Sold People

Traffickers and Family Life in North China

Harvard University Press: 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.

Book Review: 

Rubie S. Watson, The China Journal (January 2018)

Andrew J. Nathan, Foreign Affairs (November 2017)

Jonathan Mirsky, Times Higher Education (May 4, 2017)

Related Reading:

The Untold Story of Women in China Who Took a Husband—And Then, Another,” Brittany Wong, Huffington Post, July 26, 2017

Domestic Ties, Household Bondage, and Trading of People in North China,” Christopher Weber, Division of the Social Sciences, University of Chicago, August 12, 2014

Author Recommendations:

Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, Marisa Fuentes (University of Pennsylvania, 2016)

Fact in Fiction: 1920s China and Ba Jin’s Family, Kristen Stapleton (Stanford, 2016)

The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, Gail Hershatter (University of California, 2011)

Li’s Gamble: A Chinese Coal Miner Battles Cancer,Muyi Xiao, ChinaFile, July 5, 2016

The Slave of MS. H.6,” Subaltern Studies, Amitav Ghosh (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993)