Once a freeman, Not Always a freeman; Once a slave, Not Always a slave: The Fluidity of Han Dynasty Era Slavery In Greater Detail


Who could become a slave and how slaves could gain their freedom



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Who could become a slave and how slaves could gain their freedom

Slavery in Han China largely resulted from four sources: (1) war with barbarian nations, such as the Hsiung-nu in the North, where prisoners were taken and forced into enslavement for the government or as private slaves; (2) a slave trade/tributary system where members of aboriginal tribes and other lesser areas and kingdoms from Southern and Western China outside of the Han empire, as well as slaves from fringe areas inside the empire would be offered or sold to the Chinese; (3) illegal kidnapping and forcing of free Chinese men and women into slavery by bandits and others; and (4) as a punishment for illegal acts such as rebellion or treason, or illegally coining counterfeit money.18

Concerning the first and second sources of slaves, T’ung-tsu Ch’u states that, “non-Chinese slaves comprised only a small element in the total slave population.”19 Wilbur concurs with this argument in his book “Slavery in China”. He asserts that, “[t]hough non-Chinese slaves were fashionable, they apparently comprised only a small element in the slave population.” He also states, “while large numbers of Hsiung-nu were captured during the Han period, and some were enslaved, it appears altogether unlikely that they constituted an important part of the servile population of China.”20 He bases this argument off of texts from the Chien Han Shu concerning the numbers of Hsiung-nu captives taken alive during wars with Han Chinese. He believes that Hsiung-nu captives could not have played too big of a role in the slavery system (especially that of government slaves) due to their foreign tongue, foreign culture, and resulting inability to fill government bureau jobs or skilled manufacturer roles.21 Wilbur believes that while foreign slaves existed, most of them came from the South, at least much more than those who came from the North, like the Hsiung-nu.22 The acquisition of slaves through successful warfare is a practice common throughout the world. Such a practice occurred with some frequency throughout the mainland and island population of Southeast Asia. Prior to 1800, Southeast Asian kingdoms, due to shortage of labor and manpower needed to develop their huge quantities of farmland, periodically conducted short wars or raids on neighboring inferior tribes or populations. These wars were waged to capture as many prisoners as possible, so as to have at the monarch’s disposal a huge pool of laborers for developing the local agricultural industry.23 However, even though Chinese slavery consisted of similar methods as found in Southeast Asia in which war prisoners were enslaved, it appears that only a small amount of Han China’s slave population consisted of such prisoners of war. Moreover, it seems likely that due to the small percentage of prisoners of war within the slave population, as well as the Han Empire’s immense power within the China subcontinent and its Asian periphery, China’s main purpose in waging wars was not to obtain prisoners to be converted into slaves like it was in Southeast Asia. Thus, another important element that made Han China’s slavery system somewhat unique.

As for the importation of slaves from the Southern and Western areas of China outside of the Han Empire, especially the Southern area known as Yueh, and even from lesser areas in the Han Empire, incidents can be found in the Chien Han Shu and the Han Shu. We see such an example of a slave trade for slaves from the Southern region of Yueh in the Chien Han Shu. This text states that the Empress Dowager of Yueh plotted with an emissary from Han China to incorporate the kingdom of Yueh into the Han Empire and make her many attendants captives to be sold into slavery for a monetary profit for herself.24 What is important about this particular passage, according to Wilbur, is that it provides strong evidence that there was indeed a market for slaves from Yueh in Han China.25 Another example of importing slaves from the Western areas of what we know as China proper today, but was not incorporated into the Han Empire during the Han period, comes from the Hou Han Shu. It states,

The Western Regions were prosperous and rich and abounded in precious things. The attending sons of the various states, the supervisor of the emissaries, and the barbarian merchants frequently presented to [Li] Hsun male and female slaves, horses of [Ta] Yuan, gold, silver, spices, woolen cloth, and other things. He accepted none of them.26

