Notes on the History of Slavery: China

In his 2013 paper “Slavery and forced labor in early China and the Roman world,” Walter Scheidel remarks on the contrast between the ancient, Classic-era economies of the Mediterranean — where slavery may even have been critical in producing the surplus that sustained the ruling class — and that of early China, where forced labor (often by convicts) appears to have been unusually concentrated in the public sector.

This is a key example of the kind of state-led collectivism that characterizes much of Chinese history, at least by comparison with that of the western end of Eurasia. Scheidel starts from the observation that “while slave-owning was widespread in history, large-scale slavery (in what are sometimes labeled ‘slave societies’, as opposed to mere ‘societies with slaves’) was limited to only a few societies, ancient Greece and Rome among them.”

Such is a very fine distinction to make, and I don’t think Scheidel succeeds in even coming close to prove this thesis — which boils down to the radical idea that slavery in the Grecorroman world and a handful of societies (anytime in human history!) was fundamentally distinct in nature to that in all others, not only more or less developed because of economic and social sophistication.

This is how Scheidel explains himself:

Forced labor, by contrast, was a common feature of early states: notable examples include Ur III, Assyria, New Kingdom Egypt, and the Inca empire…

Right off the bat: the experience of slavery in Egypt, Assyria and with the Incas was NOT significantly different to that in the Grecorroman. If anything, it was much worse, notably among the notoriously blood-thirsty Assyrians and the non-literate Incas, among whom slaves had no recourse to any legal defense and were liable to be not just mistreated but eaten (yes, eaten) by often cannibalistic populations.

…In the following, I ask how different was ancient Rome from early China in terms of slavery and forced labor; what accounts for observable differences; and what they contribute to our understanding of overall economic development.

This is important: Scheidel aims very wide at first, but soon recovers composure and focuses on the stuff he actually knows about. Then again, this graph is pretty muddled:

According to classical Roman law everybody was either free or slave. Yet the non-slave population de facto included slave-like individuals such as those fighting in the arena or convicts labeled ‘slaves of the punishment’ (servi poeni).

Were gladiators forced to fight for their masters “slaves” or not then, old boy? OK, let’s look at China:

In early China, the fundamental distinction was between the ‘good’ and the ‘base.’ Free commoners were ‘good’ while slaves counted as ‘base,’ as did convicts (who did not technically become slaves) and other marginalized groups such as pawns and migrants. Employing Orlando Patterson’s terminology, these lowly persons were all considered ‘socially dead.’ In both environments, ‘barbarian’ outsiders were seen as suitable for enslavement. Broadly speaking, therefore, Rome and early imperial China entertained similar notions of servile and non-servile identity. As Patterson correctly observed, the enslavement of the relatives of condemned criminals was the only truly legitimate source of slavery in early China. Other mechanisms were common but formally illegal (such as kidnapping or the unauthorized sale of children by parents) or extralegal (such as the capture of foreigners). Even the enslavement of criminals themselves (reported only for the reign of the much-maligned usurper Wang Mang) appears to have been unusual and potentially illicit: by contrast, the enslavement of their kin was an established deterrent rooted in the powerful concept of collective liability within the household or even beyond.

So Scheidel is saying that the institution of slavery was, in fact, more oppressive in China than in Rome: in Rome, if you misbehaved, your punishment would be slavery; in China, if you misbehaved, all of your family was liable to receive such  punishment even if they had nothing to do with your misdeeds.

In the early stages of the Roman state, certain categories of wrongdoers were liable to enslavement (such as defaulting debtors as early as in the reputedly fifth century BCE Laws of the Twelve Tables and draft dodgers) but by the late Republican period this was no longer the case.

If he wants to slam the Romans, Scheidel must really try harder. China again:

Legal niceties aside, the sources of slaves may have greatly differed in practical terms. Unlike in Rome, where mass enslavement of war captives was repeatedly reported for centuries, we lack comparable references from the Warring States period, when wars were fought on an increasingly extravagant scale: if not killed outright (a common occurrence), captured soldiers were turned into convicts providing forced labor for the state or were absorbed into the victorious state’s forces, and conquered civilians were expected to produce tax income and labor services for their new masters…

So, honestly, not much of a difference with the Grecorroman world.

