Slavery in China

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Coolie labourer c. 1900 in Zhenjiang, China. The bamboo pole he leans upon was used to hoist and carry the bundle at his feet with the pole over his shoulder and the bundle leaning against his back. On the left side of the image, in the background, another man uses this same technique of bearing a heavy load.

Slavery in China has taken various forms throughout history. Slavery was repeatedly abolished as a legally recognized institution, including in a 1909 law[1][2] fully enacted in 1910,[3] although the practice continued until at least 1949.[4]

Shang dynasty (second millenium BC)[edit]

Slavery was established in China by at least the Shang dynasty, at which point it has been estimated that about 5 percent of the population was enslaved.[5]

Qin dynasty (221-206 BC)[edit]

Men sentenced to castration became eunuch slaves of the Qin dynasty state to do forced labor, for projects like the Terracotta Army.[6] The Qin government confiscated the property and enslaved the families of those who received castration as a punishment for rape.[7]

Slaves were deprived of their rights and connections to their families.[8]

Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD)[edit]

One of Emperor Gao's first acts was to manumit agricultural workers enslaved during the Warring States period, although domestic servants retained their status.[1]

Men punished with castration during the Han dynasty were also used as slave labor.[9]

Deriving from earlier Legalist laws, the Han dynasty set in place rules that the property of and families of criminals doing three years of hard labor or sentenced to castration were to have their families seized and kept as property by the government.[10]

Xin dynasty[edit]

In the year 17 C.E, the Emperor Wang Mang usurped the Chinese throne and instituted a series of sweeping reforms, including the abolition of slavery and radical land reform. After his assassination in 23 C.E., slavery was reinstituted.[11][12]

Three Kingdoms[edit]

During the Three Kingdoms period, a number of statuses intermediate between freedom and slavery developed, but none of them is thought to have exceeded 1 percent of the population.[1]

Tang dynasty[edit]

A contract from the Tang dynasty that records the purchase of a 15 year-old slave for six bolts of plain silk and five Chinese coins.

Tang Law held that free people could not be enslaved, and slaves who were sold had to be previously held as slaves in order to be sold legally. A large amount of slave trading took place on Silk Road markets during this time; there are several examples of Sogdian slave girls being sold by Sogdian merchants to Chinese.[13]

Chinese law segregated slaves and freemen into different classes, and slaves were classified as criminals. Only criminals and foreigners were allowed to be enslaved in China. Sexual relationships between foreign slaves and Chinese women were banned.[14]

Tang army expeditions in Korea, Mongolia, Central Asia and India captured foreigners as slaves.[15] After executing the men, Tang dynasty armies enslaved captive women.[16]

Persians were kidnapped by pirates and kept in captivity on Wan-an, Hainan island, before being sold. Samanids in Transoxania sold Turks to the Chinese.[17]

Free Chinese could not be legally sold as slaves unless they willingly sold themselves. If they did not sell themselves, the person who sold them could be executed. However, all other peoples were subject to involuntary enslavement. Southern aboriginals constituted the largest number of slaves. Other peoples sold to Chinese included Turks, Persians, and Korean women, who were sought after by the wealthy.[18] China suffered from shortages of women for marriage, which led to Korean women being sold in Chinese slave markets to compensate for this.[19] The Chinese demand for young Korean slave girls as concubines created a lucrative market for pirates in Korean waters. Their captives were sold in Shandong, China. The Chinese Governor of Shandong banned the trade in 692.[20][21]

A massive market in the trade of southern aboriginal slave girls also existed. Chinese officials denounced it and attempted to ban it, to no effect.[22] Indian, Malay, and Black African slaves were also sold to the Chinese. Their skin was noted to be dark, their hair wavy or curly.[23]

Tang law considered slaves to be chattel without rights as people. Free women could not marry male slaves.[24]

Song dynasty[edit]

The Song's warfare against northern and western neighbors produced many captives on both sides, but reforms were introduced to ease the transition from bondage to freedom.[1]

Yuan dynasty[edit]

The Mongol Yuan dynasty implemented a great expansion of slavery in China and restored harsher terms of service.[1] However, because the Chinese were more integrated into the culture, such "slaves" often proved so invaluable they came to possess a great deal of power themselves, including slaves of their own motherboarder.[4] During insurrections and slave revolts, such disloyalty often led to their property being targeted first, even before the Mongols' themselves.[4] In 1253, the Franciscan monk William of Rubruck reported numerous Europeans slaves in China. He also described German prisoners who had been enslaved in iron mines.[25]

Ming dynasty (1368-1644)[edit]

Upon his conquest over the Yuan dynasty in 1368, China's Hongwu Emperor establishes the Ming dynasty and would abolish all forms of slavery.[1] However, in practice, slavery continued through the Ming dynasty.[1]

The Javans sent 30,000 black slaves as tribute to the Ming dynasty in 1381.[26] When the Ming dynasty crushed the Miao Rebellions in 1460, they castrated 1,565 Miao boys, which resulted in the deaths of 329 of them, they were then turned into eunuch slaves.[27][28][29] This event occurred during the rule of the Zhengtong Emperor (Yingcong or Ying Tsung). Since 329 of the boys died, even more were needed to be castrated.[30]

Later Ming rulers, as a way of limiting slavery because of their inability to prohibit it, passed a decree that limited the number of slaves that could be held per household and extracted a severe tax from slave owners.[1]

Qing dynasty (1644-1912)[edit]

