One of the most romanticized periods in human history is the Three Kingdoms era of ancient China. It’s been retold in novels, plays, movies, and video games. The fall of the Han dynasty set the stage, but those early years were also filled with drama, deception, betrayal . . . and bloody cruelty.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a classic in Chinese literature. It’s a fictional retelling of the real-life heroes and villains who battled for control in the ruins of the Han dynasty. But since this novel invents some characters and gives others magical powers, it cannot be used as a reliable source.
To make this article as historically accurate as possible, we’ve relied largely on Sima Guang’s historical records book, the Zizhi Tongjian, translated by Rafe de Crespigny. It’s a collection of accounts containing direct quotes from the emperor and his officials as they held court.
10 Eunuchs Of The Northern Palace
The emperor of Han lived in the city of Luoyang. During the day, he conducted business with his ministers in the Southern Palace. He slept in the Northern Palace, where dozens of his consorts had their private residences. Hundreds of maids served the emperor and his consorts. If the emperor decided to sleep with a maid, she could be promoted to a consort, too. If she had a baby, she would be given a higher rank. There was never any doubt of the paternity of a child born in the Northern Palace. Any fertile man who approached the women’s quarters risked execution. Even adult princes were not allowed to stay in the palace overnight.
But a select few men were allowed to stay overnight as guards or watchful servants. These were positions of honor, but there was one condition: The man had to have his penis and testicles removed. He had to become a eunuch.
The eunuchs were the emperor’s friends, caretakers, teachers, and confidantes. Clans from across the provinces were eager to build connections to the royal family. They castrated their extra young boys and sent them to the imperial court. Others volunteered for the opportunity.
9 Meet The Knifers
People known as “knifers” offered to cut the genitals off aspiring court attendants for a fee. The knifers would ask the candidate three times if he would regret castration. If the candidate flinched or acted nervous, they canceled the operation. Otherwise, the knifers hacked his genitals down to the base.
The knifers then inserted a metal plug into the urethra and bandaged it up. For three days, the eunuch lay in excruciating pain, unable to drink or urinate. On the third day, the knifers unplugged the urethra, letting copious amounts of urine spill out. If nothing drained, it meant the wound had become infected and the eunuch would die.
From time to time, eunuchs would have to present their severed genitals for inspection, so they kept them preserved in a sealed box. A eunuch was not to lose his “precious,” as his pickled genitals were called. If he did, he would have to secretly buy a new one from the knifers or borrow from a friend.
8 Eunuchs Corrupt The Young Princes
Mentioning things like a spoutless teapot or a dog without a tail were underhanded ways of insulting eunuchs. People ridiculed them for their funny way of walking, beardless faces, and high-pitched voices. They were also known for pissing themselves, especially the newly cut ones. A common insult was “smelly as a eunuch.” Royal consorts kept juvenile eunuchs as pets or groomed them to act like little girls.
Older eunuchs were trusted with raising the young princes. The ancient Chinese believed that a man who could sire no offspring would not covet power. But in reality, a eunuch was every bit as corruptible as the next man. Many eunuchs were desperate to remain near the seat of power. Thus they would shape their young princes to be weak-willed and dependent, making them believe that enemies lurked everywhere and convincing them that only their eunuch caretakers could be trusted.
Emperor Ling was unable to act without the advice of his eunuchs. He took the throne in AD 168, when he was 12 years old.
7 Hidden Mansions
In AD 169, university scholars spoke out against the corrupting influence of the eunuchs. So the eunuchs convinced Emperor Ling that the scholars were plotting to overthrow him. Ling had over 100 leading scholars arrested and executed. The rest had their civil liberties stripped for life. Future scholars were barred from entering office.
The eunuchs bought and sold official positions, infiltrated the military, and embezzled from the treasury. Emperor Ling loved the eunuchs Zhao Zhong and Zhang Rang so much that he called them his mother and father. Together they convinced Ling to never climb the tall towers of the palace. They did not want him to see the enormous mansions they had built for themselves. (Pictured above is a pottery model of a palace recovered from a Han dynasty tomb.)
Since eunuchs had emptied the coffers, the empire needed extra money. In AD 178, Emperor Ling sold public offices to the highest bidders. Many buyers did not have the funds to pay for their offices upfront. Ling put them on installment plans, forcing them into debt. These new officials had to embezzle money and accept bribes to pay back what they owed.
6 Brothers Of The Faith
Emperor Ling decided to build vast imperial gardens. To finance his project, he demanded expensive tributes from the provinces. This forced the local leaders to push crippling taxes onto the common people. This was during a time when floods and famine ravaged the empire, and many had to become bandits to survive. All the while, Emperor Ling lined his pockets with riches from the federal reserve.
Famine and poverty made many people sick. Zhang Jue was a provincial doctor overwhelmed by patients. After seeing their suffering, he had a religious awakening and became a Taoist faith healer. He convinced people that they could heal themselves by confessing their sins. Zhang Jue’s younger brothers were also doctors, and they joined him as preachers, telling their patients to spread the word. These tactics helped their followers swell into the hundreds of thousands.