…For much of the Han period warfare was relatively limited in scope. In as much as enemies were seized, their status often remains unclear and used to attract considerable debate in modern scholarship. There is no evidence to the effect that enslaved war captives played a significant role in the Han economy…

You just said there weren’t any!

For the fourth to the early seventh centuries CE, when large-scale interstate warfare was rife, the sources frequently mention the capture of substantial numbers of people. However, their final status is usually unknown; mass enslavement is explicitly mentioned on only two occasions in 554 CE.

This looks like pretty solid evidence of mass enslavement to me, given the circumstances. He follows up with a good point:

The observation that most recipients of gifts of slaves by the state were victorious generals is at best suggestive of the enslavement of war captives. In any case, in marked contrast to the situation in Rome, we lack references to wartime enslavement that would have supplied slaves to private buyers.

And this? How is this any different from the Grecorroman world?

The scale of natural reproduction is empirically unknown in both societies. Slave families and hereditary slave status are known from early China. There, the offspring of two slave parents were unfree; unions of a free man with a slave woman probably produced slave children, but the legal provisions are not as clear as in Roman law.

This, again, is very different:

The custom of enslaving the kin of condemned criminals, who were presumably predominantly male, may well have skewed the servile sex ratio in favor of women, thereby facilitating natural reproduction.

This is almost certanly similar:

In China as in Rome, (male) owners had sexual rights to their slaves. The demographic contribution of abduction, exposure, and parental sale of children is necessarily unquantifiable.

From all of this, Scheidel concludes:

The Chinese system was therefore weighted towards state control (either directly through the use of state-owned slaves or indirectly via the allocation of state-owned slaves to the power elite) whereas the Roman system primarily relied on market transactions to make slave labor available to private owners. This is emblematic of a more general difference between state control in China and commercial development in Rome that will be further discussed below.

Which boils down to: the Romans had a more sophisticated economy.

The Han and Roman empires ruled a similar number of subjects. In 2 CE, a little under 60 million people were registered by the Han authorities, a total that excludes marginal groups such as migrants, convicts and slaves and may have been lowered by less-than-perfect coverage. The actual Han population was probably similar to that of the Roman empire in the first two centuries CE, which may have reached 70 million or more. I have argued elsewhere that very roughly a tenth of the inhabitants of the Roman empire may have been slaves. Corresponding guesses of anywhere from 1 to 50 percent (!) have been advanced for Han China, with Martin Wilbur’s low figure of around 1 percent having proven the most popular since it was first proposed no fewer than 70 years ago.

So: we have no freaking idea. Scheidel recognizes as much:

The foundations of this number are however much shakier than its remarkable resilience suggests. Wilbur arrives at this conjecture by combining a reference to 100,000 state slaves in the 40s BCE with the guesstimate of a half million or so slaves in private hands. This latter figure is based on an abortive decree of 7 BCE that sought to limit slaveownership to 200 slaves for a vassal king, 100 for certain members of the top nobility, and 30 for everybody else. Assuming that the maxima for the first two groups did not greatly exceed actual holdings, he posits some 30,000-50,000 slaves in this category, to which he adds roughly ten times as many again to account for all other slaveowners. The starting assumption appears sound given that a former vassal king was said to own 183 slaves in 67 BCE and a top elite person reportedly received 170 slaves as state gifts over the course of two decades, and is likewise consistent with the fact that even more rhetorically charged statements usually ascribe 100s rather than 1,000s of slaves to the estates of very wealthy individuals.

So Scheidel started off by boldly stating that China’s slavery was nothing like that in the Grecorroman world, and spends much of the paper contradicting himself.

When the emperor Han Wudi confiscated elite slaves, this intervention supposedly yielded 1,000s of slaves and up to 10,000, instead of much larger numbers. All of this points to levels of elite slaveowning that are compatible with Wilbur’s estimate. But his conjecture works less well for the lower tiers of Han society: his tally schematically allows for some 25,000 owners of 500,000 slaves, at an average of 20 slaves. This approach raises two problems. One is the neglect of potential slaveownership in the sub-elite population: 25,000 owners would account for not more than 0.2 percent of all registered households, creating an improbably small elite stratum. If, say, a mere 4 percent of all 12 million households in the empire on average owned 2 slaves each this would translate to an additional million slaves overall, almost tripling Wilbur’s original guess.

