|A stone general at the tomb of Tian Yi [file photo]
So who was Tian Yi? Tian Yi was a really loved and well-respected eunuch. Apparently, 259 eunuchs came to pay tribute to him at his tomb after his death. The names of all these eunuchs are inscribed on a stone column that stands close to his tomb.
Tian Yi was born in Shanxi Province. He was just 9 years old when he was castrated and sent to wait on the emperor and his entourage. Tian Yi served three Ming Dynasty Emperors – Jiajing, Longqing and Wanli. During the course of his 63 years of service, Tian Yi proved himself to be a considerate, cautious and capable servant. He was promoted many times and was ultimately responsible for the food stocks, an extremely important job. When Tian Yi lay on his death bed, Emperor Wanli was so devastated that he cancelled court meetings for three days. Tian Yi died at the age of 72, and it was Emperor Wanli who insisted that a memorial hall and tablet pavilions be built to commemorate his faithful servant.
Today, Tian Yi’s mausoleum is the centre piece of the exhibition at the eunuch museum. It is clear from the size of his mausoleum that Tian Yi had been a great man in his day. His mausoleum has all the features of an imperial mausoleum. The only difference is that it is smaller than the mausoleum of a member of the Imperial Family.
Beyond Divine Path Gate, I walked along a path towards Tian Yi’s tomb. Ornately engraved stone columns line this path, and I was impressed by the spectacle of two stone warriors. I passed through Lingxing Gate and ventured inside the pavilions here. Each pavilion houses a stone tablet on which is recorded Tian Yi’s achievements. Next, I came to Shouyu Gate. This gate was once believed to be the dividing line between this world and the netherworld. In ancient times, this gate was never opened and sacrificial rituals were performed in the memorial hall outside it. Today, you can walk through Shouyu Gate, and it is here where you can see the tomb mounds of Tian Yi and four other eunuchs.
The tomb mounds and most of the sacrificial altars are carved from marble. According to ancient wisdom, stone was regarded as lifeless whereas wood was considered to have life. For that reason, most tombs were traditionally constructed of stone while residences were built from wood.
The stone carvings are the most striking features of Tian Yi’s mausoleum. These carvings are of dragons, lions, deer and plants, and are in incredibly good condition considering how old this burial site is. I ventured down some stone steps to view the actual crypt of Tian Yi. It was dark down there, and the tomb was crumbling, but I felt deeply moved by the experience. It felt like a great honour to be able to step into the tomb of this man, but a part of me also felt like I was trespassing in a very sacred place.
My Chinese guide pointed out a stone tablet that was inscribed with Tian Yi’s name and status. He also explained to me how the crypt of another eunuch had been moved to the site from a location in the Western Hills. Although he did not the name or history of this particular eunuch, it was clear from the renovated tomb that this also belonged to a eunuch of high status. Not all eunuchs had such splendid tombs, ones that would have been brimming with treasures and fine silks to prepare them for their afterlife. Indeed, many eunuchs, even high status ones, had had their bodies dug up after their burials. The fact that tombs like that of Tian Yi and that of this unknown eunuch had remained in such good condition seemed nothing short of a miracle. But I felt sad to think that Tian Yi’s treasures had been stolen to raise troop funds during the early years of the Republic of China.
Inside the museum, however, I got to view some traditional and modern treasures, as well as the mummy of a eunuch. The mummy dates back to the 17th century, to the reign of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi. This mummy, which lies in a glass case, was found in West Shijingshan in 2006. It is in very good condition, and from the hairstyle scholars guess that it is the mummy of a Taoist monk. What is particularly interesting about this mummy though is that it shows that the monk was quite thin in his day and that he took medicine hoping it would give him everlasting life. Unfortunately, the medicine contained lead, and it seems to have reduced the monk’s lifespan. He died of lead poisoning. But in a twist of his wish to live on for ever, the lead served to preserve his body, and apparently, his skin was still soft to the touch when his mummy was first found.