Thus, we see that slaves were also injected into the Han Empire from the Western regions. Slaves were also imported from the fringe areas inside the Han Empire, from areas such as Pa and Shu (present day Szechwan and Yunnan), and Po and Tien, located in the Southwestern realm of the empire. It appears that tradesmen and merchants of Pa and Shu collected slaves from Po and Tien, and sold them to such areas in the Han Empire as the capital, Ch’ang-an.27 One such example of slaves coming from Po is found in the Chien Han Shu, which talks about these tradesmen from Pa and Shu going out for trade, and took with them such items as yaks and youths (male youth slaves) from Po.28 Indeed, as both Wilbur and T’sung-tsu Ch’u point out, a commentator from the Latter Han era, known as Fu Chien makes a comment in the Shi Chi, saying, “In the former capital [Ch’ang-an] there are female slaves from P’o.”29 T’sung-tsu Ch’u points out that “Obviously he [Fu Chien] would not mention it if there were only a few Po slaves in the capital.”30 Thus, in the words of both Wilbur and T’sung-tsu Ch’u, we see “that foreign slaves, especially the aborigines of present-day Szechwan and Yunnan and the south coast, were quite popular in Han times.”31 In other words, they existed within the realm of the Han Dynasty slavery system, albeit comprising a small percentage of the slave population.

The third source of Han Dynasty slaves was the illegal seizure and enslavement of Chinese freemen/women within the Han Empire. Thus, even free Chinese men and women located within the immediate Han Empire were also capable of becoming a slave, albeit illegally. Examples of such incidents can be found in the Ch’ien Han Shu. According to the Ch’ien Han Shu, in 207 B.C., there lived a man named Luan Pu, who came from the area known as Liang. Technically, this specific date came at the transition from the Qin Dynasty into the Han Dynasty. It was a time a severe social upheaval and distress for everyone. Sometime between the years 207-145 B.C., Luan Pu, because he was poor and times were very stressful, he and a friend hired themselves out to a wine shop in an area called Ch’i, and several years after Pu and his friend had separated from each other, Pu was kidnapped and sold as a male slave in the area called Yen.32 As evident from this incident, Pu was once a freeman Chinese, albeit a commoner who had fallen on hard times, like many others at this time in Chinese history. Pu was a free commoner who was abducted by an individual who did this act so as to fulfill a deed of revenge for his master. Thus we see that in economically difficult times and in times of social upheaval and warfare, even free Chinese were at risk of being kidnapped by robbers or bandits and being sold into slavery.33

More evidence of such illegal capture and enslavement of free Chinese come in the Ch’ien Han Shu. During the span of 190-179 B.C., the younger brother of the Empress Nee Tou, named Tou Kuang-kuo, was kidnapped from his family when he was four or five years old, soon after his older sister had entered the palace as the empress. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and sold many more times subsequently. According to the text, his family had no idea of his whereabouts. After being enslaved for a number of years and passing through ten or more families, he followed his master to Ch’ang-an where he heard that new empress’s surname was Tou and her hometown was the same as his own hometown where he had first been kidnapped. While in Ch’ang-an, he was allowed an audience with the Empress, where he convinced her of their relation and his identity from telling his earlier memories of childhood prior to his kidnapping. He was released from enslavement and set up in housing in Ch’ang-an and gave him many gifts.34 This example ones again offers proof of free Chinese, regardless of their societal status, were capable of becoming slaves. Wilbur provides some interesting information on this text concerning Tou Kuang-kuo’s family status. Even though their daughter was taken into the imperial palace to become the empress, the text says their family was poor. Wilbur offers that because the Tou family was poor, they might have been forced into having Kuang-kuo kidnapped and sold into slavery, possibly to pay off a debt of some kind. However, even if this were true, Kuang-kuo was still technically a member of his parent’s societal status when he was kidnapped, and we can only assume that his family was within the status level of free Chinese, especially because their family had just recently sent their daughter to the palace.

