To Rot and Not to Die: Punitive Emasculation in Early and Medieval China

In: T'oung Pao
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  • 1 University of Edinburgh

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Abstract

Historians agree that the primary source of supply for eunuchs in late imperial China was not the penal system but self-emasculation. What is less known is that the legal institution of punitive emasculation and the political institution of court eunuchs were separated long before then. While some scholars argue that emasculation was not among the mutilating punishments that Han Emperor Wen abolished in 167 BCE, there is enough evidence to show that the Han court no longer used it as a regular punishment after his reign and that Wen had indeed done away with emasculation. In fact, it was the non-Chinese Northern Wei dynasty that reintroduced it centuries later, from whence it continued to be used intermittently until the late seventh century.