The Qing dynasty initially oversaw an expansion in slavery and states of bondage like the booi aha.[4] They possessed about two million slaves upon their conquest of China.[1] However, as the previous Chinese rulers before them, the Qing rulers soon saw the advantages of slowly phasing out slavery, gradually introducing reforms turning slaves and serfs into peasants.[1] Laws passed in 1660 and 1681 forbade landowners from selling slaves with the land they farmed and prohibited physical abuse of slaves by landowners.[1] The Kangxi Emperor freed all the Manchu's hereditary slaves in 1685.[1] The Yongzheng Emperor's "Yongzheng emancipation" between 1723 and 1730 sought to free all slaves to strengthen the autocratic ruler through a kind of social leveling that created an undifferentiated class of free subjects under the throne, freeing the vast majority of slaves.[1]

The end of slavery elsewhere following the British emancipation led to increasing demands for cheap Chinese laborers, known as "coolies". Mistreatment ranged from the near-slave conditions maintained by some crimps and traders in the mid-1800s in Hawaii and Cuba to the relatively dangerous tasks given to the Chinese during the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s.[4]

Among his other reforms, Taiping Rebellion leader Hong Xiuquan abolished slavery and prostitution in the territory under his control in the 1850s and '60s.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Hallet, Nicole. "China and Antislavery". Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition, Vol. 1, p. 154 – 156. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. ISBN 0-313-33143-X.
  2. ^ Gang Zhou. Man and Land in Chinese History: an Economic Analysis, p. 158. Stanford University Press (Stanford), 1986. ISBN 0-8047-1271-9.
  3. ^ Huang, Philip C. Code, Custom, and Legal Practice in China: the Qing and the Republic Compared, p. 17. Stanford University Press (Stanford), 2001. ISBN 0-8047-4110-7.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Rodriguez, Junius. "China, Late Imperial". The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Vol. 1, p. 146. ABC-CLIO, 1997. ISBN 0-87436-885-5.
  5. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica, inc (2003). The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 27. Encyclopaedia Britannica. p. 289. ISBN 0-85229-961-3. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  6. ^ Bayerischen Landesamtes für Denkmalpflege (2001). Qin Shihuang. Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege. p. 273. ISBN 3-87490-711-2. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  7. ^ Mark Edward Lewis (2007). The early Chinese empires: Qin and Han. Harvard University Press. p. 252. ISBN 0-674-02477-X. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  8. ^ Society for East Asian Studies (2001). Journal of East Asian archaeology, Volume 3. Brill. p. 299. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  9. ^ History of Science Society (1952). Osiris, Volume 10. Saint Catherine Press. p. 144. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  10. ^ Anthony Jerome Barbieri-Low (2007). Artisans in early imperial China. University of Washington Press. p. 146. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  11. ^ Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition. Greenwood Publishing Group. 2011. p. 155. ISBN 9780313331435. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ HANSEN, Valerie. "The Impact of the Silk Road Trade on a Local Community: The Turfan Oasis, 500-800". Yale University Press. Retrieved 14 July 2010. 
  14. ^ David Brion Davis (1998). The problem of slavery in Western culture. Oxford University Press US. p. 51. ISBN 0-19-505639-6. Retrieved 28 November 2010. 
  15. ^ Joyce E. Salisbury (2004). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life: The medieval world. Greenwood Press. p. 316. ISBN 0-313-32543-X. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  16. ^ Marc Samuel Abramson (2008). Ethnic identity in Tang China. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 136. ISBN 0-8122-4052-9. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  17. ^ Edward H. Schafer (1963). The golden peaches of Samarkand: a study of Tʻang exotics. University of California Press. p. 44. ISBN 0-520-05462-8. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  18. ^ Charles D. Benn (2002). Daily life in traditional China: the Tang dynasty. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 39. ISBN 0-313-30955-8. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  19. ^ Kenneth B. Lee (1997). Korea and East Asia: the story of a Phoenix. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 52. ISBN 0-275-95823-X. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  20. ^ Edward H. Schafer (1963). The golden peaches of Samarkand: a study of Tʻang exotics. University of California Press. p. 44. ISBN 0-520-05462-8. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  21. ^ Clarence Martin Wilbur (1967). Slavery in China during the Former Han dynasty, 206 B.C.-A.D. 25. Russell & Russell. p. 92. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  22. ^ Edward H. Schafer (1963). The golden peaches of Samarkand: a study of Tʻang exotics. University of California Press. p. 45. ISBN 0-520-05462-8. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  23. ^ Edward H. Schafer (1963). The golden peaches of Samarkand: a study of Tʻang exotics. University of California Press. p. 46. ISBN 0-520-05462-8. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  24. ^ Charles D. Benn (2002). Daily life in traditional China: the Tang dynasty. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 40. ISBN 0-313-30955-8. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  25. ^ ^ Jump up to: a b c d Roux, p.465
  26. ^ Shih-shan Henry Tsai (1996). The eunuchs in the Ming dynasty. SUNY Press. p. 152. ISBN 0-7914-2687-4. Retrieved 28 November 2010. 
  27. ^ Shih-shan Henry Tsai (1996). The eunuchs in the Ming dynasty. SUNY Press. p. 16. ISBN 0-7914-2687-4. Retrieved 28 June 2010. 
  28. ^ Journal of Asian history, Volume 25. O. Harrassowitz. 1991. p. 130. Retrieved 28 June 2010. 
  29. ^ "Eunuchs". 2005. Retrieved 28 June 2010. 
  30. ^ Taisuke Mitamura (1970). Chinese eunuchs: the structure of intimate politics. C.E. Tuttle Co. p. 54. Retrieved 28 June 2010. 

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