China and Inner Asia

Organized Panel Session

1 - "Slavery" and the Nature of the Social Order at the Beginning of the Chinese Empires

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

In the last decade, many legal and administrative documents have been published, some scientifically excavated by archaeologists, while others, looted from tombs, were retrieved from the Hong Kong antiques market. These provide extraordinarily detailed new information on the developing legal structure and local administrative practices of the early Chinese empires, as well as providing unparalleled insights into the changing nature of the social order as a result of the establishment of a single unified empire. Among the most fascinating and hotly debated topics concern the statuses of debased individuals at the bottom of the social hierarchy, of which there were many types in the pre-Qin period. Shortly after the creation of the Qin Empire, it appears as though the state adopted a new naming system for some of these types of individuals, calling them nu and bi, respectively for male and female “slaves,” terms that have survived into modern Chinese, while it appears that Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty, promulgated new Statutes on Slaves. These new documents open many questions regarding slaves, servants, and other low status individuals. What is the definition of slavery in the Chinese context? What were the differences between state-owned and privately-owned slaves? Were hard labor convicts types of slaves? What rights did they have over personal property? Were privately-owned servants and slaves members of their families, like sons and daughters, but less honored and with fewer or different rights? This paper will consider these and other relevant questions.

Robin D.S. Yates

McGill University, Quebec, Canada

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1 - "Slavery" and the Nature of the Social Order at the Beginning of the Chinese Empires



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