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Thread: Slavery in ancient China

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    Default Slavery in ancient China

    Although there's very little information about Chinese slaves of the Shang (1600 - 1050 BC) and early Zhou (1050 - 256 BC) periods, during the Warring States Period (475 - 221 BC) there is seen a clear legal framework for dealing with slaves. For example, the extensive legal code put forth by the Qin-state reformer Shang Yang (390 - 338 BC). These laws carried over into the short-lived Qin Dynasty (221 - 207 BC) that united all of China proper under one centralized empire for the first time. Preserved information about slavery is far more abundant in the subsequent Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD), which witnessed several notable changes in the law and perhaps attitudes towards slaves.

    In ancient Han China, slaves accounted for about 1% of the population. They were classified as being either privately-owned or property of the government. They were usually prisoners of war, tributary gifts from foreign states, or the progeny of slave parents. Slaves could be beaten, yet there were stiff penalties under the law for murdering one's slave. The interregnum ruler Wang Mang (r. 9 - 23 AD) even forced a son of his to commit suicide for murdering one of his slaves. Slaves could purchase their freedom from their masters and manumission by their owners was also common.

    The types of forced labor varied widely for government slaves, who could find themselves working with horses in a rustic stable or handling menial tasks in an urban bureaucratic office. The job of craftsman was viewed as a somewhat respectable trade (even more so than being a merchant), but some government workshops had slaves toiling in them. However, the lucrative salt and iron industries employed hired workers, not slaves (even in periods when these were private enterprises and not government monopolies).

    Most privately-owned slaves handled domestic work like cooking and cleaning. Agricultural work was rare for slaves, since most farmers were small landowners, with another substantial group being sharecropping tenants who paid rent to large landowners. Other privately-owned slaves could act as entertainers such as jugglers, singers, dancers, and acrobats. Some slaves even acted as armed retainers who could threaten, intimidate, and bully their master's opponents in the street. Such slaves were known to live much more comfortably than the average peasant, since they had access to luxurious clothing and expensive food and wine.

    Perhaps the most high-profile slave during the Han period was Jin Midi (134 - 86 BC). He was born into a royal clan of the Xiongnu, the greatest northern nomadic enemy to the Han Empire. Taken as a prisoner of war, he later impressed the Emperor Wu so much with his care of stables that he was made director of the imperial stables. He proved to be a loyal retainer of the emperor, even saving him from assassination. For this he was put into Wu's will as one of three regents to watch over the young Emperor Zhao and govern the empire in his stead. On Jin's deathbed the following year, he was made Marquess of Du at the behest of his co-regent Huo Guang.



    SOURCES:

    * Ch'ü, T'ung-tsu. (1972). Han Dynasty China: Volume 1: Han Social Structure. Edited by Jack L. Dull. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-95068-4.

    * Hulsewé, A.F.P. (1986). "Ch'in and Han law," in The Cambridge History of China: Volume I: the Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C. – A.D. 220, 520-544. Edited by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-24327-0.

    * Loewe, Michael. (1986). "The Former Han Dynasty," in The Cambridge History of China: Volume I: the Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C. – A.D. 220, 103–222. Edited by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-24327-0.

    * Nishijima, Sadao. (1986). "The Economic and Social History of Former Han," in Cambridge History of China: Volume I: the Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C. – A.D. 220, 545-607. Edited by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-24327-0.

    ====

    So, in your opinion, how could we compare the institution of slavery in ancient China with the contemporary Greco-Roman world? Or with the Parthians and Sassanids? Or the later Arab world? It was obviously much less important to the maintenance of agriculture and engineering works, since the former was handled mostly by small private farmers and the latter by conscripted labor that many subjects of the Han Empire had to perform.
    Last edited by Roma_Victrix; July 20, 2013 at 08:38 PM.
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    Islamic world had a special category of slaves, and those were military slaves. De iure they had a legal status of things possessed, de facto they were very respected. Bought as young boys, indoctrinated into loyalty to their master, well trained, an elite of Muslim armies. Many of them were high-ranking offcials, governors etc. Although there were cases of sovereigns murdered by their mamluks. Some of them founded their own dynasties.
    Last edited by wudang_clown; July 12, 2013 at 06:07 PM.

