Slavery in Ancient China
Slaves, a sad group of people in the ancient world, occupied a large portion of the population in ancient China since 2,100 BC, when Xia Dynasty started. Slavery society last for about 1,800 years in China, with minor groups of slaves existed to 1950s in remote mountain areas in China.
Before Xia Dynasty, people lived and worked together, led by the tribe leaders. During the prehistoric times – before the establishment of Xia Dynasty, people in China used simple stone tools. It is also called stone age, which is divided into two periods: the Paleolithic age and Neolithic age. According to the historians, people had to work together in order to make a living. They had to fight against natural disasters, beasts, diseases, in order to remain a relatively stable population of a tribe.
When there were battles between tribes for food or land, the captured people were killed. By and by, people learned how to grow plants. Therefore, more labors were needed, because it was tedious task to grow vegetable and plants at that time. The tribe leaders realized that it would be much better to keep the captured people from anther tribe and forced them to work in the field. So, the captured people turned into slaves.
Before the establishment of Xia, there were slaves. It was before there was no records to tell us when the slavery society started exactly, and Xia is the dynasty which is believed to be the first dynasty to use bronze tools in the history of China. Therefore, most of the historians agreed that the society during Xia Dynasty is featured with slavery, followed by Shang, Zhou.
The slaves had no freedom, and they had to work hard for their masters. After their master died, they were killed or buried alive to serve their masters in the underworld. People believed the after-life world at that time. During Xia Dynasty, the farming work was done mostly by the slaves. Jie, the last king of Xia, was noted for his cruelty. Tang led the tribe leaders who were against Jie to fight with Jie. Tang won the battles, and Jie was killed, which marked the end of Xia.
However, after Tang established Shang Dynasty, there was no improvement of the live of slaves, and slavery was further developed during Shang. Today, we can find relics in Henan province of China, which show the skeletons of slaves in the tombs of the kings and slave masters. These are the evidences of the cruelty of slavery in ancient China. Historians say that not only the captured people after battles between tribes and countries were turned into slaves, but also the people in the same tribe who could hardly make a living and had to work for the other people were turned into slaves. Shang Dynasty is the first Dynasty that we can explore with written records of ancient times.
As we all know, Zhou Dynasty is the longest dynasty in the history of China, which last for about 1,100 years. During that period, the farming tools were further developed. There were iron tools at the end of Zhou Dynasty. Since Zhou Dynasty was relatively peaceful during the reign of most of the kings and the tools for farming were further developed, some of the slave masters began to stop killing the slaves or applying sever punishment for the bad behaviors of the slaves. After the death of the slave masters, people started to use “pottery man” – like sculpture in the shape of man – to serve them in the underworld. They didn’t kill the slaves any more. However, some of the slave masters kept on killing slaves for sacrifice and their funerals at the same time.
Generally, the slavery society are believed to be ended after the establishment of Qin Dynasty, though there were slaves in remote mountain areas in China until 1950s.
Lives of slaves were the hardest of all. Many Chinese people were slaves. Most people who were slaves worked in the fields, the same as free people. Some of them worked as servants in rich people’s houses. The Emperor owned hundreds of slaves, and some of them worked for the government, collecting taxes or building roads. Some people were born slaves, because their mothers were slaves, and other people were sold into slavery to pay debts.