Slavery thrives in Chinese prisons per Al Jazeera

On this Day:

In 1910, Republic of China Officially Abolishes Slavery. Or so they say…

Slavery in China has taken various forms throughout history. Slavery was abolished as a legally recognized institution, including in a 1909 law fully enacted in 1910, although the practice continued until at least 1949. Illegal acts of forced labor and sexual slavery in China continue to occur in the twenty-first century, but those found guilty of such crimes are punished harshly. The Chinese term for slave (nuli) can also be roughly translated into ‘debtor’, ‘dependent’, or ‘subject’. Slaves in China were a very small part of the population and could include war prisoners, kidnap victims or people who had been sold.

History of Slavery in China by Era


Further information: Society and Culture of the Han Dynasty

The Shang dynasty (1600 to 1046 B.C., coinciding with the Bronze Age in China) engaged in frequent raids of surrounding states, obtaining captives who would be killed in ritual sacrifices. Scholars disagree as to whether these victims were also used as a source of slave labor.

The Warring States period (475–221 BC) saw a decline in slavery from previous centuries, although it was still widespread during the period. Since the introduction of private ownership of land in the state of Lu in 594 BC, which brought a system of taxation on private land, and saw the emergence of a system of landlords and peasants, the system of slavery began to decline. Over the following centuries other states followed suit.

The Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) confiscated property and enslaved families as punishment. Large numbers of slaves were used by the Qin government to construct large-scale infrastructure projects, including road building, canal construction and land reclamation. Slave labor was quite extensive during this period.

Beginning with the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), one of Emperor Gao’s first acts was to manumit agricultural workers enslaved during the Warring States period, although domestic servants retained their status. The Han Dynasty promulgated laws to limit the possession of slaves: each king or duke was allowed a maximum of 200 slaves, an imperial princess was allowed a maximum of 100 slaves, other officials were limited to 30 slaves each.

Men punished with castration during the Han dynasty were also used as slave labor.

Deriving from earlier Legalist laws, the Han dynasty set in place rules penalizing criminals, doing three years of hard labor or sentenced to castration, by having their families seized and kept as property by the government.

In the year AD 9, the Emperor Wang Mang (9–23 AD) usurped the Chinese throne and, to deprive landowning families of their power, instituted a series of sweeping reforms, including the abolition of slavery and radical land reform. Slavery was reinstated in AD 12 before his assassination in AD 23.


During the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 AD), a number of statuses intermediate between freedom and slavery developed, but none of them are thought to have exceeded 1 percent of the population.

Tang law forbade enslaving free people, but allowed enslavement of criminals and foreigners. Free people could however willingly sell themselves. The primary source of slaves was southern tribes, and young slave girls were the most desired. Although various officials such as Kong Kui, the governor of Guangdong, banned the practice, the trade continued. Other peoples sold to the Chinese included Turk, Persian and Korean women, who were sought after by the wealthy. The slave girls of Yue were eroticized in Tang dynasty poetry 越婢脂肉滑. The term Yue(越) referred to southern China.

Early Modern

The Song dynasty’s (960–1279 AD) warfare against northern and western neighbours produced many captives on both sides, but reforms were introduced to ease the transition from bondage to freedom.

The Hongwu Emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 AD) sought to abolish all forms of slavery but in practice, slavery continued through the Ming dynasty.

The Javans sent 300 black slaves as tribute to the Ming dynasty in 1381. When the Ming dynasty crushed the Miao Rebellions in 1460, they castrated 1,565 Miao boys, which resulted in the deaths of 329 of them. They turned the survivors into eunuch slaves. The Guizhou Governor who ordered the castration of the Miao was reprimanded and condemned by Emperor Yingzong of Ming.

Later Ming rulers, as a way of limiting slavery because of their inability to prohibit it, passed a decree that limited the number of slaves that could be held per household and extracted a severe tax from slave owners.

