Slavery: China

Figure 1.--This is reprtedly a group of very young children, both boys and girls, ready to be sold as slave in Fuzhou, China during 1904. These were presumably peasant children whose parents were forced to sell because of debts. We are not sure who took the photograph. The Imperial Government abolished slavery (1909), but the abolition law was not structly enforced, in part because the Imperial refime was beginning to collapse. We are also not sure why slave dealers would buy children when they were so young. A reader writes, "They seem also to me too young. Surely the children were been sold by their parents because of poverty. It could be that slave traders separated the children according their ages. Surely such young slaves had a lower commercial value."

All of the great early river valley civilizations developed in contact with each other, except for China. Even so we see many of the same human instititions developing in China and the other great civilizations from earliest times. One of those institutions is slavery. Slavery seems similar in China and the other great river valley civilizations Mesopotamia and Egypt). It was a relatively minor institution in these early civilizations , in part because the rural peasantry, the great bulk of the population, was reduced to a status close to slavery, often working land thedy id not own. Slavery may have been more important in China, but only marginally so. This vaied somewhat from dynasty to dynasty. It certainly was much less important than in the classical Western societies like Greece and Rome. It never took a racial turn as in the ante-Bellum South in America or a religious turn as in the Islamic world. The nature and extent of slavery has varied over time through the various dynasties. Chinese slaves came to be viewed as objects, kind of 'half-man, half-thing' (半人, 半物). [Hallet] Slavery in China dates back at least to the Shang dynasty in China (18th-12th century BC). One estimate suggests that about 5 percent of Shang China's population was enslaved. This relatively small proprtion appears to have been the case is subsequent Chinese civilizations. People became slaves through the same mechanisms as in the West, through slave raiding and military captives and debtors. Impoverished individuals could sell themselves or their wives and children into debt. China never develop into a slave society largely because of its large population which offered ampel labor which could be exploited through serfdom. Affluent Chinese families may have slaves to do menial labor, both field work and house servants. The Emperor and his nobels would the largest slave holders. The Emperor's slaves might be castrated to become court eunuchs. The Republic of China abolished slavery (March 10, 1910). The practice, however, continued in China, especially in remote areas. We note captives being turned into slaves by Lolo tribesmen. Slavery was repeatedly abolished as a legally-established. An abolition law was passed (1909) and fully enacted (1910), The practice continued on aimited scale until the Communist Revolution (1949). While the Communists ended traditional slavery, they initiated a slave system of their own, setting up slave labor camps. Even after the free market reforms (1980s), forced labor has been reported in modern China, both in prison camps and emplyers paying bribes to local officials.


Hallet, Nicole. "China and antislavery," Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition Vol. 1, (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007), pp. 154-56.

Meijer, Marinus J. “Slavery at the end of the Ch'ing Dynasty,” in ed. Jerome Alan Cohen, R. Randle Edwards, and Fu-Mei Chang Chen, Essays on China's Legal Tradition (1980).

Pulleyblank, E.G. “The Origins and Nature of Chattel Slavery in China,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. I (April 1958), pp, 185–220.

Watson, James L. “Chattel slavery in Chinese peasant society: A comparative analysis,” Ethnology Vol. 15, No. 4 (October 1976), pp. 361–75.

Wilbur, C. Martin. Slavery in China During the Former Han Dynasty, 206 BC–AD 25 (1943, reprinted 1968).


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Created: 7:29 PM 3/15/2007
Last updated: 4:40 AM 10/8/2012