China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

4 - When Slavery Met Freedom: Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth-Century Revelations from China

Thursday, March 22
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Location: Roosevelt Room 2, Exhibit Level

My fellow panelists’ papers establish the deep history of slavery and diverse forms of coerced labor. Despite the undeniable role of slavery from ancient China through the imperial period, its existence did not give rise to revolutions or intellectual debates about personal liberty as it did in the West. Indeed, although slavery and base status were essential to Chinese social organization, these aspects of the status system rarely figured in social critiques. Examining discussion of unfree labor in the modern period, my paper engages with the reasons for this neglect. Debates starting in the late nineteenth century focused on two categories of labor, largely divided along gender lines: on the sexual, reproductive, and household labor of women, and on international export of coolie labor. International abolition movements led Chinese reformers to see both categories as problematic for country with modern aspirations. Domestically, however, unfree labor remained imbedded in Chinese life. This was in no small part due to the common practices of sale and contract used to integrate outsiders into a household, whether as domestics, wives, or children. Because transactional Chinese families established a continuum of statuses, true slavery became increasingly difficult to identify. Later, rigid adherence to a Marxist evolutionary view of Chinese history obscured scholarly analysis of persistent patterns of slavery in China.

Johanna S. Ransmeier

University of Chicago, Illinois

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4 - When Slavery Met Freedom: Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth-Century Revelations from China



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