Slavery in China has taken various forms throughout history. Slavery was reportedly abolished as a legally recognized institution, including in a 1909 law[1][2] fully enacted in 1910,[3] although the practice continued until at least 1949.[4]

Slavery affected and continues to affect many in China.[5] Women and children were subject to sexual exploitation,[5] The 2007 Chinese slave scandal involved thousands of slaves, including, thousands of children, who had gone missing and were forced to work in brickyards.[6] Slavery in China also includes domestic servitude and forced begging.[7]

History of slavery in China

Shang dynasty (second millennium BC)

Slavery was not a common sight in the Shang dynasty but still occurred.[8]

Warring States Period (475–221 BC)

The Warring States period saw a decline in slavery which had been popular in the previous centuries. The slave system had shifted to a feudal system, despite this, slavery was still widespread during the period, despite being on the decline.[9] Since the introduction of private ownership of land in the state of Lu in 594 BC, which brought a system of taxation on private land, and saw the emergence of a system of landlords and peasants, the system of slavery began to decline over the following centuries, as other states followed suit.

Qin dynasty (221–206 BC)

Qin slaves were subject to forced labor, for projects such as the Terracotta Army.[10] The Qin government confiscated the property and enslaved the families of those who became slaves as punishment.[11]


Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD)

One of Emperor Gao's first acts was to manumit agricultural workers enslaved during the Warring States period, although domestic servants retained their status.[1]

Men punished with castration during the Han dynasty were also used as slave labor.[13]

Deriving from earlier Legalist laws, the Han dynasty set in place rules that the property and families of criminals doing three years of hard labor or sentenced to castration were to have their families seized and kept as property by the government.[14]

Xin dynasty (9–23 AD)

In the year AD 9, the Emperor Wang Mang usurped the Chinese throne and instituted a series of sweeping reforms, including the abolition of slavery and radical land reform. Slavery was reinstated in AD 12 before his assassination in AD 23[15][16]

Three Kingdoms (220–280 AD)

During the Three Kingdoms period, a number of statuses intermediate between freedom and slavery developed, but none of them is thought to have exceeded 1 percent of the population.[1]

Tang dynasty (618–907 AD)

A contract from the Tang dynasty that records the purchase of a 15-year-old slave for six bolts of plain silk and five Chinese coins.

Tang Law held that free people could not be enslaved, and slaves who were sold had to be previously held as slaves in order to be sold legally. A large amount of slave trading took place on Silk Road markets during this time; there are several examples of Sogdian slave girls being sold by Sogdian merchants to Chinese.[17]

Chinese law segregated slaves and freemen into different classes, and slaves were classified as criminals. Only criminals and foreigners were allowed to be enslaved in China. Sexual relationships between foreign slaves and Chinese women were banned.[18]

After executing the men, Tang dynasty armies enslaved captive women.[19]

Persians were kidnapped by pirates and kept in captivity on Wan-an, Hainan island, before being sold. Samanids in Transoxania sold Turks to the Chinese.[20]

Free Chinese could not be legally sold as slaves unless they willingly sold themselves. If they did not sell themselves, the person who sold them could be executed. However, all other peoples were subject to involuntary enslavement. The largest number of slaves came from Southern tribes, such as Thais and other aboriginals from the newly dominated regions of Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, and Guizhou; young slave girls were the most desired resulting in a massive market for them, but Chinese officials denounced it and attempted to ban it, to no effect. Kong Kui, the governor of Guangdong, banned the practice of selling native women in 817.[21] Other peoples sold to Chinese included Turks, Persians, and Korean women, who were sought after by the wealthy.[22][20] China suffered from shortages of women for marriage in part due to the practice of female infanticide, which led to Chinese pirates raiding coastal villages and kidnapping Korean women to sell in Chinese slave markets at a lucrative price.[23] Their captives were sold in Shandong, China. The Chinese Governor of Shandong banned the trade in 692.[20][24]

Many indigenous Chinese, Malay and Black African slaves were also sold to the Chinese. Their skin was noted to be dark, their hair wavy or curly.[20]

