Slavery in China

Chinese slave

Slavery in China has taken various forms throughout history. Slavery was reportedly 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] Despite such rulings, no formal law that abolishes or bans slavery has ever been successfully passed in all of China's history.

Slavery affected, and continues to affect, millions in China.[5] Women and children were subject to sexual exploitation,[5] The 2007 Chinese slave scandal involved thousands of slaves, including, thousands of children, who had gone missing and were forced to work in brickyards.[6] Slavery in China also includes domestic servitude and forced begging.[7]

History of slavery in China

Shang dynasty (second millennium BC)

Slavery was not a common sight in the Shang dynasty but still occurred.[8]

Qin dynasty (221–206 BC)

Slaves of the Qin dynasty were subject to forced labor, for projects like the Terracotta Army.[9] The Qin government confiscated the property and enslaved the families of those who became slaves as punishment.[10]


Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD)

One of Emperor Gao's first acts was to manumit (v: to release from slavery, to set free) 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.[12]

Deriving from earlier Legalist laws, the Han dynasty set in place rules that the property 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.[13]

Xin dynasty (9–23 AD)

In the year 9 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. Slavery was reinstated in 12 C.E. before his assassination in 23 C.E.[14][15]

Three Kingdoms (220–280 AD)

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 (618–907 AD)

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.[16] China was a destination for Radhanite Jews who brought boys, female slaves and eunuchs from Europe according to the 9th-century Book of Roads and Kingdoms by ibn Khordadbeh.[17]

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.[18]

Tang army expeditions in Korea, Mongolia, Central Asia and India captured foreigners as slaves.[19] After executing the men, Tang dynasty armies enslaved captive women.[20]

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.[21]

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. The largest number of slaves came from Southern tribes, such as Thais and other aboriginals from the newly dominated regions of Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Guizhou; young slave girls were the most desired resulting in a massive market for them, but Chinese officials denounced it and attempted to ban it, to no effect. Kong Kui, the governor of Guangdong, banned the practice of selling native women in 817.[22] Other peoples sold to Chinese included Turks, Persians, and Korean women, who were sought after by the wealthy.[23][24] China suffered from shortages of women for marriage in part due to the practice of female infanticide, which led to Chinese pirates raiding coastal villages and kidnapping Korean women to sell in Chinese slave markets at a lucrative price.[25] Their captives were sold in Shandong, China. The Chinese Governor of Shandong banned the trade in 692.[26][27]

Indian, Malay, and Black African slaves were also sold to the Chinese. Their skin was noted to be dark, their hair wavy or curly.[28]

Tang law considered slaves to be chattel without rights as people. Free women could not marry male slaves.[29]

Song dynasty (960–1279 AD)

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 (1271–1368 AD)

As a colonial empire, 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]

Korean girls kept as servants during the Yuan dynasty by "Northerners" which was recorded in a historic text.[30][31] The Caomuzi (草木子) by Ye Ziqi (葉子奇) which was cited by the Jingshi ouji (京師偶記引) by Chai Sang (柴桑) stated that during the Yuan dynasty that Korean girls were a must have property for northerners. (元朝北人,女使必得高麗)[32][33] Korean women were viewed as having "jade snow" like skin (肌膚玉雪發雲霧) by Hao Jingceng 郝經曾, a Yuan scholar, and it was the rage to own Korean women among northerners in the Yuan dynasty as mentioned in Toghon Temür's (shùndì 順帝) Xù Zīzhì Tōngjiàn (續資治通鑒): (京师达官贵人,必得高丽女,然后为名家).[34][35]

Ming dynasty (1368–1644 AD)

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

The Javans sent 300 black slaves as tribute to the Ming dynasty in 1381.[36] 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. The Guizhou Governor who ordered the castration of the Miao was reprimanded and condemned by the Ming Tianshun Emperor for doing it once the Ming government heard of the event.[37][38][39] 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.[40] On 30 Jan 1406, the Ming Yongle Emperor expressed horror when the Ryukyuans castrated some of their own children to become eunuchs in order to give them to Yongle. Yongle said that the boys who were castrated were innocent and didn't deserve castration, and he returned the boys to Ryukyu and instructed them not to send eunuchs again.[41]

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 AD)

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, like previous dynasties, the Qing rulers soon saw the advantages of phasing out slavery, and gradually introduced 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 his authority 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 abolition of slavery in many countries 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 1860s.[4]

"Slavery exists in China, especially in Canton and Peking ... I have known a male slave. He is named Wang and is a native of Kansu, living in Kuei-chou in the house of his original master's son, and with his own family of four persons acknowledged to me that he was a slave, Nu-p'u. He was a person of considerable ability, but did not appear to care about being free. Female slaves are very common all over China, and are generally called . . .

YA-TOU 丫頭. Slave girl, a female slave. Slave girls are very common in China; nearly every Chinese family owns one or more slave girls generally bought from the girl's parents, but sometimes also obtained from other parties. It is a common thing for well-to-do people to present a couple of slave girls to a daughter as part of her marriage dowery. Nearly all prostitutes are slaves. It is, however, customary with respectable people to release their slave girls when marriageable. Some people sell their slave girls to men wanting a wife for themselves or for a son of theirs.

I have bought three different girls; two from Szű-chuan for a few taels each, less than fifteen dollars. One I released in Tientsin, another died in Hongkong; the other I gave in marriage to a faithful servant of mine. Some are worth much money at Shanghai."[42]


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  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. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Rodriguez, Junius. "China, Late Imperial". The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Vol. 1, p. 146. ABC-CLIO, 1997. ISBN 0-87436-885-5.
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