According to Wilbur, Ch’u, Yates, and supported by texts in the Ch’ien Han Shu, bandits and robbers often kidnapped free Chinese and sold them into slavery. Wilbur argues that during the end of the Qin, when wars were rampant and social chaos was high, “many robber bands roamed the countryside, preying on the unfortunate populace and selling them into slavery for their own profit. This was a feature of the Han and later dynasties: whenever the central government broke down and the laws against this highly profitable activity were unable or unwilling to be enforced.”35 T’ung-tsu Ch’u reports the same claim that there is evidence from Han Dynasty texts that discuss free Chinese men and women being captured and enslaved, and in one such Han period text thousands are seized and enslaved by a certain powerful individual named Liang Chi.36 Wilbur provides more information on free Chinese men and women being seized and enslaved when he says, “strong robber bands are frequently reported from various parts of the empire and often had to be suppressed by military force. These bands doubtless kidnapped many people for sale. Wang Mang, in his edict of A.D. 9 denounced kidnapping of women and children for sale as if it had been a constant occurrence throughout the Han period.” However, Wilbur also cautions “Han documents lack information on many questions naturally arising about kidnapping for slavery.” 37 Certain documents do, however, indicate that such kidnappings of free individuals, both men, women, and children did indeed occur during the Han period. One such example can be found in the Han Shu, which states, “[Wang Mang said, ‘Ch’in] also established markets [for the sale] of male and female slaves, putting them in the same pens with oxen and horses. They were controlled by the common people who had arbitrary authority over their lives. The treacherous and brutal people profited by exploiting this authority. They even seized and sold other people’s wives and children. It was contrary to the intention of Heaven, and it confused the basic relations of mankind.”38 Granted, in this text, Wang Mang, who seized the throne in A.D. 9 and ruled until A.D. 23, interrupting the former and latter Han eras, was speaking of the former Qin Dynasty and their practices. But he obviously did so because the same problems with slaves and slavery were still existent during his reign and he sought to change such practices, albeit unsuccessfully apparently.39

Another text, found in the Hou Han Shu, states that in A.D. 31, an imperial edict demanded that “Those officials and people who encountered famine and turmoil, together with those who were kidnapped by the Ch’ing and Hsu robbers, and thus became slaves or lesser wives, and now wish to leave but are detained-freely allow them [to go].”40 These two sources dealt with free Chinese being kidnapped by robbers and bandits. The next source, however, outlines a case where a certain powerful individual made it his practice to kidnap free Chinese and make them his slaves. This man’s name was Liang Chi, who lived around A.D. 130-159, and at one time held the office of grand general and was even very close to the imperial family, his younger sister being Empress Dowager Liang. Liang Chi even became the master of writing, grand tutor, and grand commandant at the appointment of the Empress Dowager, his sister.41 Thus, Liang Chi was a very powerful man. According to the Hou Han Shu, “[Liang Chi] sometimes seized good people and made all of them male and female slaves, to the number of several thousand persons. He called them ‘self-sold persons’.”42 T’sung-tsu Ch’u provides in his footnotes that labeling these once free but now enslaved Chinese “self-sold persons,” he could justify himself in continuing this practice and holding them as his slaves.43 Thus, we see that even free Chinese men, women, and children within the Han Empire were also capable of becoming slaves by means of kidnapping. Most of these enslaved Chinese were most likely commoners, but even so, as we shall see, even free Chinese who held high societal and governmental positions were not exempt from being enslaved.

The fourth major source of slaves during the Han Dynasty is the most unique and curious. Simply put, anyone living within the boundaries of the Han Empire, including those ethnically Chinese, regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, societal status, or even official court status was technically and legally capable of becoming a slave as a form of punishment for certain crimes. As already mentioned, one such crime that could result in enslavement as punishment was the illegal counterfeiting of coins. T’ung-tsu Ch’u has assembled examples of such cases from the dynastic histories. In these examples, high social class or status do not result in a more lenient sentencing for the accused. Two such examples are found in the Han Shu. The first states, “when one family cast coins, five families were held responsible; they would be seized and made male and female slaves.”44 While this first text makes no mention as to whom specifically, or rather, which societal rank this decree would apply to (indeed, the absence of such information can lead to the assumption that this applies to anyone, regardless of status), the next text clears up this lack of information of the first. Two additional anecdotes from the Han Shu clarify that the punishment of enslavement of the entire family plus 5 more related families shall apply even to officials found guilty of illegal coinage, and to officials who knew of the illegal activity [done by others] but failed to report such illegal acts. Thus, the punishment of government slavery applied to all in the Han Empire who were caught illegally coining counterfeit money, regardless of one’s societal rank, age, sex or ethnicity.45