Tang law considered slaves to be chattel without rights as people. Free women could not marry male slaves.[25]

Song dynasty (960–1279 AD)

The Song's warfare against northern and western neighbors produced many captives on both sides, but reforms were introduced to ease the transition from bondage to freedom.[1]

Yuan dynasty (1271–1368 AD)

The Yuan dynasty implemented an expansion of slavery in the whole country and restored harsher terms of service.[1] Some research consider that since the Chinese were more integrated into the culture, such "slaves" often proved so invaluable they came to possess a great deal of power themselves, including slaves of their own.[4] During insurrections and slave revolts, such disloyalty often led to their property being targeted first, even before the Mongols' themselves.[4]

Korean girls kept as servants during the Yuan dynasty by "Northerners" which was recorded in a historic text.[26][27] The Caomuzi (草木子) by Ye Ziqi (葉子奇) which was cited by the Jingshi ouji (京師偶記引) by Chai Sang (柴桑) stated that during the Yuan dynasty that Korean girls were a must have property for northerners. (元朝北人,女使必得高麗)[28][29] Korean women were viewed as having "jade snow" like skin (肌膚玉雪發雲霧) by Hao Jingceng 郝經曾, a Yuan scholar, and it was the rage to own Korean women among northerners in the Yuan dynasty as mentioned in Toghon Temür's (shùndì 順帝) Xù Zīzhì Tōngjiàn (續資治通鑒): (京师达官贵人,必得高丽女,然后为名家).[30][31]

In the process of the Mongols invasion of China proper, many Han Chinese were enslaved by the Mongols rulers.[32] According to Japanese historian Sugiyama Masaaki (杉山正明) and Funada Yoshiyuki (舩田善之), there were also certain number of Mongolian slaves owned by Han Chinese during Yuan. Moreover, there is no evidence that Han Chinese, who were considered people of the bottom of Yuan society by some research, were suffered a particularly cruel abuse.[33][34]

Ming dynasty (1368–1644 AD)

Upon his victory over the Yuan dynasty in 1368, China's Hongwu Emperor established the Ming dynasty and sought to abolish all forms of slavery.[1] However, in practice, slavery continued through the Ming dynasty.[1]

The Javans sent 300 black slaves as tribute to the Ming dynasty in 1381.[35] When the Ming dynasty crushed the Miao Rebellions in 1460, they castrated 1,565 Miao boys, which resulted in the deaths of 329 of them, they were then turned into eunuch slaves. The Guizhou Governor who ordered the castration of the Miao was reprimanded and condemned by Emperor Yingzong of Ming for doing it once the Ming government heard of the event.[36][37] Since 329 of the boys died, even more were needed to be castrated.[38] On 30 Jan 1406, the Ming Yongle Emperor expressed horror when the Ryukyuans castrated some of their own children to become eunuchs in order to give them to Yongle. Yongle said that the boys who were castrated were innocent and didn't deserve castration, and he returned the boys to Ryukyu and instructed them not to send eunuchs again.[39]

Later Ming rulers, as a way of limiting slavery because of their inability to prohibit it, passed a decree that limited the number of slaves that could be held per household and extracted a severe tax from slave owners.[1]

Qing dynasty (1644–1912 AD)

The Qing dynasty initially oversaw an expansion in slavery and states of bondage like the booi aha.[4] They possessed about two million slaves upon their conquest of China.[1] However, like previous dynasties, the Qing rulers soon saw the advantages of phasing out slavery, and gradually introduced reforms turning slaves and serfs into peasants.[1] Laws passed in 1660 and 1681 forbade landowners from selling slaves with the land they farmed and prohibited physical abuse of slaves by landowners.[1] The Kangxi Emperor freed all the Manchu's hereditary slaves in 1685.[1] The Yongzheng Emperor's "Yongzheng emancipation" between 1723 and 1730 sought to free all slaves to strengthen his authority through a kind of social leveling that created an undifferentiated class of free subjects under the throne, freeing the vast majority of slaves.[1]

