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Slavery in Imperial China


Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Young Yoon
Term Paper, AP World History Class, July 2009



Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Commencement of slavery in Ancient China
III. The Qin Dynasty and its slaves
IV. Expansion of slavery during the Han dynasty
IV.1 Enslavement
IV.2 Manumission and Temporary Abolition
IV.3 The Slave Market
V. Slavery during Three Kingdoms period and in Jin China
VI. Slavery in Northern and Southern dynasties
VI.1 Southern dynasties
VI.2 Northern dynasties
VII. Slavery from Tang to Song Dynasty
VII.1 Black slaves in Tang China
VII.2 The Tang Code and Slavery
VII.3 Slavery in Song China
VIII. Slavery in Yuan China
IX. Slavery in Ming China
X. Slavery in Qing China
X.1 Enslavement
X.2 Status of slaves
X.3 Coolies
X.4 Formal Abolition of Slavery
XI. Conclusion
Notes
Bibliography



I. Introduction
            Slavery, or involuntary subjection to another or others, existed in every ancient civilization, such as Sumer, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, parts of the Roman Empire, and so on. People were enslaved for various reasons, including slave raiding, sale of insolvent debtors and capture in war; slaves commonly were recognized as property, assets that could be bought and sold. In the Chinese empire (c. 211 BCE - 1912 CE), slavery existed throughout all dynasties, although numerous aspects of slavery did not remain the same. The word "slave" itself changed many times, nubi () in the Han period, yinke () in Jin, booi aha () under Manchu rule, and so on. The function and position of slaves in Chinese economy shifted several times as well.
            This paper will briefly describe the initiation of slavery before Imperial China, and proceed to analyze several aspects about slavery in each dynasty of the Chinese Empire; I will discuss the changing definition of a slave, how slaves became slaves, abolition of slavery and ways to gain freedom, and the degree of dependence or power slaves held in society. The paper is organized in chronological order, but details of slavery in several dynasties existing before Ming and Qing can be scarce due to the lack of attention slaves received prior to Manchu rule.

II. Commencement of slavery in Ancient China
            The institution of hereditary slavery reaches back to as far as the Xia and Shang dynasty (20th - 11th century BCE). Xia and Shang China was based on a social system which resembled that of a slaveholder society (as opposed to feudal society that would soon follow). Though nations did not actually develop into slave societies, the concept of slavery soon spread to neighboring countries such as Korea, India, and other parts of Asia. There is no mention of the term "slave" (nu Ò¿) in oracle texts written during this time. Similar to other ancient civilizations, Shang China introduced slavery to the economy by allowing debtors to repay their debts with women and children. However, the system was different from that of ancient Rome and the Western medieval world in that most slaves were owned by the state instead of belonging to individuals.
            Zhou society showed aspects of both slaveholder and feudal society - the kings provided their followers with feudal land, and yet a large part of the population was enslaved, either as war captives or enslaved debtors sold on market. The war prisoners were called "li ()", or "nu ()", and the latter were called "chenqie ()". All three names include characters with multiple meanings, such as "servitude", "punishment", and "dependent on the master". Powerful feudal lords exploited slaves in order to raise production surpluses and gain more wealth. Slaves were traded in markets in bazaars of large towns, where various other commodities such as silk and cattle were bought and sold.

III. The Qin Dynasty and its slaves
            With the transition from a period of rising and falling of states and small kingdoms to the first unified empire, the slavery system also became more firmly established. Qin China marks the beginning of imperial China, with a centralized and bureaucratic government based on the beliefs of Legalism. The First Emperor - Qin Shi Huangdi - launched attacks against the other six kingdoms that survived the Warring States period and absorbed their territories to create a unified empire.
            In order to keep feudalism at bay and impose a centralized, non-hereditary aristocratic system, Qin Shi Huangdi made the nobles of other kingdoms his slaves for they were the most threatening enemies of his system. The labor force who worked on his great mausoleum was comprised of 1:2 ratios of Han people and slaves brought from other regions. Origins of enslaved workers in the Qin dynasty were quite diverse, ranging from Han people to Ryukyuans and Japanese.