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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    Was it slaves who were buried alive with royalty or just high ranking servants?

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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    Quote Originally Posted by Kitsunegari View Post
    Was it slaves who were buried alive with royalty or just high ranking servants?
    Can be all, including the relatives.

    Generally speaking such practices became less common after Warring States. To put a side note, it seems slavery was still common among Korea as late as 19th Century (the Nobi class); however, slavery in East Asia is more close to European serf system instead true slavery.
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    If you were talented, you could indenture yourself into slavery for a cushy post as a tutor in a rich Roman household, and former slaves were trusted as bureaucrats by the Emperors, compared to the more oriental practice of letting Eunuchs into the power structure.
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    Quote Originally Posted by Kitsunegari View Post
    Was it slaves who were buried alive with royalty or just high ranking servants?
    Quote Originally Posted by hellheaven1987 View Post
    Generally speaking such practices became less common after Warring States.
    By the Han the practice of burying slaves and servants alive was obsolete. It was argued during the Warring States Period that the practice was inhumane, the compromise naturally being the burial of ceramic figurines and even life-size statues of people like the famous Terracotta Army to accompany the dead into the afterlife. Tombs of the Han period even have actual dinner tables with lacquerware plates and silverware left behind for serving the dead master/mistress. The ancient Egyptians had similar concepts about the afterlife, with the addition of monumental carved hieroglyphics that could be read for the benefit of the dead, of course.

    Quote Originally Posted by hellheaven1987 View Post
    To put a side note, it seems slavery was still common among Korea as late as 19th Century (the Nobi class); however, slavery in East Asia is more close to European serf system instead true slavery.
    Well, in the late Eastern Han, Three Kingdoms, and Jin periods you see the gradual evolution of the once free and proud independent small farmer class being transformed into landless serfs serving the large landowners of China. That period before the Tang Dynasty was perhaps Imperial China's most agriculturally feudal era.

    However, unlike serfs, there were clearly defined legal definitions for slaves (nuli 奴隸) in ancient China, such as their strict limitations and freedoms. Their ability to climb the social ladder is comparable to well-educated Greek slaves in the Roman Empire, or slaves of the later Islamic world such as the high-ranking military commanders in the Fatimid Caliphate.

    If you were talented, you could indenture yourself into slavery for a cushy post as a tutor in a rich Roman household, and former slaves were trusted as bureaucrats by the Emperors, compared to the more oriental practice of letting Eunuchs into the power structure.
    With examples like Jin Midi the Han Chinese institution of slavery was comparable to Roman practices of allowing slaves real power and permission into the echelons of society. However, the Han Chinese palace tradition of keeping eunuchs for handling private affairs and quarters of the concubines led to the disastrous political situation that unravelled the Eastern Han Dynasty (i.e. He Jin's assassination by beheading). The Romans were spared that scenario at least.
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    If I recall correctly, convincing four divisions of eight thousand elite troops each, to commit collective suicide in order to guard the Emperor's grave complex would be beyond even the most persuasive autocrat, regardless of how divine he was, and was asking for a military coup d'etat.
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    Quote Originally Posted by Condottiere 40K View Post
    If I recall correctly, convincing four divisions of eight thousand elite troops each, to commit collective suicide in order to guard the Emperor's grave complex would be beyond even the most persuasive autocrat, regardless of how divine he was, and was asking for a military coup d'etat.
    Right, I was just trying to make a point that the practice of interring ceramic statues representing soldiers was in the same vain as burying ceramic figurines of servants who were supposed to serve the deceased in their afterlife...without...you know...burying actual servants alive! Both soldiers and servants would function in similar fashion, i.e. continuing to serve the deceased ruler (or lesser noble) in the afterlife.
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    There are many more differences, but the similarities with ancient China and Egypt are pretty interesting.

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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    Walter Scheidel
    Martin Wilbur's 1% is a rather shaky guess and it has been challenged Walter Scheidel while he can deconstruct the logic of one percent he only argues that several ~3+ percent seems more likely give the evidence.

