The following revelatory statement is contained the work Master of Grasses and Trees by the philosopher Ye Ziqi (ca. 1327-after 1390), which was commenced in the year 1378 and completed sometime thereafter. Ye Ziqi hailed from the southeastern coastal province of Zhejiang, from an area just southeast of Hangzhou, the great former capital of the ill-fated Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). The Chinese predilection—evinced especially by elite men—for young Korean females as servants extends back at least as far as the third century before the Common Era. However, during the first two-thirds of the fourteenth century context in China, the “northerners” meant chiefly the Mongols as well as their mainly Turkic allies, who had fully conquered China in establishing the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Ye offers nothing whatsoever regarding any region, country, or continent from which the comparably enslaved black youths might have been procured. Nevertheless, most salient here is that we can interpret Ye Ziqi’s informing observation itself as suggestive of an unexpected continuum. It strongly and cogently suggests that the same slaving practices targeting these identical types of slaves that we find attested to by other sources chronicling the first three decades of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644)—when “northerners” can only have meant Ye’s contemporary fellow Chinese—may well be extensions of those pursued by the Mongols conquerors of the immediately preceding era.

Translated from the Chinese by Don J. Wyatt. Ye Ziqi, Caomuzi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959), 3B.63. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Korean Maids and Black Houseboys

As for northerners, for maids, they must get Koryǒ [Korean] (Gaoli) women and girls, and for houseboys, they must get black servants. If it is otherwise, then they are said not to be deserving of becoming officials.[1]

[1] Representing a time period that spanned from 918 to 1392 just as much as signifying the location of Korea itself, Koryǒ has alternatively become spelled Goryeo. Based on the lexicographical comparability of the term Ye uses—heisi—with the nearly identical term heixiao si or “small” or “little black servants” that was in wide use by the time of the founding of the Ming dynasty, with some justification, we can extrapolate that the male menials referred to as being much sought after by these “northerners” of China actually came from locations no more distant than those directly south of China proper, such as Borneo. See Friedrich Hirth and W. W. Rockhill, trs., Chau Ju-kua: His Work on the Chinese and Arab Trade in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, Entitled Chu-fan-chi (St. Petersburg: Imperial Academy of Sciences, 1911; Repr. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., Arno Press, 1966), 32.

Discussion Questions

  1. From their description, do you think the slaves referred to here were valued more for their labor or their exoticness, more for their facility at the tasks demanded of them or simply for the prestige that they brought to their owners as status symbols?
  2. What does the fact that Chinese had already been practicing the enslavement of neighboring peoples like the Koreans and “blacks” (broadly defined) for centuries suggest about how developed the commodification (or commoditization) of humans had become in China by the time of the Mongol conquest?
  3. In your estimation, to what degree does a society in which sociopolitical standing can be advantaged and enhanced wholly or largely by the ownership of others qualify as a “slave society”?

Related Primary Sources


Labor, Men, Property, Race, Women