The Truth About The Ming Dynasty's Secret Police

In 2017, Aladdin Security Co tried to open China's eyes to a whole new world where instead of seeking police for protection, residents could rent a bodyguard using an Uber-like app called Jinyiwei. The name was a throwback to premodern China. The South China Morning Post explains that "Jinyiwei" was the title bestowed upon the secret police formed during the Ming Dynasty. Skeptical internet users suggested the modern Jinyiwei would be made up of "petty street thugs and unemployed layabouts." Per the BBC, people suggested that "lonely" ladies would try to use the bodyguards as partners.

If this high-tech protection service was anything like the original Jinyiwei, fears of thuggery would be justified. Author Ping Dong describes them as "privileged and brutal." They had the power to imprison officials without any process, let alone due process. As for the bit about lonely women, well, they would probably be more than a bit disappointed in their rent-a-gigolos, who would have nothing to jiggle in their pants on account of them being eunuchs.

As Shih-shan Henry Tsai writes in Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty, the Jinyiwei of old was a small cast of castrated men who acted as the emperor's personal protection service and surveillance apparatus. But they weren't the only ruthless eunuchs who laid down the law. These various secret police forces would become some of the most dangerous and hated figures of their era.

The eunuch police were hard on the guilty ... and the innocent

You might be wondering why eunuchs were recruited to do this line of work. As the Ancient History Encyclopedia details, these so-called "non-men" started off as slaves and butlers in ancient China but won the trust of emperors, in large part because they lacked private parts and couldn't sleep with royal women or sire rival heirs to the throne. Entrusted with increasingly important tasks and information, they amassed incredible clout and began to wield it. They would do that to devastating effect as imperial police.

The Ming Dynasty's secret police are almost as old as the dynasty itself. According to History, the first secret police were assembled by the first Ming emperor, Taizu, who seized power after conquering the occupying Mongols in 1368. Apparently paranoid, Taizu used the dong-less arm of the law to conduct a 14-year-investigation that resulted in roughly 30,000 executions. One of Taizu's successors, Emperor Yongle, placed less faith in the Jinyiwei. So in 1420, he formed a more organized secret police force: the Eastern Depot.

The Eastern Depot mercilessly murdered, mutilated, and tortured people, "easily becoming the most feared secret police in Ming China," writes Shih-shan Henry Tsai. Ping Dong's Historical Background of Wang Yang-ming's Philosophy of Mind says the Western Depot was even worse. Formed in 1477, it reached such extreme levels of cruelty that widespread condemnation forced its dissolution in 1482.