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Industrial Slavery in China During the Former Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 25)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 February 2011

C. Martin Wilbur
Field Museum of Natural History Chicago, Illinois


Industry and commerce developed rapidly in China during the last three centuries before Christ, as they did also in the Mediterranean world. Contemporary Hellenistic and Roman businessmen made extensive use of slave labor, and slavery gradually developed an industrial character. Nothing comparable occurred in China. Private and government slavery had a marked growth under the Han empire, but the use of slaves for industrial purposes—even commercial farming— did not become an important characteristic of the Chinese institution. This fact raises questions concerning the “style” of ancient Chinese slavery, and concerning the economic organization of which it was a part.

Copyright © The Economic History Association 1943

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1 Westermann, William LinnIndustrial Slavery in Roman Italy,” The Journal of Economic History, II (1942), 149163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 This paper is based upon my recently published book:, Slavery in China During the Former Han Dynasty, 206 B.C.-A.D. 25 (Chicago: Field Museum, 1943.) The second part of that book (pp. 258472) consists of the primary texts in Chinese characters, translated and annotated. Hereafter the Shih chi by Ssu-ma Ch'ien is cited in abbreviation as SC; the Ch'ien Han shu by Pan Ku, as CHS; and the Hou Han shu by Fan Yeh (and others) as HHS. The edition used was the imperial Ch'ien-lung edition (1739–1746) of the twenty-four dynastic histories (Shanghai reprint, 1908, Chi ch'eng t'u shu kung ssu). References in CHS have been checked with the monumental Han shu pu-chu by Wang Hsien-ch'ien (Ch'angsha, 1900).Google Scholar

3 One inadequacy of the source material may be emphasized by transposing into terms of American history the setting and dates of the Han documents that deal with a selected aspect of the Chinese slavery system. What reality would a description of American slave trading possess if it were synthesized from references dating: 1644 (a biography of a sometime slave), ca. 1646 (a description, in a geographical text, of an African slave port), 1669–1672 (the description of slave markets in a speech in parliament), 1691–1702 (a remark by a slave owner quoted in a physician's memoirs), 1726 (a biography of a slave owner), 1756–1762 (the report of an investigating commission), 1787 (a slave contract), 1839 (an economic report), 1842 (a petition from a bureau chief to the president about the sale of public bondsmen), 1855 (a president's inaugural address condemning the slave trade), 1860 (a presidential executive order forbidding the sale of slaves), supplemented by many other items showing merely that slave selling was continuous in that period?

4 See Slavery in China, 295–297, and note 12 for the biography of the sometime slave, Wei Ch'ing, who became commander-in-chief, and with the Emperor's approval married the Elder-Princess Yang-hsin, after 127 B.C. Ibid., 419, for the deposition of the Marquis of P'u in 18 B.C.

5 All Chinese population figures are suspect. CHS, 28B, 9a reports the population in A.D. 2 as 59,594,978. Several modern Chinese students believe the actual population was larger. The earliest Latter Han figure, after two decades of civil war, is given as 21 million in A.D. 57; and the totals rise to 49 million in A.D. 140. Cf. HHS, 33, 8a-b. There are no proper figures for the total number of slaves at any one time. Such evidences as there are have been presented in Slavery in China, 174–177.

6 Aside from “foreign” slaves mentioned in the documents cited in Slavery, in China, 92–96, one Hsiung-nu slave is mentioned in HHS, 78, 4b. On the imperial tribute system as a form of trade see Teggart, Frederick J.Rome and China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1930), 214216Google Scholar; Lattimore, OwenInner Asian Frontiers of China (New York: American Geographical Society, 1940), 175;Google Scholar and Fairbank, J. K.Tributary Trade and China's Relations with the West,” The Far Eastern Quarterly, I (1942), 138.Google Scholar

7 The accounts of these campaigns in CHS, 6 (“The Annals of Emperor Wu”), 55 (biographies of Generals Wei Ch'ing and Ho Ch'ü-ping), and 94A (“Memoir on the Hsiung-nu”), as well as the equivalent SC accounts, are abstracted in Slavery in China, 103–108.

8 For an appraisal of Kung Yü's figure, cf. ibid., 397–401.

9 CHS, 24B, 6b and SC, 30, 6a-b, translated by Edouard Chavannes, Les Mémoires historiques de Se-Ma Ts'ien, III, 586–588; also Slavery in China, 328–329. This confiscation is discussed again below.

10 CHS, 6, 6b and 24B, 4a-b.

11 Chi Pu while in disguise as a slave in 202 B.C. worked in the fields of his protector. In 59 B.C. Wang Pao, in his contract for the purchase of a slave, listed the farm duties the slave would perform. Slavery in China, 267 and 383–388.