And I loved this:

The other problem stems from the fact that more recently discovered tombs of lower-level Han officials from Fenghuangshan (Hubei) contain wooden figurines representing slaves meant to serve their owners in the afterlife and inventories listing their duties.

You never see anything like that in the Grecorroman world.

These finds reveal that an average official could claim to have owned 40 or 50 slaves, a startlingly large number. While we cannot tell how realistic or typical this was, it would seem difficult to reconcile these records with Wilbur’s conjectures. I conclude that an extremely low figure of the order of 1 percent is not well supported. A total share of several percent, and thus a Han-era slave population in the low seven figures, seems more plausible.

Scheidel then follows up with a strident non-sequitur:

On any even moderately conservative reading of the evidence, slave labor – and, by extension, intermediation by freedmen – appears to have been considerably more entrenched in the urban economy of large parts of the Roman world than in that of early China.

Scheidel himself reminds the reader that the first Chinese dynasty was notorious for the way it handled slaves. He does make the sound point that slave markets appear to have been disliked:

the Qin regime in particular was later condemned – among many other things – for selling slaves like animals in markets, an indication that the slave economy may in fact have grown in that period. Occasional references to the scale of elite
slaveownership under the Qin exceed those for the Western Han, but little weight should be put on such snippets.

Scheidel returns to the non-sequiturs. But it is indeed possible that he’s right and the Roman economy had a greater reliance on slaves. It’s just that the evidence he discusses doesn’t back up that reading; it simply suggests that the state may have been, in terms of percentages, a larger slave-owner than private interests in China, as compared with Rome:

Rome’s greater reliance on slave labor can be traced to two factors, the relative paucity of slaves on the Chinese market and the less privileged position of Chinese wealth elites. In the Warring States period, war captives were turned into forced laborers or drafted into the military instead of being sold off to private bidders as they were in Rome (even though some may have been distributed to members of the military). Whereas Roman elites effectively owned the state and sought to maximize their benefits from it, in the centuries leading up to the completion of the Qin conquests the most successful Chinese states worked hard to contain elite privilege, and Western Han rulers (and then especially Wang Mang) strove to maintain this practice at least up to a point. Both of these processes served to restrict private slave use.

This may be the best part of Scheidel’s paper:

Additional contributing factors may be sought in the absence of an equivalent to Mediterranean cash crop production such as viticulture or pastio villatica, which were conducive to slave labor, and more generally in lower levels of commercialization in the terrestrial and regionalized environment of early China than in the better interconnected Mediterranean core of the Roman world.47 The more developed slave economy of the Roman world is best seen as the result of a concatenation of several favorable circumstances such as greater elite autonomy, greater mobility, and greater capital formation in the private sector.


The only exception to these divergent practices concerns imperial administration. Both the Han and Roman authorities heavily drew on state slaves to assist in governmental functions. The familia Caesaris was vital in managing the affairs of the emperor well beyond the imperial household. One source ascribes 100,000 slaves to the Han state of the mid-first century BCE, a number that is suspiciously round, impossible to verify, and may well be (much?) too high. Wilbur conjectures that lifetime service was well suited to skilled labor and that state slaves may therefore have been concentrated in services and knowledge-rich functions, a notion that chimes with criticisms of their supposed idleness and profit-seeking. Unlike convicts, many of them may have been servants, clerks and accountants rather than manual laborers. At the same time, the Warring States and Han empire employed large numbers of free salaried men to staff government offices.

Which flows nicely to this:

It was only in late antiquity that the Roman state began to adopt a Han-style model of low-paid free clerks… (Such assumption)  fit(s) into a scenario of stronger economic development in ancient Rome than in early imperial China. This, in turn, is consistent with Ian Morris’s estimate that key indices of social development in China did not reach Roman levels until the Song period, almost 1,000 years later, when commercial growth took off on an unprecedented scale.

All in all, a paper with interesting content, but one wonders how much to trust Scheidlel’s comments on the things one doesn’t know a lot about, when he’s so reliably wrong on the things one knows about.






About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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