Power emasculated: Eunuchs, great clans and political reproduction under the Tang

Michael Hoeckelmann

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Throughout the history of imperial China (221 BC–1911 AD), eunuchs married and adopted children. Evidence of those practices is particularly abundant for the latter half of the Tang Dynasty, from the late eighth to the early tenth century, thanks to the excavation of dozens of tomb epitaphs (muzhiming) for eunuchs, their spouses and descendants. From the reign of Dezong (779–805) onward, an increasing number of eunuchs claimed descent from the great clans of Tang China, highlighted by the use of choronyms in their names and titles. Both adoptions and great-clan descent contributed to the phenomenon of “eunuch dynasties” (huanguan shijia), successive generations of eunuchs belonging to the same lineage. This paper argues that sending biological or adopted sons as eunuchs into the palace was one of the strategies that officeholding clans employed for political reproduction during the long ninth century; it shows that the values of medieval Chinese society weighted heavily on the shoulders even of emasculated men, who modeled their (after)life according to traditional male gender roles. Indeed, the continued presence of great-clan eunuchs at court and the large number of commissionerships created for them contributed to the stability of the late Tang regime.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages27
JournalT'ang Studies
Issue number1
Early online date1 Apr 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Apr 2020


  • eunuchs
  • great clans
  • tomb epitaphs
  • adoption
  • choronyms


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