The second crime that could be punished by enslavement was rebellion or treason against the government. As in the above illegal coinage example, anyone, regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, societal status, or even government/official status was capable of receiving such a punishment. According to the written sources from the Han Dynasty, families of the rebellious individuals were enslaved and made government slaves. The actual rebels themselves were usually executed, if not killed in the rebellion.46 Wilbur provides such an example in his book Slavery in China During the Former Han Dynasty. Wilbur provides that “From the end of the Han period until late into the Ch’ing times laws specified enslavement as punishment for families of people guilty of crimes classed as treason and rebellion.”47 Scholars from the Han period even note that such punishment for rebellion or treason appeared in the late Zhou and Qin times as well.48 One such example of rebellious or treasonous individuals appears in the Ch’ien Han Shu, which states that “[In May/June, 140 B.C., Emperor Wu] pardoned the families of [the leaders of the rebellion of] Wu, Ch’u, the Seven States, who had been condemned to the government [as slaves].”49 According to Wilbur, the Seven States Rebellion occurred in 154 B.C., in which the kings of seven different states rebelled against the Han government. While one king was beheaded, the rest committed suicide.50 Their families however, according to the aforementioned source in the Ch’ien Han Shu, were forced to be government slaves, but were pardoned four years later. Thus, even royal lines of different states within the Han Empire, both men, women, and children, were capable of becoming slaves if the right crime was committed, such as rebellion or treason, either by them or other members of their family.

While anyone in the Han Empire was capable of receiving the punishment of slavery for the aforementioned reasons, any enslaved individual was also capable of gaining freedom, and for whatever reason. Thus, a slave did not always remain a slave. Rather, freedom may have been granted to any slave for whatever reason the emancipator may have deemed appropriate. Several Han era examples provided by T’ang-tsu Ch’u in Han Social Structure mention many instances where slaves were freed, either by their private owners/masters or by the government, whereupon they became commoners. One such example is found in the Han Shu, which states, [“The responsible ministers suggested that] the male and female government slaves fifty years of age and up were to be set free and become commoners.”51 Another, found in Han Shu says, “In the fifth month [in the fourth year of the Hou reign period of Emperor Wen] a general amnesty [was proclaimed], and government male and female slaves were set free to become commoners.”52 However, it must be noted that during Wang Mang’s reign, specifically in A.D. 12, it was decreed that former slaves that had been freed and made private retainers, basically meaning they had been pronounced commoners, were also capable of being sold back into slavery, and that those who bought such former slaves were not to be tried.53 Freed slaves were not forbidden from attaining a status higher than that of a commoner upon gaining their freedom. Indeed, some went on to become high court officials, such as can be found Hou Han Shu.54 This text tells about a male slave named Li Shan (who is thought by some scholars to have been a scribe or accountant, due to his title “Dark-green Head”) who belonged to the Li Yuan family. This family all died in an epidemic, save their one infant son, named Hsu. Being that he was the only heir to Li Yuan, all the male and female slaves met together and decided to kill Hsu so that they could divide Li Yuan’s enormous property amongst themselves. Li Shan felt pity for poor Hsu, and thus fled with him, carrying Hsu on his back, and serving him as if he would he were his adult master. Li Shan and Hsu returned to the old property when Hsu was 10 years old, whereupon Li Shan accused the male and female slaves of their attempted crime 10 years earlier. As a result all these male and female slaves were arrested and put to death. Due to his faithfulness to his infant master, the prefect of Hsia-Ch’iu sent a memorial to the throne, whereupon he recommended Li Shan’s behavior to the emperor. Li Shan was freed from slavery and was appointed as a member of the retinue of the heir apparent. He was later appointed to the office of the grand administrator of Jih-nan.55

Another such example of a freed slave becoming an official is found in the Shi Chi and the Han Shu.56 This text concerns a man named Luan Pu, who fell on hard times and “hired himself out as a waiter in a wine shop.” Pu was later kidnapped and sold into slavery in Yen. He was later freed from slavery by the Yen general, Tsang T’u, who elevated Pu to chief commandant., and then later a general. Tsang T’u rebelled, which prompted Han to attack Yen, capturing Pu in the process. Pu’s old friend P’eng Yueh, the king of Liang, asked the emperor to allow him to “redeem Pu and make him the grandee of Liang.”57 Thus, we see that any slave was capable of being freed and raised to the level of a commoner, and some, whose merit and conduct was right, were promoted to high posts in the court, becoming officials. Slavery was not always a permanent status of one’s life. It appears that several imperial edicts freed both private and government slaves, promoting them to commoners, and indeed, special punishments of slaves were forbidden and owners of slaves were required to treat them a certain way.58






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