Theses Master's

Didactic Victorianism: Chinese Eunuchs and Mormon Polygamy in the Late Nineteenth Century

Ordòñez-Arreola, Deysy

Recognising bodies as objects enables the manipulation, control and essentially the governmentality thereof. Contextualizing bodies as “objects over which we labour” through individual and collective body practices, the ways in which bodies are produced, cultivated and disciplined essentially become ritualistic and often seemingly natural. Feeding, clothing, washing our bodies and so forth, are practices that do not cause a flinch, a look of disgust, or a thought of pity. However, society does not easily accept or understand some body practices. Throughout China’s dynastic history, various forms of body practices were deeply rooted in cultural rituals and symbolisms. For example, the practice of foot binding, although it hindered women’s ability to walk, could be a symbol of femininity and social rank. Some male bodies also partook in body practices, specifically castration. Unlike the slow shape-changing process of foot binding, the effect of castration was immediate. With the slash of a knife the male genitals, cut off in part or completely, often leaving the body bare of any genitals, making a eunuch. Created by royal force initially as a palace punishment [宮刑gōngxíng] under the laws created by the Duke of Zhou [周公Zhōugōng], brother of King Wu [武王Wǔwáng] of the Zhou Dynasty [周Zhōu], about 1100 B.C., eunuchs were not regarded as castrated males—still maintaining their identity as males—rather they were classified and defined as eunuchs [宦官huànguān]—by the emperor and, with a trickledown effect, by Chinese society. In essence, castration, while it led to the loss of male body parts, was a productive force in Chinese society. While the obvious servile role of eunuchs is apparent in Chinese history, the eunuch entity also served as a vehicle to address the social world of the West and its anxieties. It played a role in Western imagination and its experience of the East. In this paper, I aim to focus on the early Western understanding of the Chinese eunuch, the making of the Chinese eunuch identity, as well as the activities and social influences of Victorian writers. More specifically, I examine the article “Chinese Eunuchs” written by George Carter Stent in 1877—the earliest literature written by a Westerner in China, for a Western audience, on Chinese eunuchs. I aim to show that by describing eunuchs in China, Stent gave the West a defining lens with which to view eunuchs, while creating a common foundation of rationality to extend order and maximize control over his audience demographics. Essentially, by concurrently criticising the origin and motives for creating eunuchs and using his observations to address anxieties in Victorian England, Stent didactically enhanced the need for strong Christian ethical and moral values.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Ko, Dorothy
M.A., Columbia University
Published Here
October 28, 2014


Thesis Submitted in Requirement for the Master of Arts in East Asian Languages and Cultures East Asian Languages and Cultures: History Advising Professor: Dorothy Ko Weatherhead East Asian Institute Columbia University