The World of Chinese - - FRONT PAGE - JENNE BY JEREMIAH

In 1906, as the Qing Em­pire (1616 – 1911) en­tered its fi­nal years, Zhou Fu, the Viceroy of Nan­jing, wrote a me­mo­rial ad­vo­cat­ing for the abo­li­tion of slav­ery.

Zhou died be­fore the throne could act, two years later. But in 1909, Wu Weib­ing, a mem­ber of the im­pe­rial cen­so­rate, picked up the torch with his own me­mo­rial im­plor­ing the throne to honor Zhou’s re­quest.

On Jan­uary 31, 1910, the Qing court is­sued an im­pe­rial re­script which of­fi­cially abol­ished slav­ery through­out the em­pire.

It wasn’t the first time a gov­ern­ment in China had tried to end slav­ery. Nor was chat­tel slav­ery unique to China. But through­out Chi­nese his­tory, edicts, laws, and procla­ma­tions against slav­ery ran up against a sys­tem that per­haps uniquely con­flated hu­man bondage with crim­i­nal­ity, social de­base­ment, and cul­tural prej­u­dices to­ward cer­tain classes of peo­ple.

Forms of slav­ery have ex­isted in China since be­fore the im­pe­rial era. Dur­ing the Spring and Au­tumn pe­riod (770 BCE – 476 BCE), pris­on­ers-of-war could avoid ex­e­cu­tion by en­ter­ing into bondage by their cap­tors. The philoso­pher Mozi (墨子), who stead­fastly op­posed all forms of of­fen­sive war­fare, cited en­slave­ment as one of the hor­rors of war.

In early texts from the third cen­tury BCE, shortly be­fore the found­ing of the Qin Em­pire (221 BCE – 206 BCE), en­slave­ment is de­scribed along with mu­ti­la­tion and cas­tra­tion as an ap­pro­pri­ate sen­tence for pris­on­ers and crim­i­nals.

The ear­li­est ref­er­ences to the buy­ing and sell­ing of slaves ap­pear dur­ing the War­ring States pe­riod (475 BCE – 221 BCE). Un­sur­pris­ingly, these in­volve the pur­chas­ing of women as house­hold ser­vants.

Fe­male en­slave­ment in China ex­isted on a con­tin­uum of social prac­tices that treated women as com­modi­ties. On

Bar r iers that stood against re form of China’s forced la­bor tra­di­tion


one end, mar­riage was af­firmed by bride prices, dowries, and ar­range­ments over which the woman had lit­tle choice. Sex­ual and do­mes­tic slav­ery, con­cu­bi­nage, and var­i­ous forms of pimping and pros­ti­tu­tion were part of the same spec­trum.

Chil­dren were an­other group com­monly sold into slav­ery. The writ­ings of Le­gal­ist philoso­pher Han Fei (韩非) dis­cuss the phe­nom­e­non of par­ents sell­ing chil­dren into slav­ery dur­ing times of famine, which con­tin­ued into the mod­ern age.

By the time of the Han Em­pire (206 BCE – 220 CE), slav­ery, both as a form of pun­ish­ment and a la­bor re­source, had be­come widely ac­cepted in so­ci­ety. It was also dur­ing the Han era that rulers first at­tempted to limit slav­ery. The found­ing em­peror, Em­peror Gaozu of Han (汉高祖), or­dered the eman­ci­pa­tion of pris­on­ers-of-war forced into bondage and peo­ple who had been sold into slav­ery due to poverty.

Per­haps part of Em­peror Gaozu’s de­ci­sion was a de­sire to dis­tance his rule from that of his Qin pre­de­ces­sors. Slav­ery was com­mon enough dur­ing the Qin Dy­nasty that found­ing em­peror Qin Shi Huang’s (秦始皇) own men­tor, Lü Buwei (吕不韦), was ru­mored to have had over 10,000 slaves and bonded ser­vants as part of his house­hold. Han his­to­ri­ans ac­cused the Qin gov­ern­ment of op­er­at­ing slave mar­kets with peo­ple penned like cat­tle.

While Han rulers ac­cepted slav­ery as a part of so­ci­ety, they is­sued edicts defin­ing who could and, more im­por­tantly, could not be sold into slav­ery. Be­cause of the long his­tory of servi­tude as a form of pun­ish­ment, slaves were stig­ma­tized as much by their as­so­ci­a­tion with crim­i­nal­ity as by their un­free sta­tus. The Han court, as would later gov­ern­ments, made a dis­tinc­tion not sim­ply be­tween “free” and “un­free”, but be­tween “good” (良, liang) and “de­based” (贱, jian) peo­ple.