IV. Expansion of slavery during the Han dynasty
            Chinese slavery did not originate during the former Han dynasty (206 BCE.- CE 25), but it expanded rapidly at that time. Slaves probably then achieved their greatest numbers in proportion to the total population, and the period is the first in which it is possible to suppose, on the basis of historical texts, that slavery had an important place in Chinese economy. The customs of slavery and slave trade of Qin China lasted into Han society, although it was briefly Wang Mang abolished slave trade in 9 C.E. The inaugural edict of Wang Mang, CE 9, in stating the evils of slavery, claimed the following:

            "Furthermore, [the Ch'in dynasty] established markets for nu-pei [putting humans into] the same pens with cattle and horses." (1)

            Written law was uncommon during this period, and Wang Mang was the first to set the basic outlines of rules regarding slavery and slave trade during his regime.

IV.1 Enslavement
            In Han China, slaves were called nu-pei - male and female slaves; nu referred to male slaves and pei to female ones. Free people became slaves for crime, sold to pay debts, forced into enslavement illegally, or were imported from foreign regions and put on market. Convicts guilty of certain crimes were made in to government slaves (t'u nu pei), as well as their families and relatives. Slaves worked as household servants, in agriculture and construction, and as government officials. The Emperor and his court usually owned hundreds or even thousands of slaves. A large number of female government slaves served in the imperial palace. Imported slaves were acquired by both government and individuals.

IV.2 Manumission and Temporary Abolition
            Slave status was hereditary for both private and government slaves, but slaves could pay for their freedom or be granted freedom by their masters. Social fluidity was high at the time, and a few more fortunate slaves moved up the social ladder very quickly. A radical case of such is Empress Wei, second Empress of Emperor Wu (d. 91 BCE). Wei was an illegitimate child of a slave woman in the household of the Emperor's older sister, Princess Pinyang. The Emperor spotted the girl singing and dancing at a banquet thrown by Princess Pinyang, was infatuated, and took her into his palace. She was made Empress when in 128 BCE she bore the Emperor a long-wanted son.
            During the entire period slave trade (not slavery) was abolished only once under Emperor Wang Mang in 9 CE, although it was restored when he faced opposition of the aristocracy, in 12 CE. Wang Mang introduced a system of land distribution in which all land was made into government property and sale of lands or slaves was abolished. His reforms, however, enraged the landlords without really earning wholehearted support from the peasants, and were nullified less than three years after they were implemented. The Red Eyebrow Rebellion brought Wang Mang down from his throne in 23 CE.

IV.3 The Slave Market
            The slave market was open and common during the Han dynasty, but trade of people who had been free up to the time of the purchase was illegal. There were strict laws against kidnapping and selling people; one of them read:

            "Those who sell their children shall be punished for one year. [Those who sell] relatives of the same surname, who are their superiors or elders within the five grades of mourning, shall die. Those who sell their near relatives, or their concubines, or their sons' wives, shall be banished." (2)

            Slaves were sold in the same kind of pens cattle and horses were sold in, sometimes dressed in flashy clothes such as silk slippers and hats to interest the nobles who may buy them. Once a slave was sold, a "certificate of servitude" was drawn up, which included the slave's name and date of birth. Slave traders had no special name to distinguish them from ordinary merchants, although some did specialize in the sale of "luxury slaves" for aristocracy. The slave market itself was indistinguishable from ordinary markets that sold cattle or utensils.
            The suppliers of the slave market ranged from kidnappers to debtors to the government itself at times. Debt slavery and abduction slavery were both illegal but common; sometimes slave dealers specialized in trade of slaves used for entertaining aristocracies. They commonly bought children, mostly young girls, trained them to dance and sing, and resold them as entertainers. Such slaves were sold at much higher prices than other slaves; an ordinary young slave man sold at 15000 cash and an adult slave woman at 20000 cash, while in the biography of King Chi-pei, it is recorded that around 160 BC he remarked boastfully of having paid 4,700,000 cash for four girls trained to do tricks. The government also sold slaves. There was also a constant demand for slaves, for kidnapping, purchase of famine victims, and slave raiding repeatedly occurred although they were illegal. A system for transporting foreign slaves from southern regions such as Szechwan and Yunnan to cities such as Ch'ang-an existed; the system also applied to debt slaves, who asked the dealers to transport them to the city.