The abolition of slavery in many countries following the British emancipation led to increasing demands for cheap Chinese laborers, known as "coolies". Mistreatment ranged from the near-slave conditions maintained by some crimps and traders in the mid-1800s in Hawaii and Cuba to the relatively dangerous tasks given to the Chinese during the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s.[4]

Among his other reforms, Taiping Rebellion leader Hong Xiuquan abolished slavery and prostitution in the territory under his control in the 1850s and 1860s.[4]

"Slavery exists in China, especially in Canton and Peking ... I have known a male slave. He is named Wang and is a native of Kansu, living in Kuei-chou in the house of his original master's son, and with his own family of four persons acknowledged to me that he was a slave, Nu-p'u. He was a person of considerable ability, but did not appear to care about being free. Female slaves are very common all over China, and are generally called . . .

YA-TOU 丫頭. Slave girl, a female slave. Slave girls are very common in China; nearly every Chinese family owns one or more slave girls generally bought from the girl's parents, but sometimes also obtained from other parties. It is a common thing for well-to-do people to present a couple of slave girls to a daughter as part of her marriage dowery. Nearly all prostitutes are slaves. It is, however, customary with respectable people to release their slave girls when marriageable. Some people sell their slave girls to men wanting a wife for themselves or for a son of theirs.

I have bought three different girls; two from Szű-chuan for a few taels each, less than fifteen dollars. One I released in Tientsin, another died in Hongkong; the other I gave in marriage to a faithful servant of mine. Some are worth much money at Shanghai."[40]

