"ANNAM - Hué - Les Eunuques, gardiens du Sérail". Postcard issued by Collect. Dieulefils-Hanoi. Image symbol: 1007 A, Year of issuing: unknown, year of sending: 1915 ? (illegible), measurments: 13,5 cm x 9 cm. Private collection
Closer look at the lower-right corner of the postcard reveals information that the photo was published by the Collect. Dieulefils – Hanoi.
Pierre Dieulefils is yet today regarded as a famous and highly productive photographer of the French colonies. Including Indochina.
In my opinion, cards like this were not available on every corner of the Vietnamese cities. They were rather seen as some kind curiosity, an exotic souvenir required by foreigners. This needs though father enquiries.
The fact that the picture was taken in Hué means that someone, if not Pierre himself, must had travelled there from northern Hanoi. From Tonkin to Annam. Today the journey takes about 12 hours by train. Hundred years ago travel of this kind was done by boat. It took several days.
Next obstacle was entering the Forbidden City which, by definition was not to be entered. It is difficult to say whether the photograph was taken in the forbidden part of the Hué Citadel, or maybe behind its walls. For instance at the Queen Mother´s Compound. The glassed windows might have been an indication if only some more architectural substance was still extant.
One could wonder how was it possible to gather a group of eunuchs and make them pose for the photographer and the camera. Would they ever imagine that the picture was to be published and distributed? Probably not. But, here they are…
When it comes to the institution of eunuchs, Nguyen Dynasty was repeating the Chinese pattern. Whether the eunuchs were born as hermaphrodites or self castrated, they were highly required at the Hué court. The edict was issued by the one of the first emperors stateing that bearth of the hermaphrodites must be reported to the local authorities, which in turn had to report the fact to the Palace.
Self castration, painfull and cruel, gave however an entrance to a better life.
The eunuchs were working as a influential servants. Royal harem was their main domain where they were famous for various intrigues. They were also appreciated in the compounds inhabited by the Emperor´s mother or grandmother.
There was of course hierarchy within the group but the dark blue clothes with flowery embroideries and certain kind of hat were common to all, making them recognisable.
Eunuchs were rewarded for their services with rice and silk; the salary quite common among other lower officials and maids.
Outside the citadel walls a smaller temple was erected and offered to the eunuchs by the imperial court. They could pray there and find refuge being sick or feeling lonely. Being too old to work, they could live their last years there and die.
Tu Hieu Pagoda is cocidered to be one of the most important in Hué.