V. Slavery during the Three Kingdoms period and in Jin China
            After the former Han Dynasty disintegrated and during the period of chaos that followed, the system of slavery also declined. As eunuchs and consort clans gained power and powerful warlords took over regencies of weak emperors, a system of agrarian colonies (tuntian Ôêï£) with semi-military characteristics replaced the former land systems. Peasants were reduced to state-owned peasant-slave states instead, for they were forced to labor under warlords. There were few incentives for the people to abide on the agrarian colonies. They were not allowed to leave their homelands, could only marry people from their own "caste" and worked as a kind of state-owned peasant-slaves. (3) Several categories of persons with a status in-between slaves and the free population came into existence as well, such as serf-like tenants (k'o) and soldiers of private armies (pu-ch'ü).
            Under the rule of Jin Dynasty, the slavery system returned as immigrants from the north sold themselves as slaves at Eastern Jin, when the Western Jin government collapsed. The Eastern Jin government enacted policies to prevent the officials, gentry and aristocracy from acquiring too much land and duty-free workforce and to ensure their political loyalty. It imposed more restrictions for land and clients according to the landowner's rank. Land owners were required to record their tenant farmers, servants and slaves in their households. Later on, many immigrant-slaves were given normal status, in order to raise tax revenues and gather more labor and military force against the northern kingdoms. After the Jin Dynasty collapsed, several rulers of the Southern Dynasties implemented similar policies of abolishing slavery, in order to gain a higher population of tax-payers.

VI. Northern and Southern dynasties
            China's economy during these periods was marked with an effort by the government to establish peace and unification in the war-ridden lands.

VI.1 Southern Dynasties
            Lasting from 420 to 589 C.E., the Southern Dynasties consisted of only four consecutive dynasties: Song, Qi, Liang, and Chen. Though the government was weak and had little power over the local magnate aristocracy, the south grew culturally and economically successful. The arable land was divided into three parts, state-owned land, privately owned estates, and land given to military households. The second type of land was given to officials in the government administration, or members of the aristocracy, as an exchange for their services. Slaves mostly worked at such large estate owners' households, as large estate owners were allowed to employ a certain number of clients, slaves and farmers (tianzou ) (4). However, the owners did not always limit the number of their slaves as the laws restricted them to. They often acquired larger amounts of land illegally and employed several thousand slaves.

VI.2 Northern Dynasties
            For a time the economy of Northern Wei was marked by a combination of robbing, agrarian colonies, pasturing and normal field cultivation. Under the rule of Xiaowendi, or Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei, the equal-field-system was introduced, under which every person, even slaves, were granted a fixed size of land that they had to cultivate lifelong (5). The positive results of this policy, along with other economical measures, helped increase the tax revenue for the state, hold a tighter control over peasant households, recover from centuries of warfare and calamities, and finally found an institutional base for the economic system of the later Sui and Tang dynasties.

VII. Slavery from Tang to Song Dynasty
            Little records describe significant changes or characteristics of the slavery system during the Sui dynasty, which lasted a very short period from 581 to 618 CE. Slavery in Tang China, on the other hand, shows the introduction of a most interesting new element: African slaves.

