A Brief History
On December 14, 835, Emperor Wenzong of the Chinese Tang Dynasty was given the news that “sweet dew” had formed on a pomegranate tree outside a military headquarters, a sign of divine favor for the Emperor. It was suggested that the Emperor and his court travel to the lucky tree to observe the blessed event for themselves, which was readily agreed to. In reality, this story and movement of the officials was all a ruse to get the powerful court Eunuchs (castrated public officials dedicated to a life of government service) to a place where they could be slaughtered en masse!
It seems the Emperor, his Chancellor Li Xun and General Zheng Zhu set all these preparations up as a conspiracy to massacre the Eunuchs who had become increasingly powerful within the Imperial Court.
On arrival outside the military headquarters Emperor Wenzong ordered his ministers to examine the “sweet dew” and it was rapidly determined the phenomenon was not genuine. The Emperor ordered his highest-ranking Eunuchs to examine the purported sweet dew in to get them all in one place at one time, ready for the upcoming slaughter.
The Eunuchs, court professionals with vast experience in government intrigue, sensed a problem and had their own armed forces standing by when a breeze blew a screen, revealing the Army forces that were to commit the planned massacre. Initially believing the Emperor was himself also in danger, the Eunuchs moved to protect him and transport Wenzong back to the palace. Fighting broke out and the Eunuchs finally realized Wenzong was in on the plot to massacre the Eunuchs. The soldiers and officials involved in the conspiracy found themselves on the wrong end of the slaughter, and 1000 or so of them were themselves slaughtered. The clearly winning Eunuch side sent cavalry after fleeing conspirator forces.
Li Xun and other conspirators were captured and executed by the Eunuchs, and although Wenzong stayed on the throne, it was with an increased presence of powerful “Eunuchs providing power behind the throne. The executions were done in sacrificial style as if the former government officials were animals. The poor condemned people were cut in half at the waist, while some were beheaded.
The Eunuchs had been propelled into the real power of the government instead of being eliminated, but this situation only persisted for a year or so before the power of the Eunuchs was once again curbed, although the Eunuchs remained more powerful than prior to Sweet Dew plot until the end of the Tang Dynasty in 907.
Court intrigue and murderous plots were certainly prevalent in both European and Eastern lands, and the history of monarchies are filled with such tales, the difference between East and West being the involvement of Eunuchs. Question for students (and subscribers): Would you trade your testicles for the opportunity to be a government official? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Benn, Charles. China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Brook, Timothy and Mark Edward Lewis. China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty (History of Imperial China). Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2012.
Holdsworth, May. Women of the Tang Dynasty. Odyssey Books & Maps, 2000.