Artist’s representation of Wei Zhongxian.

Wei Zhongxian: When China Yielded to the Terrifying Power of a Notorious Eunuch

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Wei Zhongxian is often considered to be the most powerful and notorious eunuch in Chinese history. He had powers almost equivalent to that of the emperor’s and those who opposed him were ruthlessly eliminated.

Why Wei Zhongxian Became a Eunuch

Wei Zhongxian (written in Chinese as 魏忠贤) lived between the 16th and 17th centuries, during which China was under the rule of the Ming Dynasty. This eunuch served the Tianqi Emperor, who reigned from 1620 to 1627, and was an extremely influential figure in the late Ming court - the empire was practically ruled by the eunuch.

Tianqi Emperor.

Tianqi Emperor. ( Public Domain )

Wei Zhongxian was born in 1568 in Suning (which is today part of the central Chinese province of Hubei). He first entered into imperial service as a eunuch after voluntarily submitting himself to castration. This decision was made as he was facing bankruptcy as a result of debts incurred from excessive gambling. As a eunuch, Wei Zhongxian first entered into the service of Lady Wang, the mother of Zhu Youjiao (who would later become the Tianqi Emperor). Wei Zhongxian’s devotion to the young prince enabled a strong bond to form between the two individuals. Additionally, the eunuch became acquainted with another figure close to the future emperor, the wet nurse Madame Ke.

Ming Dynasty eunuchs around the emperor.

Ming Dynasty eunuchs around the emperor. ( Public Domain )

Wei Zhongxian Increases His Power

Wei Zhongxian’s opportunity to play a greater role in state affairs came in October 1620. The Taichang Emperor died suddenly in late September, after reigning for less than a month. As a result, his eldest son, Zhu Youjiao, ascended the throne as the Tianqi Emperor. The new emperor, who was 15 years old when he was enthroned, had no interest in running the state. Instead, he preferred to devote his time to carpentry. Additionally, the emperor is recorded to have been illiterate, and was too weak and indecisive to be an effective ruler.

These shortcomings of the Tianqi Emperor as a ruler did not go unnoticed by Wei Zhongxian. The eunuch’s close relationship with the emperor enabled him to take advantage of the situation, thus making him the de facto ruler of the empire. Wei Zhongxian was appointed as the Brush-Holding Director of Ceremonial, as well as the Commissioner of the Three Treasures of Commercial Revenues. In order to strengthen his position in the imperial court, Wei Zhongxian created a faction of court eunuchs. Additionally, those eunuchs faithful to him were given important posts in the palace service.

A group of eunuchs. Mural from the tomb of the prince Zhanghuai, 706, Qianling, Shaanxi.

A group of eunuchs. Mural from the tomb of the prince Zhanghuai, 706, Qianling, Shaanxi. ( Public Domain )

Wei Zhongxian also exerted his influence on the officials of the imperial court. The majority of these officials decided to throw their support behind the powerful eunuch, either due to fear of retribution, or with the hope that they would be rewarded for their loyalty. Only a small group of officials, known as the Donglin Faction, had the courage to oppose Wei Zhongxian and his supporters. This faction consisted of idealistic Confucian officials who advocated reforms in the government.

Results of the Eunuch’s Reign of Terror

Wei Zhongxian decided to deal with this opposition by eliminating the members of this faction and their supporters around the country. One of the imperial institutions that allowed Wei Zhongxian to carry out these persecutions was the Eastern Depot. This was a spy and secret police agency run by eunuchs that Wei Zhongxian came to control in 1623. As a result, numerous officials were either executed or removed from their offices. In addition, this faction was declared illegal, and their academies closed. Nevertheless, there was resistance in some areas, with supporters of the faction ignoring the imperial edict, and in some cases, even killing those sent by Wei Zhongxian to execute his orders.

Donglin school in Wuxi.

Donglin school in Wuxi. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Wei Zhongxian’s reign of terror did not last for long. In 1627, the Tianqi Emperor died, and was succeeded by his younger brother, Zhu Youjian, who reigned as the Chongzhen Emperor. Although Wei Zhongxian tendered his resignation, it was declined by the new emperor. In the meantime, there were calls for the eunuch’s impeachment. In the end, the emperor decided to send Wei Zhongxian into exile in Fengyang, Anhui. On the way to Fengyang, the emperor was warned that the eunuch might attempt to stage a rebellion, and ordered the arrest of Wei Zhongxian. When the eunuch received news of his impending arrest, he knew that it was all over, and chose to commit suicide, rather than face trial and possibly execution. Nevertheless, Wei Zhongxian’s corpse was later dismembered, and displayed in his native village as a warning.

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