VII.1 Black slaves in China
            Arab traders brought East African slaves for the first time during Tang China. In 651 Arab delegates were sent to the Chinese court, marking the first official contact between the Arab caliphate and Tang Chinese government. Black slaves were just one of many commodities in the Arabs' large-scale maritime trade with China, which peaked during the Tang and Song dynasty (960-1275) (6). By the ninth century the Arabs had established a sizable community in Guanzhou, and local residents would have been able to see African slaves in Arab households and on trading ships. Some of the wealthy Chinese owned African slaves themselves, whom they kept as doormen. The term for such black people was kunlun (). This mysterious and poorly understood word first applied to dark-skinned Chinese and then expanded over time to encompass multiple meanings, all connoting dark skin (7). The Kunlun is mentioned in many fictional works during the Tang dynasty. Some of them describe the Kunlun as having supernatural powers, while others view them similarly to any other slave. A famous romance novel in China is "The Kunlun Slave", written in 880 CE by Pei Xing, which stars a faithful Kunlun who uses his supernatural powers to save his master's lover from the harem of a court official (8). The following is the plot of the novel:
            During the Chosun Dynasty, the rules of choo-jeung were continued while the range of people who could receive the jeung-jiks was expanded. The story takes place during the Dali reign era (766-80) of Emperor Daizong and follows the tale of a young man named Cui who enlists the aide of Mo-le, his black slave, to help free his beloved who was forced to join the harem of a court official. At midnight, Mo-le kills the guard dogs around the compound and carries Ts'ui on his back while easily jumping to the tops of walls and bounding from roof to roof. With the lovers reunited, Mo-le leaps over ten tall walls with both of them on his back. Ts'ui and his beloved are able to live happily together in peace because the official believes she was kidnapped by knights-errant and did not want to make trouble for himself by pursuing them. However, two years later, one of the official's attendants sees the girl in the city and reports this. The official arrests Ts'ui and, once he hears the entire story, sends men to capture the black slave. But Mo-le escapes with his dagger (apparently his only possession) and flies over the city walls to escape apprehension. He is seen over ten years later selling medicine in the city, not having aged a single day. (9)
            Kunlun were also represented in other fictional tales such as the Tang fiction compendium Taiping guangji () (Extensive Gleanings of the Reign of Great Tranquility), and also in non-fictional works by Song, Zhu Yu. Magical, supernatural images of the Kunlun were formed by what the Chinese heard from the Arab traders, for few Chinese people made direct contact with the countries and peoples of East Africa before Muslim admiral Zheng He's expeditions to Africa in the 15th century. Regardless of whether these accounts indicate direct contact between Chinese and African people in the Tang and Song, however, they reveal Chinese historians and geographers' increasing knowledge of Africa and Africans. This new knowledge allowed the Chinese to make a connection between the kunlun slaves in China and the East African slave trade (10). However, it is difficult to assert that Chinese knowledge of Africa and Africans increased steadily over time, as different parts of the population were exposed to such information during different periods. Sources often reveal conflicting views of Africans for this reason.

VII.2 The Tang Code and Slavery
            The Tang Code of the 7th century was a set of laws proscribing punishment and penal codes established and used during the Tang Dynasty. Slavery was a relatively prominent institution in the Chinese T'ang Code (11), and in a certain sense the Tang Code is comparable to the Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi and the Indian Laws of Manu. The Code explicitly assigned different punishments according to the "position of the guilty person in regard to his victim", thus revealing the strict hierarchy of Tang society. In other words, a slave would be more severely punished for a crime than an ordinary person who committed the same offence; a master who committed the same crime on his slave would receive a lower penalty than an ordinary person.
            The Tang Code laws also included restrictions and allowances on sexual activities between slaves and people of higher ranks. The following is part of a translation of the Code against Illicit Sexual Intercourse :

            "Whoever engages in illicit sexual intercourse shall be sentenced to one and a half years of penal servitude ... If [a male of] bu qu, za hu, or guan hu status* engages in illicit intercourse with [a female] of commoner status(liang ren), then in either case (i.e, with or without husband) the penalty shall be increased by one degree. If [a commoner male] commits illegal sex with a government or privately owned domestic female slave (guan si bi), the penalty shall be 90 blows of the heavy bamboo. (If a male engages in illicit sexual intercourse with a female slave [bi], the penalty shall be the same.) Whoever engages in illicit intercourse with the wife of someone else's bu qu, or with a wife or daughter of za hu or guan hu status, shall be sentenced to 100 blows of the heavy bamboo. In every case, if coercion(qiang) is used, the penalty shall be increased by one degree ..."
            * ... za hu and gaun hu were government slaves who had been "released" from the lowest level of slavery, that of nu. The bu qu were male "semi-slaves" held by private families; they could not be sold outright and hence enjoyed a status slightly superior to the ordinary slave nu, who was considered his master's property.
(12)

            Several aspects of slavery are revealed in this code. First, any cross-hierarchy-relationship was unthinkable. Male slaves, according to the Code, faced the death penalty for acts of illicit sex in which the male slave crossed status upward with a female of his master's own family (13). This penalty was applied even to cases in which the act was consensual; such punishments were significantly higher than those given to people of the same legal status who had committed the same acts. Moreover, the Code prescribed penalties to a master for engaging in ¡°illicit sexual intercourse¡± with female slaves only if they belonged to someone else. If the slaves were his own, the master received no penalty. And lastly, people could become slaves by committing certain crimes; this penal code was common also in Han Dynasty, which may suggest a continuity of similar codes though not mentioned in the Illicit Sexual Intercourse code.

