Chinese Market in Slaves, Servants, and Heirs

From “Transactions in People: The Chinese Market in Slaves, Servants, and Heirs” by James L. Watson, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 223-224:

Until the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949 China had one of the largest and most comprehensive markets for the exchange of human beings in the world. In many parts of China, notably in the south, nearly every peasant household was directly or indirectly affected by the sale of people. A unique feature of the Chinese market was its concentration on children, especially those under the age of ten. Adolescents and younger adults were sometimes bound over to a creditor for a limited time to pay off debts but, in most cases, these people were not exchanged or sold on a permanent basis. The only exceptions were found among the urban elite who bought and sold adult concubines almost as a form of sport. For ordinary peasants the market was directed exclusively at children-male and female-who were sold for cash and were rarely, if ever, returned to their birth parents. In keeping with the highly developed system of commerce and exchange that has characterised Chinese peasant society for over a thousand years, the sale of a child was legalised by a signed receipt that specified the rights of both buyer and seller down to the minutest detail.

Transactions in children were, in most cases, the consequence of extreme poverty, since by selling one child a parent might hope to feed the remaining family members. Male children thus sold had two main uses: first as designated heirs of the buyer, and second as domestic slaves for the owner’s household. A purchased heir had most of the rights and privileges of a normal son (subject to the adopting father’s pleasure); a slave had minimal rights-he was, in fact, a chattel whose descendants remained the hereditary property of the owner’s family. Girls, on the other hand, could be used in several ways in the buyer’s household and were not categorised, or ‘typed’, with the same rigidity as their male counterparts. It was not impossible for a girl to be purchased as a daughter in infancy, exploited like a slave during adolescence, and married to one of her buyer’s own sons in adulthood.

The difference in treatment between male and female can be traced to their positions in the Chinese kinship system. The Chinese, especially the southern elite, are fiercely loyal to the patriline and allow very little flexibility for males (Baker 1968; Freedman 1958; Potter 1968; J. Watson 1975b). In contrast to many African patrilineal systems, membership in the Chinese lineage is only conferred at birth or by adoption during infancy (J. Watson 1975a). The role of women in the Chinese patrilineage is much more complicated (M. Wolf 1972). Recent research has shown that, contrary to earlier views, Chinese women are not members of first their fathers’ and later their husbands’ lineages-they stand outside the male-dominated patrilineage (R. Watson n.d.). This may explain why purchased women are treated with such flexibility: unlike males they do not, indeed could not, represent a threat to the patrilineal system. Women do not inherit and, hence, are not involved with the landed ancestral estates that form the material foci of Chinese lineages. Furthermore, women are not a matter of concern for any unit larger than the household, which means that they can be bought and sold at will. Male children, especially outsiders brought into the kin group, are watched with great care by everyone in the lineage. Innumerable rules, written and unwritten, have been devised to regulate the entry of male heirs into elite Chinese lineages (Liu 1959); in contrast, the few rules that relate to the purchase or sale of women are rarely observed. Thus, while girls are treated with a certain flexibility, a boy will enter his new life as a full heir or a chattel slave. There is no possibility of change in later life.

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Filed under China, economics, family, slavery

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