A robust trade in human lives thrived throughout North China during the late Qing and Republican periods. Whether to acquire servants, slaves, concubines, or children—or dispose of unwanted household members—families at all levels of society addressed various domestic needs by participating in this market. Sold People brings into focus the complicit dynamic of human trafficking, including the social and legal networks that sustained it. Johanna Ransmeier reveals the extent to which the structure of the Chinese family not only influenced but encouraged the buying and selling of men, women, and children.
For centuries, human trafficking had an ambiguous status in Chinese society. Prohibited in principle during the Qing period, it was nevertheless widely accepted as part of family life, despite the frequent involvement of criminals. In 1910, Qing reformers, hoping to usher China into the community of modern nations, officially abolished the trade. But police and other judicial officials found the new law extremely difficult to enforce. Industrialization, urbanization, and the development of modern transportation systems created a breeding ground for continued commerce in people. The Republican government that came to power after the 1911 revolution similarly struggled to root out the entrenched practice.
Ransmeier draws from untapped archival sources to recreate the lived experience of human trafficking in turn-of-the-century North China. Not always a measure of last resort reserved for times of extreme hardship, the sale of people was a commonplace transaction that built and restructured families as often as it broke them apart.
Although several books touch on human trafficking as it relates to prostitution, gender issues, or famine, this is the first to focus specifically on trafficking and on the many different forms it took in late-Qing and Republican China. Meticulously researched and drawing on an impressive array of archival documents from a wide range of collections, Sold People is a rich, fascinating work.
A remarkable work of social history. While cognizant of legal debates and elite discourse about slavery and trafficking, the book’s greatest strength is the way it delves into the nitty-gritty world of individual traffickers and their individual victims that emerge from local yamen and police records. Sold People marks Johanna Ransmeier as a leader in the new generation of social historians of China.
This brilliant exposé—no other word will do—concentrates on late Qing (or Manchu) China at the end of the 19th century, when trafficking was illegal but the laws were widely ignored or too vague. Ransmeier pursues the subject into the era of the post-1911 Republic, and on to Mao’s China, where the Communist Party’s one-child policies put a new kind of pressure on the family. As Ransmeier underlines, trafficking was not a system but a process, and it still is.
Making innovative use of police and court archives dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ransmeier shows that Chinese families often bought and sold family members…China today still suffers from widespread human trafficking. Ransmeier’s richly detailed stories of individual cases show how societies can come to accept the trade in people as a normal kind of business.
- 408 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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