VII.3 Slavery in Song China
            Song China was wracked with social strife, which led to an increase in war captives. However, the government also gradually lessened the restrictions on freeing slaves, and made it easier for them to elevate their status. In early Southern Song, individual owners mainly focused on buying and selling slaves. In 1116 a degree was passed that allowed slaves to be freed in exchange of the enslavement of two other people. Later in 1141, another degree enabled the government to free slaves and compensate the owners with textiles. By 1200, self-sold slaves could be freed by monetary compensation, though this policy did not include military enslavement.
            Viewing women as commodities was also made customary from Song Dynasty (960 - 1279) forward, both in the suddenly expanded labor market and within relationships. Men could sell their female kin to slavery or prostitution, and frequently did. (14)

VIII. Slavery in Yuan China
            The Yuan Dynasty was founded by Mongols, who founded Yuan China from 1271 to 1368. After conquering Song China Mongols established a social hierarchy placing a few high class Mongols at the very top and Southerners or subjects of the former Song Dynasty at the bottom, only above a vast slave population. The slave population included debt slaves, war captives, bondservants, and slave-soldiers. Large numbers of Chinese population were enslaved as a punishment for their resisting the Mongol conquerors; most of the slaves worked at the fields or used their skills as engineers and artisans to serve the empire. Many Chinese intellectuals had been made slaves until the Mongols realized they could be useful in their administration. The Mongols then decided to staff each office with quotas of northern Chinese, southern Chinese, and foreigners (15).
            Although Genghis Khan in his secret code of law Yassa prohibited any man within the empire to own a Mongol slave, debt slavery was common in the Mongol Empire by 1290. Commoners frequently sold their children into slavery, until the practice of selling Mongols abroad was abolished by Kublai Khan in 1291. Mongol laws also reveal a subsequent influence of the Tang Code.

IX. Slavery in Ming China
            Following the defeat of Mongols and the end of Yuan China, the new emperor Hongwu quickly abolished all forms of slavery, which had been a major source of resentment among southern Chinese people. And yet slavery continued to exist throughout the Ming Dynasty, private and public level. The manorial system, in which land-owning families controlled and farmed large tracts of land, required a critical mass of slaves to function properly (16). As the abolition did not work out, new laws were created to control and limit slavery. In contrast to the Tang Code, which punished slaves more harshly than commoners, the laws protected both slaves and normal citizens. Because of the slave rebellions of the 1630s that threatened the peace and stability of society, Ming rulers were desperate to restrict slavery. They passed a degree that limited the number of slaves per household, and collected severe taxes from slaveholders. The Dynasty collapsed, nonetheless, in 1644 when it was brought under Manchu rule.

X. Slavery in Qing China
            Slaves under Qing Dynasty were called Booi Aha, a Manchu word that is literally translated as "household person" or "slaves". Male slaves were called booi nivalma, while female slaves were referred to as booi hehe. Booi were usually household slaves who performed domestic services, and aha were slaves who worked at fields.

X.1 Enslavement
            In the first year of Manchu conquest, the captured Chinese in Qing China were enslaved (to 1624) as private slaves, but were later on (1624-25) they were often enrolled in the ranks of semi-dependent agriculture class, jusen, who bore obligations to the state. In his book China Marches West, Peter C. Perdue stated:"In 1624" (after Nurhachi's invasion of Liaodong) "Chinese households. ... while those with less were made into slaves." (17) The booi were later organized and incorporated into the Eight Banners Army and the Imperial Household Department, where they served the emperor as their master. When addressing the emperor they called themselves Nupu or Nucai, which meant "a man of unquestioning obedience." In fact, everyone enrolled in the Eight Banners Army called themselves "slaves" or aha when addressing the emperor, for they considered the meaning of Manchu to be a man who serves his sovereign. This traditional model of slave to owner was derived from the Mongols, who also thought themselves the "slave of his sovereign". Other slaves included war captives and previous land owners.