The Qing dynasty (1644–1912 AD) initially oversaw an expansion in slavery and states of bondage such as the booi aha. They possessed about two million slaves upon their conquest of China. However, like previous dynasties, the Qing rulers soon saw the advantages of phasing out slavery, and gradually introduced reforms turning slaves and serfs into peasants. Laws passed in 1660 and 1681 forbade landowners from selling slaves with the land they farmed and prohibited physical abuse of slaves by landowners. The Kangxi Emperor freed all the Manchus’ hereditary slaves in 1685. The Yongzheng Emperor’s “Yongzheng emancipation” between 1723 and 1730 sought to free all slaves to strengthen his authority through a kind of social levelling that created an undifferentiated class of free subjects under the throne, freeing the vast majority of slaves.

The abolition of slavery in several countries following British diplomatic pressure led to increasing demands for cheap Chinese laborers, known as “coolies”. Mistreatment ranged from the near-slavery conditions maintained by some crimps and traders in the mid-1800s to the relatively dangerous tasks given to the Chinese during the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in the United States.

Among his other reforms, Taiping Rebellion leader Hong Xiuquan abolished slavery and prostitution in the territory under his control in the 1850s and 1860s.

In addition to sending Han exiles convicted of crimes to Xinjiang to be slaves of Banner garrisons there, the Qing also practiced reverse exile, exiling Inner Asian (Mongol, Russian and Muslim criminals from Mongolia and Inner Asia) to China proper where they would serve as slaves in Han Banner garrisons in Guangzhou.

Slavery by Non-Han Chinese

In 1019, Jurchen pirates raided Japan for slaves. Only a small number of Japanese on 8 ships were returned when Goryeo managed to intercept them. The Jurchen pirates slaughtered Japanese men while seizing Japanese women as prisoners. Fujiwara Notada, the Japanese governor was killed. In total, 1,280 Japanese were taken prisoner, 374 Japanese were killed and 380 Japanese owned livestock were killed for food. The Yuan dynasty (1271–1368 AD) expanded slavery and implemented harsher terms of service. In the process of the Mongol invasion of China proper, many Han Chinese were enslaved by the Mongol rulers. According to Japanese historians Sugiyama Masaaki (杉山正明) and Funada Yoshiyuki (舩田善之), there were also a certain number of Mongolian slaves owned by Han Chinese during the Yuan. Moreover, there is no evidence that Han Chinese suffered particularly cruel abuse.

Korean women were viewed as having white and delicate skin (肌膚玉雪發雲霧) by Hao Jing 郝經 (1223–1275), a Yuan scholar, and it was highly desired and prestigious to own Korean female servants among the “Northerner” nobility in the Yuan dynasty.

Modern Era

Throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s the Yi people (also known as Nuosu) of China terrorized Sichuan to rob and enslave non-Nuosu, including Han people. The descendants of the Han slaves, known as the White Yi (白彝), outnumbered the Black Yi (黑彝) aristocracy by ten to one. There was a saying that can be translated as: “The worst insult to a Nuosu is to call him a “Han “.(To do so implied that the Nuosu’s ancestors were slaves.)

Slavery is not institutionalized in modern China, however there are still people working in slave-like conditions under illegal circumstances. In 2007 and 2011, disabled men in Central China were enslaved to work in kilns.

In 2018, the Global Slavery Index presumed that there are approximately 3.8 million people enslaved in China. Most of these slaves work in the manufacturing sector. In 2020, the United States Department of State warned American businesses against the use of supply chains using Chinese facilities that use slave labor (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

What do you call if Apple forces children in China to work?


Second, a Song:

Per Al Jazeera and

Slavery is illegal in every country, but some have allowed slave-like conditions in certain situations.

In China, slavery in prisons is still alive and thriving, to provide cheap goods for major companies and corporations.

Al Jazeera’s Rageh Omar reports.

Reaching more than 270 million households in over 140 countries across the globe, our viewers trust Al Jazeera English to keep them informed, inspired, and entertained.

Our impartial, fact-based reporting wins worldwide praise and respect. It is our unique brand of journalism that the world has come to rely on.

We are reshaping global media and constantly working to strengthen our reputation as one of the world’s most respected news and current affairs channels.

Here is Al Jazeera’s report on Slavery in China. I hope you enjoy this!

Thought for the Day:

“Freedom is the open window through which pours the sunlight of the human spirit and human dignity.” – Herbert Hoover

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Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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