Zhang Jue prophesied that the sky would turn yellow. Under this new heaven, the Han dynasty would end and a new utopian kingdom would be born. Zhang Jue’s followers took up arms in preparation for that day and wrapped yellow scarves around their heads in honor of the coming sky.
5 The Yellow Turban Rebellion
Zhang Jue’s fanatics worried the ministers of the imperial court. The ministers begged Emperor Ling to do something about them, but Ling didn’t concern himself with the matter and continued to lay heavy taxes on the people. The fanatics spread a story throughout the empire: “The azure sky is dead, and a Yellow Heaven will take its place. When the year is jiazi, great fortune will come to the world.”
Using chalk they wrote the year jiazi on government buildings and on the walls and gates of the capital city.
Zhang Jue formed a shadow government. His agents infiltrated the court and hatched a plan to overthrow the empire from within, but they were not careful and the plot leaked. Emperor Ling had the conspirators in the capital executed, and he sent soldiers to arrest Zhang Jue and his brothers.
To save their lives, Zhang Jue had to begin the rebellion ahead of schedule. It was messy and disorganized, but, through sheer force of numbers, cities started to fall. Rebel forces soon controlled large territories. But while Emperor Ling may have been a fool, his military commanders were not.
4 Rise Of The Legendary Heroes
It was in the war against the Yellow Turbans that the heroes in Romance of the Three Kingdoms first changed history. The folk hero Liu Bei (pictured above) rounded up an army of volunteers to save the empire. The chancellor Cao Cao led a cavalry enforcing a ban on cults. Today, his comments appear in the world-famous strategy book The Art of War.
Zhang Jue’s brothers died in battle, and Zhang Jue himself died of an unknown cause. The Yellow Turban fanatics had been suppressed, but the damage had been done. Hundreds of thousands were dead, cities were in ruins, and bandits ran wild. Since the government was overwhelmed, Ling tasked local leaders with self-governing and expanded their political and military powers. Many of these leaders were now famous war heroes. Their citizens respected them more than they did the emperor.
Emperor Ling and the eunuchs continued to levy heavy taxes on the people.
3 A Trap
He Jin, the brother of the empress, had led the armies against the Yellow Turbans. Afterward, he was promoted to commander in chief, which gave him immense political power. His top goal was to eliminate the eunuchs.
In AD 189, Emperor Ling became ill. He had two potential heirs. Prince Xie was the son of a consort and favored by the eunuchs. Prince Bian was the son of the empress. Emperor Ling died before he could make a choice. The eunuchs feared commander in chief He Jin would proclaim his nephew, Prince Bian, the emperor, so they hatched a plan to murder him.
The first step was to summon He Jin to the palace using a forged document from the empress. When He Jin arrived, he saw Pan Yin, an old friend, at the gate. Pan Yin was a soldier working under the eunuchs. When He Jin saw the terrified look on Pan Yin’s face, he withdrew, claiming to be sick. From afar, He Jin then declared Prince Bian the emperor.
2 The Eunuch Suicides
The standoff between He Jin and the eunuchs was making the empire tense. He Jin petitioned his sister the Empress Dowager to have all the eunuchs executed, but she was bonded with the eunuchs and would not allow it. He Jin had to threaten her into compliance. He summoned the frontier warlord Dong Zhuo to surround the palace with his army.
The eunuchs were understandably very afraid for their lives. Luckily for them, they managed to ambush He Jin in the palace and lop off his head.
He Jin’s allies stormed the palace with their armies, slaughtering any eunuch they could find. The most powerful eunuchs (a group known as the Ten Attendants) fled, but not before kidnapping the emperor and Prince Xie. The army pursued them to the Yellow River where they surrounded the Ten Attendants. With no escape, the eunuchs threw themselves into the river and drowned.
1 The Northern Palace Burns
While government officials were escorting the emperor and the prince back to the palace, the warlord Dong Zhuo (pictured above) intercepted them with his impressive army. The emperor was so intimidated that he could not speak coherently, but Prince Xie calmly and articulately answered Dong Zhuo’s questions. With the emperor and the prince in his possession, Dong Zhuo marched into the capital, where he took command of the leaderless armies of He Jin and the eunuch sympathizers. Dong Zhuo forced the emperor to abdicate the throne, and later killed him and his mother with poison. He then crowned Prince Xie as a powerless puppet emperor. The Han dynasty survived in name only.
Enjoying his newfound power, Dong Zhuo declared himself chancellor. He carried a sword to royal court meetings and refused to remove his shoes. He slept in Emperor Xian’s bed and slept with the emperor’s maids while his armies plundered, raped, and slaughtered the inhabitants of Han.
When the people could take the torture no more, they rose up against Dong Zhuo. The empire split as the heroes of the Yellow Turban Rebellion united their people. Dong Zhuo fled the capital, burning it down on his way out.
For more narrative history lists like this one, check out Matt’s blog. If you’re interested in ancient Chinese culture you can sign up to receive Alyssa Carlier’s translation of the original Mulan for free here.