    In ancient Han China, slaves accounted for about 1% of the population.
    Always tricky once you start with the word slave... The Han made widespread use of a large scale and brutal convict labor and the general availability of conscript labor. The hard convict labor seems to have been more or less been a delayed death sentence. Now that is not to say some areas of Rome like Egypt did not retain a forced labor tradition, nor that the Imperial (personal) mines were not stocked with some convicts but small scale and never so systemic as in the Han.

    I guess the basic difference is simply one of how they approached the the ideal of filling forced labor for the broad mass of unskilled labor demand/needs and particularly the most dangerous and onerous types.

    I doubt you can find much different at the elite level or the use of highly skilled slaves or house slaves. But there is a clear difference in how the Han approached the need for mass labor in general than the Greco Roman world. At the extreme suppose we imagine a small terracing project to manage runoff better that had become an official but still local project. In the Han the local officials could use the allotted conscript time to to do the work while the most dangerous and hard labor could be allotted to convicts - all requiring a substantial bureaucracy to run. By comparison in say Athens once a plan was approved and voted on it would contracted and bid out. That winner would likely receive a lump sum and than hire all the various people needed and keep his own profit by doing the job well and meet whatever dates and requirements were written up. The subcontracts would range from skilled crafts men with skilled slaves to large operators who leased slaves out slaves for grueling work. The bureaucracy would amount to little more than an architect on retainer and maybe one oversight board and the ever present risk of lawsuits for failure. And that in a nutshell is one of the key differences in the G-R world the application of mass unfree labor was largely a private market affair and the the state or individuals or partnerships etc contracted for it specifically. In the Han the state centralized the process and managed it in a way that was simply not ideologically acceptable in the G-R world leaving only the 'luxury' market if you will to develop slaves similar to the G-R world.
    Last edited by conon394; July 14, 2013 at 05:14 PM.
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    Quote Originally Posted by conon394 View Post
    Martin Wilbur's 1% is a rather shaky guess and it has been challenged Walter Scheidel while he can deconstruct the logic of one percent he only argues that several ~3+ percent seems more likely give the evidence.
    A figure of 3% also sounds reasonable. There's little reason to believe that percentage didn't fluctuate over time as well. I'm not sure about the most recent estimates, since I was citing rather dated sources like Loewe (1968) and Hucker (1975).

    Always tricky once you start with the world slave... The Han made widespread use of very and scale and brutal convict labor and the general availability of conscript labor. The hard convict labor seems to have more or less been a delayed death sentence. Now that not to same some area of Rome like Egypt did not retain a corvee labor tradition, not that the Imperial (personal) mines were not stocked with some convicts but small scale and never so systemic as in the Han.

    I guess the basic diffrence is simply one of how they approched the the ideal of filling forced labor for the broad mass of unskilled labor and particularly the most dangerous and onerous types.

    I doubt you can find much different at the elite level or the use of highly skilled slaves or house slaves. But there is a clear difference in own the Han approached the need for mass labor in general than the Greco Roman world. At the extreme suppose we imagine a small terracing project to manage runoff better that had become an official but still local project. In the Han the local officials could use the allotted conscript time to to do the work while the most dangerous and hard labor could be allotted to convicts - all requiring a substantial bureaucracy to run. By comparison in say Athens once a plan was approved and voted on it would contracted and bid out. That winner would likely receive a lump sum and than hire all the various people needed and keep his own profit by doing the job well and meet whatever dates and requirements were written up. The subcontracts would range from skilled crafts men with a skilled slave or two to large operators who leased slaves out slaves for grueling work. The bureaucracy would amount to little more than an architect on retainer and maybe one oversight board and the ever present risk of lawsuits for failure. And that in a nutshell is one of the key differences in the G-R wold the application of mass unfree labor was largely a private market affair and the the state or individuals or partnerships etc contracted for it specifically. In the Han the state centralized the process and managed it in a way that was simply not ideologically acceptable in the G-R world leaving only the 'luxury' market if you will to develop slaves similar to the G-R world.
    Right, I was speaking strictly about people classified as nuli (奴隸), or slaves, according to the Qin-Han legal code. You could argue that mandatory conscripted labor of Chinese peasants during Han was a form of temporary slavery. The common people's temporary service in the military was also seen in the same light by Han officials.

