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Slavery in Early China: A Socio-Cultural Approach

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This essay analyzes the nature of slavery in early China from a comparative sociocultural perspective, using the sociological approach of Orlando Patterson (Slavery and Social Death, 1982). Marxist and other theoretical positions are rejected in favor of viewing slaves not as the object of property, but rather seeing that slaves could not be the subject of property. In other words, slaves are “dominated non-persons.” The focus of the inquiry is on interpreting the diverse materials relating to slaves in the Qin legal documents discovered at Shuihudi, Hunan Province, in 1975. Brief consideration is given to other statuses, such as the convict status of lichen and liqie (male and female bondservants), and whether they should be considered slaves or not. The conclusion emphasizes the importance of analyzing early Chinese slavery within its culturally rich context of ritual and cosmological conceptions and practices.

Affiliations: 1: Departments of History and East Asian Studies McGill University 3434 McTavish Street Montreal QC H3A 1X9 Canada, Email:


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