Before venturing into a detailed discussion of Han Dynasty slavery, it is necessary to define a few key terms. What constituted a “slave” and who was considered one during the Han Dynasty? Orlando Patterson writes that a slave, at least in the Qin era (221-209 BC), “‘was a slave not because he was the object of property but because he could not be the subject of property.’ In other words, a slave was a slave because he could not own property.”2 Patterson also provided a succinct definition of slavery in China stating that it is “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.”3 Robin Yates, following Patterson’s definitions, claims that both slaves and convicts can be constituted as persons who are de-humanized, meaning persons that are cut off from human relationships. He writes, “in China humans are humans because of the direct line and link between themselves and their ancestors or ascendants and their offspring or descendants. A slave and a criminal in early traditional China lost his rights and obligations and relations to his family, both his parents and his children. He was a socially dead person.” Thus, as a result of that severing in relations with family, a convicted criminal or enslaved individual became an outcaste of sorts, no longer belonging to or existing within both Chinese society and human society. They had become “dehumanized,” and thus were alienated, dishonored, and were no longer capable of owning property. Therefore, in both Patterson’s and Yates’ words, they were slaves or criminals.
However, if both a slave and a convicted criminal were both considered socially dead and acquired their label because of that social non-existence, then what really constituted the differences between a criminal and a slave? The usual punishment for convicted criminals was mutilation and a period of hard labor servitude. Mutilation would make that person “unwhole and therefore polluting and unable to serve at and participate in the religious observances of ancestor worship. Thus, the individual was essentially cut off from all family ties.”4 From the information given by Yates and Patterson, we can therefore differentiate between a criminal and a slave. A slave was one whose period of servitude was permanent, or at least lacked a stated end date, and which was usually passed on to their posterity. A criminal/convict on the other hand was one who was also de-humanized by means of mutilation, but whose period of servitude was definite, usually around one to six years.5
T’sung-tsu Ch’u and C. Martin Wilbur, scholars of Han Dynasty slavery, agree with Yates and Patterson in their assertion that slaves and convicts were not one and the same in early imperial China. This assertion is made in response to the claim made by Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and other scholars of Chinese history that “convicts in Han times were actually slaves.” 6 Both Wilbur and Ts’ung-tsu Ch’u give evidence in their respective works that refutes this claim made by Liang Ch’i-ch’ao. Wilbur asserts, “Convicts, during sentence, were much like some government slaves, but after the term was completed they were freed and became commoners.”7 In addition to arguing the difference between the definite period of servitude for convicts and the permanent period of servitude for slaves, Wilbur also presents linguistic evidence to support his claim that there is a difference between convicts and slaves. Wilbur provides that in Han Dynasty China, slaves were distinctly referred to as nu-pei, nu being a male slave, peia female slave, and nu-pei in meaning slaves in general. Another name given to slaves who were youths, both male and female, is called t’ung. Convicts on the other hand were referred to strictly as t’u.8 In terms of Han era societal class structure, there were two rungs of the lowest class that were located below commoners. These were the convicts and the slaves. Convicts were usually put into servitude for a definite period of time, and set apart form the rest of society by shaven heads, shackles, and sometimes tattooed faces. They were then set free after their period of servitude for their crimes had ended and they once again became commoners. Slaves on the other hand were even lower on the social-class scale. According to Wilbur, “[s]laves, both government and private, formed a distinct and recognized class in society”.9 Thus, the key difference between slaves and convicts sentenced to hard labor as a result of their crimes was that convicts’ period of servitude was definite and short term, with an end-date in sight, while slaves’ period of servitude was permanent and continued on with their posterity. But, as we shall see, not all convicts were criminals who served a short-term sentence involving hard-labor. Depending on the nature of the crime, individuals within the Han Empire could also become slaves with a permanent period of servitude by means of criminal activity as well.