In the Han and later eras, the kid­nap­ping or co­er­cion of a good ( liang) per­son into slav­ery was a se­ri­ous crime. How­ever, en­slave­ment alone could not change a per­son’s sta­tus. A court case in 502 records a man who sold his daugh­ter to a slaver who then resold the girl. The slaver was ex­e­cuted be­cause he tried to pass off a “good” child as a “de­based” one. The crime was, es­sen­tially, one of fraud.

The Tang Code sev­eral times states that slaves could be bought and sold as per­sonal prop­erty, in the same way one could buy or sell do­mes­tic an­i­mals. Nev­er­the­less, the law still treated slaves as peo­ple. A mas­ter could be pun­ished (iron­i­cally with one year of hard la­bor) for killing his slave. Killing a slave who was de­fend­ing his mas­ter or his mas­ter’s prop­erty car­ried the same sen­tence as mur­der­ing a “good” per­son.

The law did treat de­based peo­ple, in­clud­ing slaves, dif­fer­ently from so-called “good” peo­ple. A crime com­mit­ted by a “de­based” per­son against a “good” per­son car­ried a harsher sen­tence than the re­verse. “De­based” sta­tus was also hered­i­tary: chil­dren of slaves in the “de­based” class could be born into servi­tude.

Unequal treat­ment of the two groups also ex­tended to of­fenses of a sex­ual na­ture. There were strong cul­tural and le­gal re­stric­tions against “de­based” peo­ple mar­ry­ing “good” peo­ple, and later gov­ern­ments—the Qing in par­tic­u­lar— wor­ried about the “pol­lu­tion” of “good” fe­males through pen­e­tra­tion, forced or oth­er­wise, by a “de­based” male.

Con­quest dy­nas­ties such as the Mon­gols (Yuan Dy­nasty, 1206 – 1368) and the Manchus (Qing Dy­nasty), added more com­plex­ity through their own cus­toms re­gard­ing un­free la­bor. One as­pect of Manchu so­ci­ety trans­planted to China was the re­la­tion­ship be­tween high of­fi­cials and mem­bers of the im­pe­rial clan and their “bond­ser­vants” ( booi aha). While not a form of chat­tel slav­ery based on buy­ing and sell­ing peo­ple, it did in­volve hered­i­tary obli­ga­tions be­tween a lord and gen­er­a­tions of his re­tain­ers. Some of these bond­ser­vants rose to be­come prom­i­nent and wealthy in their own right. A no­table ex­am­ple was the fam­ily of Cao Xue­qin (曹雪芹), au­thor of the clas­sic novel Dream of the Red Cham­ber.

One em­peror fa­mously tried to un­tan­gle the com­plex web of social and le­gal cat­e­go­riza­tions. Aisin-gioro Yinzhen, the Yongzheng Em­peror (雍正帝), is­sued a se­ries of edicts dur­ing his rule at­tempt­ing to re­move the le­gal des­ig­na­tions of “de­based” peo­ple and the prac­tice of hered­i­tary bondage. This in­cluded do­mes­tic slaves but also pro­fes­sional mourn­ers, hered­i­tary beg­gars, and in­den­tured ser­vants.

While much has been made of the Yongzheng Em­peror’s “eman­ci­pa­tion” of these peo­ple, it is likely that his mo­ti­va­tion had more to do with estab­lish­ing a uni­fied le­gal stan­dard than with a deep-rooted sense of em­pa­thy to­ward the un­free and op­pressed.

De­spite his de­ter­mi­na­tion, the ef­fects of Yongzheng’s of­fi­cial in­ter­ven­tion were a lit­tle un­der­whelm­ing. Le­gal codes could be changed. Cul­tural prej­u­dices en­dured. Many de­based peo­ple found them­selves bound to their sta­tus or oc­cu­pa­tion by social pres­sure, cus­tom, or be­cause they didn’t know any other way to live.

Even the 1910 edict, which again sought to not only abol­ish chat­tel slav­ery but af­firm the equal le­gal sta­tus of “de­based” peo­ple, met with re­sis­tance. Though suc­ces­sively banned by the new gov­ern­ments of 1912 and 1949, forms of un­free and co­erced la­bor, and the buy­ing and sell­ing of women and chil­dren es­pe­cially, were not swept away in a sin­gle his­tor­i­cal mo­ment but un­of­fi­cially con­tinue to the present day.

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