Located about 5km from Hue city center, in Duong Xuan Village, Tu Hieu is one of the most atmospheric ancient pagoda nestled peacefully under a pined hill. Most of the travelers to Hue pay a visit to this site, because of its beautiful architecture, tranquil garden, its well-kept Buddhist traditions and practices which has a strong link with the renowned Master Monk Thich Nhat Hanh. But those amateurs of Slow Travel, are likely to spend more time wandering around the nearby mysterious cemetery, dedicated for the eunuchs of Nguyễn Dynasty.
The life of eunuchs under Nguyễn Dynasty
In the rural areas of Hue today, we still remember the proverb “As happy as the village gave birth to Mr. Bo” or “Give birth to Mr. Bo for the whole village to rely on“. Mr. Bo is a son born with a defect in the genitals or homosexual. Any family that “has given birth to Mr. Bo” should immediately report it to the village authorities so that the responsible agency can report it to the Ministry of Ritual. According to Mr. Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, a dedicated Hue study scholar, the child will be brought up according to the rules and etiquettes in the palace. When he grows up, he will be sent to the palace to be a eunuch. Any village having a Mr. Bo would be exempted from taxes for three years. Hence the villagers are very happy.
In the palace, the King was the only man. The rest were queen, concubines and maids. Therefore, the eunuchs took charge of all the hard work and arrangements in the palace. Under the Nguyen Dynasty, the eunuchs were also divided into five different ranks. They got different salary and rice. In terms of costumes, the eunuchs also had formal and casual clothes. The green silk vestments were for the high ranking and the blue ones were for the lower ranking. On the chest, there is a green flower on a red background to distinguish it from the civil mandarins embroidered with birds, and the military mandarins embroidering the animal. The eunuch’s hat has no wings. The eunuch’s usual attire is a black ao dai, white pants, and a black turban on the head. Due to some unfortunate precedents, the eunuchs under the Nguyen Dynasty were not allowed to get involved in political affairs, but only to do take care housekeeping things in the palace. Most of his life, the eunuchs live in the palace. When they are sick or old, they have to go out for treatment or live the rest of their lives in Eunuch premise, located northeast of the Imperial Citadel. The eunuchs is neither allowed to be buried inside the Citadel or at auspicious places dedicated only for kings and royalty.
In the early 19th century, in Duong Xuan area, there was a thatched temple named An Duong Am, a poetic landscape created by the Most Venerable Master Nhat Dinh. In the reign of King Thieu Tri (1843), an eunuch stood up to mobilize the royal eunuchs served during time of King Gia Long, Minh Mang and other citizens to contribute to building the temple into a spacious pagoda. This pagoda was ordained by King Tu Duc and is now Tu Hieu pagoda.
Why did the French name Từ Hiếu the “pagoda of eunuchs”
Tu Hieu pagoda was built from 1842 by 1848, thanks to the donation of a eunuch under the reign of King Thieu Tri. According to A. Laborde, again in 5th year of Kinh Thanh Thai reign (1893), being anxious about their miserable circumstances when getting old and dead without being taken care of, many eunuchs mobilized the court and themselves to dedicate money to renovate intensively the pagoda and expressed their wishes to being buried here. Since then, Tu Hieu pagoda was dedicated to honoring the souls of imperial eunuchs. There used to be around 200 eunuchs serving under the reign of each King Nguyen, some of them were high-ranking mandarins and great military talents, such as the General Le Van Duyet
The eunuch cemetery is located inside the pagoda garden. There are 25 tombs ranked in 3 rows, different in size and position, based on the title of the eunuch. Also, the votive tablets of the eunuchs have been put inside Tu Hieu pagoda, for daily ceremony and worshipped during the grand death anniversary. In spite of being mossy with time, the cemetery is continuously well taken care of, and provokes unique historical beauty, telling mysterious stories of life inside the Forbidden City, directly connected with the destiny of an eunuch from childhood until dead. How they were born with glory and died in misery. Moreover, it reminds us about how Vietnamese think about “death and life”, and why worshipping the ancestors and Buddhism is so important in our culture. The French then called Tu Hieu “pagode des eunuchs”.
Coming to Hue, besides visiting the Citadel and elaborated mausoleum of King Nguyen, don’t forget to pay a visit to this unique eunuch cemetery at Tu Hieu ancient pagoda, a place where the living people and the dead equally find their own happiness.
Tips: Tu Hieu pagoda and the eunuch cemetery can be visited by bicycle and connected with our cycling tour “Thuy Bieu Flavourful Wandering”.