    And yes, ancient Chinese convicts were made to toil endlessly because there were no such things as prisons in those times. If it wasn't forced labor, they were executed or fined a sum of money for their crimes. We find similar sentences meted out in the Greco-Roman world, although they had the added element of putting those condemned to death into the arena of amphitheaters for bloodsport entertainment.

    You also nailed the differences in thinking over the role of government in managing small or large civil engineering projects for the Han Chinese and Greco-Roman worlds. I sometimes wonder if ancient attitudes have carried into the modern age for both civilizations, respectively.

    One thing though: did you type this response out via the touch pad on your mobile phone? Or were you really, really drunk? I say that because your posts elsewhere are just as coherent but far less...sloppy? It looks like you either had an iPhone auto-correcting everything you wrote, or you downed a liter bottle of Jameson whiskey before typing this.
    Last edited by Roma_Victrix; July 14, 2013 at 03:40 PM.
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    One thing though: did you type this response out via the touch pad on your mobile phone? Or were you really, really drunk? I say that because your posts elsewhere are just as coherent but far less...sloppy? It looks like you either had an iPhone auto-correcting everything you wrote, or you downed a liter bottle of Jameson whiskey before typing this.
    No (mostly not drinking too much that is) - I am tired and distracted I'm about 2 days from moving cross country yet again and and an old friend called and with a shot at an interview for a remote programing job opportunity so I been cramming on topic for the last couple days and sleeping not much at all. I still post for relaxation but without as much time as I usually spend in noticing if I just typed garbled drivel or correcting a mangled post.

    I went over it bit I think I got the worse issues solved - also as always I am a really poor on the keyboard and tend to miss a lot SP errors on first pass.
    Last edited by conon394; July 14, 2013 at 05:15 PM.
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    The concept of slaves became much more loosely / vaguely defined in later Chinese periods, probably because there wasn't actually that many true slaves.

    By the post Tang period, the "slave" mentioned in China almost always referred to young girls sold into wealthier families, where they would function as house servants. though this practice often extended beyond just wealthier families, as it was not uncommon either for struggling families with too many daughters to just arrange marry them to other farming family with many sons and send the girl over while they were still young.

    However, the former were called 奴婢,which technically imply slavery, though in legal term almost always considered long term contractual workers with laws applying to them the same as everyone else.

    Though Conon is right, one of the main reason that slavery never took off in China was because mandatory labor were considered valid and widely accepted form of taxation well into near modern times. it helps that most of the projects were water work related once that pretty directly benefit the farmers that work on them. and the the bureaucrats most of the time were fairly wary and aware to not over extend their use. And the nature of Chinese bureaucratic system is by default, against slavery which grants more power to powerful families out of their control. Chinese dynasties generally realize that whenever land / man power / wealth concentrates it usually is the end of a dynasty so they work hard against that. sometimes in damaging ways (such as greatly restricting selling of land) but other times in much more rational fashions (such as generally preventing slavery.)
    1180, an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in East Asia, it's technology and wealth is the envy of the world. But soon conflict will engulf the entire region with great consequences and lasting effects for centuries to come, not just for this region, but the entire known world, when one man, one people, unites.....

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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    The concept of slaves became much more loosely / vaguely defined in later Chinese periods, probably because there wasn't actually that many true slaves.

    By the post Tang period, the "slave" mentioned in China almost always referred to young girls sold into wealthier families, where they would function as house servants. though this practice often extended beyond just wealthier families, as it was not uncommon either for struggling families with too many daughters to just arrange marry them to other farming family with many sons and send the girl over while they were still young.

    However, the former were called 奴婢,which technically imply slavery, though in legal term almost always considered long term contractual workers with laws applying to them the same as everyone else.

    Though Conon is right, one of the main reason that slavery never took off in China was because mandatory labor were considered valid and widely accepted form of taxation well into near modern times. it helps that most of the projects were water work related once that pretty directly benefit the farmers that work on them. and the the bureaucrats most of the time were fairly wary and aware to not over extend their use. And the nature of Chinese bureaucratic system is by default, against slavery which grants more power to powerful families out of their control. Chinese dynasties generally realize that whenever land / man power / wealth concentrates it usually is the end of a dynasty so they work hard against that. sometimes in damaging ways (such as greatly restricting selling of land) but other times in much more rational fashions (such as generally preventing slavery.)
    1180, an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in East Asia, it's technology and wealth is the envy of the world. But soon conflict will engulf the entire region with great consequences and lasting effects for centuries to come, not just for this region, but the entire known world, when one man, one people, unites.....

