The Yehe Nara Curse
During the late-Ming Dynasty, Nurhaci (努爾哈赤), the leader of the Aisin-Goro clan, was uniting the Jurchen tribes (later known as the Manchu) in Manchuria (northeast China). The last tribe to be conquered was the Yehe Nara, led by a man named Gintaisi (金台石). They opposed the Jurchen union because they were being treated well by the Ming court. However, despite having the help of the Ming army, Nurhaci eventually defeated the Yehe Nara tribe and Gintaisi was either executed or forced to commit suicide. Before his death, Gintaisi allegedly cursed Nurhaci that as long as one of his descendants survived, even if it was a female, they will bring down the Aisin-Goros.
Nurhaci’s descendants went on to defeat the Ming-rebellion leader Li Zicheng and began their rule over China. Whether as a coincidence or because the Aisin-Goros were fearful of the curse, it was not until the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor that a Yehe Nara woman gained a prominent ranking within the imperial harem. That woman would later become known as Empress Dowager Cixi.
There are two ways in which the curse seems to have been fulfilled. The first interpretation is that Cixi’s disastrous rule brought about the Qing Dynasty’s downfall. Her anti-reformist stance and extravagant spending were reasons why China fell behind in terms of military and technological advancement. The second interpretation is that a Yehe Nara woman – Empress Dowager Longyu (隆裕皇后) – signed the abdication agreement on behalf of Puyi to officially end the Qing Dynasty.
The Making of a Eunuch
In the Qing Dynasty, the castration of eunuchs was performed by government-sanctioned “knifers”. There were two families who specialized in the surgery: “畢五” and “小刀劉”. Anyone who wished to become a eunuch had to first register with one of them. Following a background check, the approved males would need sign a waiver to excuse the knifer of any consequences from the castration. They will also need to bring a gift for the knifer and several items to help them through their recovery. There is a fee of six silver pieces, but since most families could not afford to pay the price, they will sign a promissory note to repay their debts once they enter the palace.
The optimal time for surgery was in late-spring or early summer when it was relatively warm, because the castrated man cannot wear pants for at least one month after the surgery. Before the surgery, the person will rid themselves of poop and urine, then they will be locked in a sealed room for 3-4 days without food or water. Once they are ready, their male parts will be anaesthetized with hot chili sauce or pepper. They will be strapped to a chair and asked, once again, if they are willing to become a eunuch. If there is any hesitation at all, the knifer will not perform the surgery.
Using a curved knife, the knifer will sever the genitals in a single quick slice and then quickly insert a plug to prevent the blockage of the urethra. For the next three days, the patient is kept in a sealed room and forbidden from eating or drinking. The plug is removed after three days and the surgery is considered a success if the patient can urinate properly. The new eunuch will need to wait for the wound to heal, a recovery process that takes approximately 100 days. His “preciouses” will be hung from the ceiling on a red string in hopes of a rapid rise up the palace ranks. Upon the eunuch’s death, his family will reclaim the “preciouses” from the knifer so that the eunuch can be buried as a whole man.
The Use of “Nucai”
The term nucai (奴才) is a self-depreciating term meaning “your servant/slave”. This term is traditionally used by eunuchs to address themselves in the presence of the Emperor. Generally, other court officials would use the term chen (臣) instead, meaning “your subject”. Recall in Curse of the Royal Harem where all the court attendants, including the concubines, referred to themselves as nucai. There is actually historical basis for it. In the Qing Dynasty, Manchu court officials, regardless of rank, would use the term nucai to refer to themselves. Meanwhile, Han court officials, regardless of rank, were only permitted to use the term chen. This is because the Manchu Emperor and officials were considered to be akin to master and servant from the same household, whereas the Han people are not part of the “family” and are only treated as subjects of the Manchu ruler. Such a distinction is so important that the Qianlong Emperor was greatly angered when a Han official referred to himself as nucai when submitting a joint memorial with a Manchu official. The Qianlong Emperor issued a decree that, from then on, Manchu and Han officials who make joint submissions must both refer to themselves as chen. The Emperor would rather have the Manchu “downgrade” to use chen than to allow the Han people the privilege of being a nucai of the Emperor.
Read The Confidant Review
More Historical Context posts:
The Unequal Treaties
The Confidant Characters
The Empress Dowagers
The Xinyou Coup - How Cixi came to power
The Burning of Yuan Ming Yuan
The Confidant & Curse of the Royal Harem Connection - Relationship Map of Late Qing Emperors