Once A Freeman, Not Always A Freeman; Once A Slave, Not Always A Slave: The Fluidity of Han Dynasty Era Slavery In Greater Detail
Slavery in ancient imperial China differed in important ways from America’s own experience with the enslavement of Africans. For example, in China, not only do we find examples of corvee labor and war prisoners being converted to slaves, but we also see Chinese citizens laboring as slaves as well. In addition, there were government owned slaves and private slaves possessed by individual families. We also see within the Chinese slavery system an elaborate hierarchy, with slaves attaining higher positions due to their abilities and merit. It is also apparent that some slaves, who served in the palace, had a much more comfortable life-style than a typical poor commoner in Han Dynasty China.1
One particularly unique aspect of the slavery system in China that is that in Han Dynasty China (206 BC-220 AD), it appears that anyone within the slavery system of the Han Empire, regardless of official rank, social status, ethnicity, age, or sex was capable of becoming a slave. This could happen through voluntary means, as a result of coercion, or both. Such instances of coercive enslavement can be seen in war prisoners being sold into slavery, foreign tributes containing slaves, and the foreign and domestic slave trade; instances of kidnapping free Chinese citizens and subsequent enslavement; instances of parents selling family members into slavery in times of war and famine; and Chinese who break the law and are sentenced to penal servitude. And any slave, regardless of why he or she may have become a slave, was also capable of gaining their freedom and becoming a commoner. A few fortunate few former slaves even became officials in the bureaucracy (males only).
By looking at texts and writings from the era in question, as well as the guiding insights of modern scholars on the topic of ancient Chinese slavery, it can be understood that slavery was as much as choice in Han China as it was a punishment or an instance of coercion. Additionally, no human being within the realm of the Han empire, save possibly the emperor himself, was exempt from the possibility of becoming a slave; and any slave, whether voluntarily so or as a result of punishment or coercion was capable of gaining freedom and even become a court official (again, males only).