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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    Though Conon is right, one of the main reason that slavery never took off in China was because mandatory labor were considered valid and widely accepted form of taxation well into near modern times.
    Imagine how different court politics and the socio-economic order in Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing China would have played out if the Chinese had harbored large slave populations instead. Even when there was a small but significant slave population in Qin and Han times, they experienced nothing like the slave revolts in the contemporary Roman Republic. Although the mainstay of medieval Europe was landed serfdom (outside of towns and cities), look at how much slavery - especially Black African slavery - impacted Early Modern Europe (+ its colonies) in terms of economic clout. And just like the previous Zanj Rebellion against the Arab Abbasids or the helots against ancient Sparta, there were the inevitable slave revolts, such as the Haitian Revolution against the French and the Male Revolt against the Portuguese in Brazil. Imagine a giant slave revolt in early modern China of, let's say Turkic peoples taken from Central Asia, that was as damaging if not more so than An Lushan's Rebellion during the Tang period.

    In other words, Imperial China opted for the better path despite subjecting its common citizenry to fairly harsh work loads.
    Last edited by Roma_Victrix; July 16, 2013 at 01:55 PM.
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    This is interesting: apparently there is a Wiki article on slavery in ancient China. There's a citation from the Encyclopedia Britannica claiming that 5% of the population were slaves during China's first dynastic kingdom, the Shang. I'm not sure how that figure was estimated, given that administrative records from that period deal mostly with royal divination on decisions to go to war or whether the harvest will be good that year.

    The article reminded me of the fact that the temporary usurper Wang Mang had attempted to abolish slavery altogether along with his other unpopular reforms. It also states that slavery (with the introduction of many other foreigners into China) was greatly expanded during the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty but was reversed by the subsequent Ming Dynasty.
    Quote Originally Posted by Cyclops View Post
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    Quote Originally Posted by Roma_Victrix View Post
    It also states that slavery (with the introduction of many other foreigners into China) was greatly expanded during the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty but was reversed by the subsequent Ming Dynasty.
    It was more close to serfdom during Yuan Dynasty instead Western slavery.
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China



    Apparently, still a viable economic model.
    Eats, shoots, and leaves.

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    Roma_Victrix's Avatar Equites
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    God I love Engrish.
    Quote Originally Posted by Cyclops View Post
    English is a Germanic language...formed by a fusion of Old English...and Norse...If you want to talk about religion or science or law or medicine you must use Latinate words (from French or Latin) and a smattering of Greek...English is basically a skinny barely functional body of Germanic (bones, basic organs and muscles) with a huge overgrowth and brain of Latin and Greek words, more than trebling it in size...Sort of like a massive genius headcrab perched on a hillbilly.

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    Marcus Aemilius Lepidus's Avatar Pili Posterior
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    Default Re: Slavery in ancient China

    Slavery was relative common, not only in china, but eastern asia in general. Japan had a very strict system which even got worse after the the beginning of the Tokogawa Shogunate. In Korea and Manchuria (ancient Korean realms like Go-Joseon and Goguryeo, Balhae were settled in that area) used a slaves in a similar way and specially naval-staes like Baekje and Silla used prisoners of war as galley slaves. After the Korean three-kingdomes period in the middleage, Goryeo used military slaves similar to the arabic Ghulams and Mameluks, manye of them were chosen between the survivers of a very brutal korean variant of the polo-game.

    The definiton of the korean meaning of slave: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobi

    And who is interested in the korean military slave story, i can prefer this series: http://wiki.d-addicts.com/Soldier.

    Not long ago i made a thread regarding the wave of Korean history series of the last decade and i am currently working throught it with studying the history behind the shows. You definitly learn a lot

    http://www.twcenter.net/forums/showt...history-series

    Proud to be a real Prussian.

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