On this day in 1910, a law formally ending slavery in China came into action. The law, passed in 1906, stipulated that the status of all adult slaves was converted to that hired labourer, and that young slaves would be freed at the age of 25.
China’s records of slavery date as far back as the Xia and Shang Dynasties–spanning from 2070 to 1046 BC–and by the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) it is estimated that about 5% of China’s population was enslaved. Shang China introduced legislated slavery to allow debtors to repay their arrears by providing manual labour, however, this was greatly abused in the following centuries.
Treatment of slaves varied depending on a ruler’s law and societal acceptance, ranging from penal servitude and manual labour to castration, torture, and murder. Human trafficking has also been a rife and acknowledged function of Chinese society and economy in previous centuries.
Some rulers, such as the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who was in power from 1368 to 1398, ordered the death of all slaves remaining from the previous Yuan Dynasty. Others like Hong Xiuqan, who reigned between the years 1851 and 1864, introduced plans to abolish slavery.
Despite various emperors and leaders imposing outlaws on slavery and numerous slave rebellions, most notably those occurring at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, slavery remained a part of Chinese society until 1906 when the Imperial Government passed the new law.
However, despite the law, slavery is known to have existed in China in various forms since then, though mostly in remote areas of the country. Indeed, a series of forced labour cases were uncovered in Shanxi, northern China, in 2007, where thousands of people, including women, children, and disabled adults were enslaved in illegal brickyards.
Slaves held in these conditions were reportedly beaten for even the slightest offence, kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and fed poorly and sporadically. Those responsible were arrested and charged, with one foreman sentenced to life-imprisonment and one of his employees receiving the death penalty for the murder of a slave worker.
In light of the 2007 scandal, 95 officials from the Shanxi Province were punished for dereliction of duty, 33 were sacked, and 62 given disciplinary charges. However, the situation continues, and as recent as 2011, an undercover journalist infiltrated an illegal brick kiln in the central province of Henan, revealing similar conditions of cruelty and enslavement.