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Understanding Ângela: Gender and Ancient Mediterranean Slavery in Early Modern China

Stuart McManus

Chinese University of Hong Kong

There is increasing interest in the reception of ancient Mediterranean slavery in later periods (Fuente 2020), and in the insights that bringing different manifestations of the institution in dialogue can produce (Peralta 2017).  This paper will address the little-known reception of Roman slave law in early modern China with a particular focus on the relationship between servitude and gender in Macau.  To do so, it will explore the case of an eighteen-year-old Chinese “slave” named Ângela who in 1672 was sold by a low-level Qing official to a Portuguese merchant at the northern gate of the Portuguese colony, probably for sexual exploitation. At that moment, Ângela crossed from the Chinese regime of unfree labor to the Neo-Roman system of Europe and its global empires. But how precisely did her legal status and lived experience change? Was being a Chinese “slave” (奴婢, nubi) really the same as being a European “slave” (serva, mancipium)? What about concubinage (concubinatus in the Western tradition and status in China), contract-based servitude (servitus ad tempus) and bondservant status (奴僕, nupu)? What role did class (“commoner” 良民, liangmin vs. “base people,” 賤民, jianmin) and gender (male, female, eunuch) play for unfree Chinese when they were transported into a context with a set of underlying assumptions inherited from the ancient Mediterranean (Dai 1985)? How did constructions of “race” (Han, Central Asian, Japanese, Malay, African, etc.) function in each context (McCoskey 2012; Wyatt 2010)? 

This paper will combine classical reception studies with the connected and comparative methods advocated by scholars of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to parse the transfer of Roman legal conceptions of slavery, freedom and dependence to colonial Asia (Davis 2000) and their interactions with local constructions of unfreedom and gender. Reference will be made to both Chinese sources (e.g. 地方志 difangzhi, legal commentaries, literary works) and Western sources (e.g. slave ownership certificates, Latin treatises on slave law, etc.).  In this way, this paper will contribute to ongoing discussions in a number of fields about the global and transhistorical history of slavery (Patterson 1991). 

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Classics In/Out of Asia

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