X.2 Status of slaves
            Nurhachi, the founding father of the Manchu state, stated that "The Master should love the slaves and eat the same food as him." Perdue further pointed out that booi aha "did not correspond exactly to the Chinese category of "bondservant-slave" (Chinese: ), even though many western scholars would directly translate "booi" as "bondservant" (18). Despite Nurhachi's emphasis on a close and paternal relationship between the slave and the owner, many slaveholders treated their slaves with cruelty, buying and selling them like animals. With the permission of the master, booi could even enslave other booi, thus making him a master of himself.

X.3 Coolies
            The word "coolie" is a derogatory term used for Asian workers, especially those who were sent abroad to work in the Americas, Oceania, Pacific Islands, and Africa during the 18th and 19th century. Following the British Slave Trade Act of 1807 which abolished slavery, many European nations abolished slavery, but their colonies were placed in need of a new kind of cheap manpower, or "new form of slavery". Laborers were supposed to be voluntarily recruited, but frequently the employers used trickery and deceit, and outright kidnapping happened as well. After the First Opium War (1840-1842), a center for emigration at Shantou opened to serve as a coolie trade center. Chinese laborers were brought to the Americas from Guangdong, Amoy, and Macau. Most of them may have been kidnapped from Guangdong province.

X.4 Formal Abolition of Slavery
            In 1906 China formally abolished slavery. The law became effective on January 31, 1910, when all adult slaves were converted into hired laborers and the young were freed upon reaching age 25 (19).

XI. Conclusion
            From the first seeds of slavery in ancient China to the final abolition in 1906 in Qing China, slavery in imperial China came in and out of fashion as rulers changed and society was repeatedly wracked in turmoil. In China's early days, before the development of a feudal society slaves mostly belonged to the emperor and government, serving as manual laborers or military slaves. As the social structure of the nation developed and became more complex, the slavery system also grew more diverse as slave markets appeared and more rules were enacted. At the dawn of feudalism rulers struggled to refrain the aristocracy from gaining too much wealth power by owning household slaves and slave-soldiers. Unified empires, on the other hand, enslaved the conquered people and tried to keep the slaves from escaping the country by an iron fist. Slavery deteriorated as social, political, and economic situations grew more and more adverse.


Notes

(1)      Slavery during China in the Former Han dynasty, 206 B.C. - A.D. 25
(2)      ibid.
(3)      Article: Three Kingdoms/ Economy, from CHINAKNOWLEDGE
(4)      Article: Southern Dynasties/ Economy, from CHINAKNOWLEDGE
(5)      Article: Northern Dynasties/ Economy, from CHINAKNOWLEDGE
(6)      "The Magical Kunlun and "Devil Slaves: Chinese Perceptions of Dark-skinned People and Africa before 1500"
(7)      ibid.
(8)      Article: Kunlun Nu, from Wikipedia
(9)      ibid.
(10)      "The Magical Kunlun and "Devil Slaves: Chinese Perceptions of Dark-skinned People and Africa before 1500"
(11)      Article: Slavery (sociology), from Encyclopaedia Britannica, online edition
(12)      Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China
(13)      ibid.
(14)      Commoditization of Women
(15)      China Korea & Japan to 1800
(16)      Encyclopedia of antislavery and abolition
(17)      Article: Slavery in seventeenth-century China, from Wikipedia
(18)      ibid.
(19)      Article: Abolition of slavery timeline, from Wikipedia


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Note : websites quoted below were visited at the end of June 2009. All information from Korean sites used in the paper were translated by me
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37.      Article: Kunlun Nu, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunlun_Nu
38.      Article: Society of the Song Dynasty, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_of_the_Song_Dynasty
39.      Article: Foot Binding, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_binding
40.      Article: Yassa, from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yassa
41.      Beck, Sanderson. China Korea & Japan to 1800. World Peace Communications. 2005



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