He was just eight years of age when he took the decision that was to transform his life.
|Sun Yaoting in 1996: no turning back|
Sun Yaoting had been chatting with an elderly eunuch who had become rich from serving the Chinese emperor.
Now, the autumn of 1911, Sun decided to follow the same path. He asked his father to castrate him in order that he could serve Emperor Puyi - known to history as the ‘Last Emperor’.
It was a momentous decision. Unlike many eunuchs in the Ottoman Empire, Chinese eunuchs had every bit of their genitals removed. It was an operation that caused not only excruciating pain, but led to a lifetime of sexual frustration, impotence and incontinence.
Sun remained undaunted. On the appointed day, he removed his clothes and lay completely still while his father bound up his hands and feet with a rope. Then, with a single violent swoop of a razor, his father performed the operation.
|Emperor Puyi in 1922|
In a matter of seconds - and a torrent of blood - Sun had become a eunuch. He was bandaged with oiled cloth to staunch the bleeding. Ground chilli seeds were sprinkled on the wound.
The young lad lay in a coma for three days. For eight weeks he was virtually paralysed. And for many more months, he could not walk because of the excruciating pain. But he eventually recovered from the loss of blood and looked forwards to joining the emperor’s royal household in the Forbidden City.
|Sun's fellow eunuchs|
Emperor Puyi had more than 1,000 eunuchs, many of whom wielded positions of great influence. The emperor rarely left the inner recesses of the palace, meaning that the eunuchs became crucial intermediaries between the outer bureaucratic world and the inner Imperial one.
Puyi himself would later write of these ‘slaves’, who attended him day and night.
‘They waited on me when I ate, dressed and slept. They accompanied me on my walks and to my lessons; they told me stories and had rewards and beatings from me, but they never left my presence. They were my slaves and they were my earliest teachers.’
|Puyi's wife: he preferred eunuchs|
This was the role to which Sun now aspired: he wanted to get the ear of the emperor in order that he might acquire power and influence.
But scarcely had he recovered from his operation than he received news that was to shock him to the core: the emperor had abdicated. The Imperial court was being disbanded and Sun’s castration had been in vain.
But the dynasty did not die immediately and Sun was not left entirely without hope. He first found employment with one of the emperor’s uncles, and later he worked for the wife of Emperor Puyi.
|The Forbidden City|
For the decades that followed, he was to serve the former imperial family with devotion. He accompanied them to Manchuria, where Puyi was installed as the puppet emperor of the Japanese colonial state of Manchukuo in 1932.
He was also witness to all the innermost secrets of the imperial household: the emperor’s refusal to sleep with his wife on their wedding night and Puyi’s obsession with a fellow eunuch, ‘who looked like a pretty girl with his tall, slim figure, handsome face and creamy white skin.’
|Emperor Puyi of Manchukuo|
Sun was luckier than the majority of the emperor’s eunuchs, who had been abandoned by the court and left penniless. Some became outcasts in society. Many more committed suicide. Others sought sanctuary in the temples of Beijing.
Sun’s own life took a downward turn in 1949, when the Communists came to power. Gone were the days when eunuchs were viewed with fear and admiration. Now they were despised as outmoded relics of China’s feudal past.
Sun lost his most treasured possession - his severed pickled genitals - during the Cultural Revolution. Eunuchs always kept them in a jar, in order that they could be buried together with their corpse. It was believed that such a practice would guarantee their reincarnation as ‘whole’ men.
But Sun’s genitals were thrown away like common garbage, causing him to weep openly.
Sun was to live another three decades, dying in 1996 at the age of 94. He never recovered from the loss of his pickled ‘treasure’.
‘When I die,’ he said sadly, ‘I will come back as a cat or a dog.’