As some historians of global slavery observed recently, China “has a problem with slavery.” This problem is a multi-faceted one that includes not only how “slavery” in China is or should be defined and conceptualized, or its scale and importance in Chinese history, but also the extent and ways in which men, women, and children were trafficked, a topic that previous studies of human bondage in China frequently ignore. This lecture will present preliminary evidence of the existence and dynamics of networks of human trafficking during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) eras. In so doing, it will raise issues that future research will need to address such as evaluating the transnational dimensions of human trafficking in China and this traffic’s entanglement with local practices of bondage and servitude, markets in human beings, and commodity chains. It will also question the relevance of applying the categories and interpretative frameworks of “slavery” to contexts that did not contribute to shape them.
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