and the Sīmǎ family founds the Jìn dynasty. The powerful gentry families like the Zhōng, Xún, Chén, and Wáng largely applaud it like a return to the natural order. One of their own, a well-respected proper gentry family, is coming to power, and, naturally, they expect to share in the gains.

Of course, the Jìn dynasty learns the wrong lessons from the fall of Wèi and collapses into civil war about 40 years in, but I think we get the point.

The old conflict of eunuchs vs gentry throughout Chinese history kept showing up for a reason.


One thought on “Eunuchs vs Gentry

  1. Pretty good summary. I read a piece recently about how eunuchs are often maligned as causing the decline of dynasties (mostly the Han, Tang and Ming), but the piece argues that eunuchs actually made the dynasties survive longer than they would have otherwise; they are a desperate but useful measure. He had a good point, and the 魏晋南北朝 instability is good evidence for it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s