12 The question of slave labor in agriculture is, for China, the central issue regarding the importance of the institution. A chapter is devoted to it in ibid., 195–216, where also the findings of modern Chinese economic historians are summarized.

13 Ibid., 383–392. Seven extant texts of the little known T'ung yüeh (“Contract for a Slave”) by Wang Pao were used in preparing the translation.

14 SC, 129 and CHS, 91. Dr. Swann, Nancy Lee has analyzed these chapters in “A Woman Among the Rich Merchants,” Journal of the American Oriental Society LIV (1934), 186193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 Page 2b in both sources. I have translated the word t'ung as “youth,” because it does not necessarily indicate slave status; it often refers merely to boys or girls.

16 SC, 129, 7b and CHS, 91, 4b respectively; Slavery in China, 281.

17 SC, 129, 7a and CHS, 91, 4a respectively; Slavery in China, 259. Incidentally, we know of another Mr. Cho, Cho Wang-sun, who lived some eighty years later in the same town, where he also was the richest man. He was probably the descendant of the above metallurgist, and he, too, had 800 “youths.” Unfortunately there are no details about his business activities. Cf. SC, 117, lb and CHS, 57A, la; Slavery in China, 300.

18 SC, 49, 3a and CHS, 97A, 3b. The child was Tou Kuang-kuo, a younger brother of Emperor Wen's Empress né'e Tou. Slavery in China, 275–277.

19 Yen t'ieh lun, ch. 1, sec. 6; also trans, by Gale, Esson M.Discourses on Salt and Iron (Leyden, 1931), 35Google Scholar. The Yen t'ieh lun was written, by Huan K'uan during the reign of Emperor Hsüan (74–49 B.C.) to record the arguments advanced during a debate on government economic policies held in the presence of Emperor Chao in 81 B.C. Cf. Chang, C. M.The Genesis and Meaning of Huan Kuan's 'Discourses on Salt and Iron,'” Chinese Social and Political Science Review. XVIII (1934), 152.Google Scholar

20 On the reign of Emperor Wu, see Chavannes, Les Mémoires histcriqucs de Se-Ma Ts'ien, I, introduction; pp. lxii-cviii, and III, 544–600, which translates the chapter on economics, SC, 30; also Chi, Ch'ao-tingKey Economic Areas in Chinese History (London, 1936), 8086, Slavery in China, 22–25; and especially the second volume of Homer H. Dubs, History of the Former Han Dynasty (in press).Google Scholar

21 CHS, 24B, 6b; Slavery in China, 328–329.

22 CHS, 59, 5a; Slavery in China, 365.

23 For references to indentured labor see Slavery in China, 214, note 1. There is one early reference to the practice of “pawning children,” which is explained by the commentators as sale for a specified period, or use of children as collateral in borrowing money. If the loan could not be repaid on its maturity, or if accumulated interest equaled the principal, the children became slaves of the creditor. Ibid., 308–309.

24 CHS, 24A, 7a; Slavery in China, 343–344.

25 See footnote on p. 67.

26 The Han chiu i by Wei Hung of the first century A.D. mentions such training. The born slave girl, Ts'ao Kung, a student clerk competent in poetry, taught the Empress, Chao Fei-yen, who had herself once been a slave trained as a singer and dancer. Slave attendants, given by Emperor Hsüan to a Chinese princess who was being sent to Central Asia to marry the ruler of the Wu-sun people, were first sent to school to learn the Wu-sun language. Cf. Slavery in China, 404, 424, 418, and 377, respectively.

26 Cf. Keng, JungCh'in Han chin-wen lu (Peking, 1932)Google Scholar, a collection of inscriptions on Ch'in and Han bronzes. I have counted 77 which give the names of artisans. For several similar inscriptions on Han lacquers, cf. Harada, Yoshito, Lo-lang: a Report on the Excavation of Wang Hsü's Tomb (Tokyo, 1930), 3640;Google Scholar and Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), 33 (1935), 6466.Google Scholar

27 See Yen t'ieh lun, ch. 1, sec. 6; Gale, 34. Kung Yü, in his memorial of 44 B.C., speaks of over 100,000 workers, including conscripts and convicts, extracting iron and copper from the mountains: CHS, 72, 6b. Revolts of convicts in various “iron bureaus” are reported in 22, 18, and 14 B.C.: CHS, 10, 4a, 5a, and 6a, respectively.

28 The historical documents are translated in Slavery in China, 310–312, 347, 397. 422–423, 435–437, 451, 452–455, 457, and 461, respectively.