20th century

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s the Yi people (also known as Nuosu) of China terrorized Sichuan to rob and enslave non-Nuosu including Han people. The descendants of the Han slaves, known as the White Yi (白彝), outnumbered the Black Yi (黑彝) aristocracy by ten to one.[41] There was a saying goes like: "the worst insult to a Nuosu is to call him a "Han" (with the implication being that "your ancestors were slaves")".[42][43]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Hallet, Nicole. "China and Antislavery". Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition, Vol. 1, p. 154 – 156. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. ISBN 0-313-33143-X.
  2. ^ Gang Zhou. Man and Land in Chinese History: an Economic Analysis, p. 158. Stanford University Press (Stanford), 1986. ISBN 0-8047-1271-9.
  3. ^ Huang, Philip C. Code, Custom, and Legal Practice in China: the Qing and the Republic Compared, p. 17. Stanford University Press (Stanford), 2001. ISBN 0-8047-4110-7.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Rodriguez, Junius. "China, Late Imperial". The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Vol. 1, p. 146. ABC-CLIO, 1997. ISBN 0-87436-885-5.
  5. ^ a b "2.9 million trapped in modern-day slavery in China, 30 million worldwide". South China Morning Post. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. 17 October 2013. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  6. ^ "China's child slaves: 'It would be easier to escape if we were allowed shoes' – video". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 19 September 2013. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  7. ^ Smith, Alexander (17 October 2013). "30 million people still live in slavery, human rights group says". NBC News. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  8. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, inc (2003). The New Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 27. Encyclopædia Britannica. p. 289. ISBN 0-85229-961-3. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  9. ^ The First Emperor of China by Li Yu-Ning(1975)
  10. ^ Bayerischen Landesamtes für Denkmalpflege (2001). Qin Shihuang. Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege. p. 273. ISBN 3-87490-711-2. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  11. ^ Lewis 2007, p. 252.
  12. ^ Society for East Asian Studies (2001). Journal of East Asian archaeology, Volume 3. Brill. p. 299. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  13. ^ History of Science Society (1952). Osiris, Volume 10. Saint Catherine Press. p. 144. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  14. ^ Barbieri-Low 2007, p. 146.
  15. ^ Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition. Greenwood Publishing Group. 2011. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-313-33143-5. 
  16. ^ Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, p. 420, at Google Books
  17. ^ HANSEN, Valerie. "The Impact of the Silk Road Trade on a Local Community: The Turfan Oasis, 500-800" (PDF). Yale University Press. Retrieved 2010-07-14. 
  18. ^ David Brion Davis (1998). The problem of slavery in Western culture. Oxford University Press US. p. 51. ISBN 0-19-505639-6. Retrieved 2010-11-28. 
  19. ^ Abramson 2008, p. 136.
  20. ^ a b c d Schafer 1963, p. 44.
  21. ^ Schafer 1963, p. 45.
  22. ^ Benn 2002, p. 39.
  23. ^ Kenneth B. Lee (1997). Korea and East Asia: the story of a Phoenix. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 51–52. ISBN 0-275-95823-X. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  24. ^ Clarence Martin Wilbur (1967). Slavery in China during the Former Han dynasty, 206 B.C.-A.D. 25. Russell & Russell. p. 92. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  25. ^ Benn 2002, p. 40.
  26. ^ Toh 2005, p. 35.
  27. ^ Tōyō Bunko (Japan). Memoirs of the Research Department. p. 63. Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko (the Oriental Library). Toyo Bunko. 1928. p. 63. 
  28. ^ "卷之三下". 草木子. www.guoxue123.com. Archived from the original on 23 April 2017. Retrieved 23 April 2017. 
  29. ^ "红楼梦新证 - 第二节红学一斑". www.guoxue123.com. 
  30. ^ 倪, 方六 (18 June 2015). "中國古代如何打擊人口非法買賣". 文史--人民网. 北京晚報. 
  31. ^ "唐代卖到中国的非洲黑人被称为"昆仑奴"". 军事_军事网_军事新闻- 今日秀点. Retrieved 23 April 2017. 
  32. ^ Rodriguez, Junius P. The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery. ABC-CLIO. p. 146. ISBN 9780874368857. Retrieved 20 March 2017. 
  33. ^ Sugiyama Masaaki(杉山正明), "忽必烈的挑战 (Large turn of world history by the challenge of Mongolia Kublai Khan)", 社会科学文献出版社, 2013, p44-46
  34. ^ Funada Yoshiyuki, "The Image of the Semu People: Mongols, Chinese, Southerners, and Various Other Peoples under the Mongol Empire", Historical and Philological Studies of China's Western Regions, p199-221, 2014(04)
  35. ^ Tsai 1996, p. 152.
  36. ^ Tsai 1996, p. 16.
  37. ^ Harrasowitz 1991, p. 130.
  38. ^ Mitamura 1970, p. 54.
  39. ^ Wade, Geoff (July 1, 2007). "Ryukyu in the Ming Reign Annals 1380s-1580s" (PDF). Working Paper Series (93). Asia Research Institute National University of Singapore: 75. SSRN 1317152Freely accessible. Retrieved 6 July 2014. 
  40. ^ Mesny's Chinese Miscellany, Vol. IV, 1905, p. 399.
  41. ^ Ramsey 1987, p. 252.
  42. ^ Du 2013, p. 150.
  43. ^ Lozny 2013, p. 346.


  • Abramson, Marc S. (2008), Ethnic Identity in Tang China, University of Pennsylvania Press 
  • Barbieri-Low, Anthony Jerome (2007), Artisans in early imperial China, University of Washington Press 
  • Benn, Charles (2002), Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty, Greenwood Press 
  • Du, Shanshan (2013), Women and Gender in Contemporary Chinese Societies, Lexington Books 
  • Harrasowitz, O. (1991), Journal of Asian History, Volume 25, O. Harrassowitz. 
  • Lewis, Mark Edward (2007), The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 
  • Lozny, Ludomir R. (2013), Continuity and Change in Cultural Adaptation to Mountain Environments, Springer 
  • Mitamura, Taisuke (1970), Chinese eunuchs: the structure of intimate politics, C.E. Tuttle Co. 
  • Ramsey, S. Robert (1987), The Languages of China, Princeton University Press 
  • Schafer, Edward H. (1963), The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T'ang Exotics, University of California Press 
  • Toh, Hoong Teik (2005), Materials for a Genealogy of the Niohuru Clan, Harrassowitz Verlag 
  • Tsai, Shih-shan Henry (1996), The Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty, SUNY Press 

External links