"The Import of 'Black Slaves' (heinu) into China: An Analysis of Chinese Sources" - Presented by Angela Schottenhammer

IOWC Guest Lecture:
Angela Schottenhammer

16 November 2009, 4pm
Peterson Hall, Room 106

Scholars of Chinese history generally agree that in China slaves, economically speaking, have never played an important role in the production. They were by far not as important as, for example, in the ancient Roman Empire. This is an indisputable fact. Dieter Kuhn estimates that during Han times, a time period when they most probably played one of their most important roles in Chinese history, their number did probably not exceed 1% of the total population. Nevertheless, we do have references – sometimes indirectly – both to the existence of slaves in China and to a trade in slaves.

Generally speaking, however, it is quite obvious that the Western definition of "slave" and "slavery" as we understand it in the context of Roman or ancient Greek slavery may not deliberately be applied to Chinese historical circumstances. As Anthony Reid has, for example, already noted for the Southeast Asian context that "(i)t should serve as a warning against using the English word 'slavery' without qualification. Most of the Southeast Asian terms which early European travellers translated as slave could be in other circumstances rendered as debtor, dependent or subject". It is an undeniable fact that slavery is highly culturally variable and linked to other forms of obligation and debt bondage and that modern forms of slavery in general differ from those in ancient Greece or Rome. But does this mean that we cannot speak of slavery and slave trade at all as far as China is concerned?

After an introduction providing some general ideas on slavery in China, my paper intends to touch upon some of the most important examples of overseas trade in Chinese human beings and concentrates subsequently on references in Chinese sources on the import of a particular human commodity, "black slaves", into China.