The third meeting of this year’s Reading Group took place on Monday November 13, and featured Professor Don Wyatt of Middlebury College, speaking with me, Kavita Mudan Finn, on the topic of his recent book Slavery in East Asia (Cambridge, 2022).
Don Wyatt is the John M. McCardell, Jr. Distinguished Professor of History at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has written and taught extensively on the intellectual and philosophical history of China, and published the 2010 monograph The Blacks of Premodern China, one of the earliest books detailing premodern encounters between inhabitants of China and, first the Malay people of Southeast Asia, and eventually people from eastern and southern Africa, arguing that western chattel slavery should be viewed not just within the context of Europe and the Mediterranean, but more globally. His more recent research focuses on the intersections of identity and violence and the nexuses of ethnicity and slavery, and he is one of the editors of the forthcoming Bloomsbury series The Medieval World.
Why are we reading this?
One of the goals of the Race B4 Race initiative is to expand the study of premodern race and race studies not just in a disciplinary sense, but in a geographical sense. This book, while drawing on a number of elements we’ve discussed in earlier sessions, takes a giant leap eastward to focus on the institution of slavery as practiced in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam during what we generally regard as the medieval period (c. 500-1500).
As was made clear in the book and in our seminar discussion, one major difference between slavery practiced in the West and that practiced in the East is the silence on the topic from philosophical and religious texts. Neither the Confucian Analects nor the works of the later Confucian scholar Mencius address slavery directly, in contrast to what we saw from Aristotle in our previous meeting.
East Asian legal codes—which Wyatt describes as a method of social control—emphasize the punitive nature of slavery. Enslaved people were drawn from those perceived as criminals, which included people who spoke out against the ruling regime, or, most often, people whose territories had been conquered by the ruling regime. A salient example—discussed in detail in the book (33-50)—is the so-called Jinkang Incident during the twelfth century, where the Jin dynasty toppled the prior Song dynasty and enslaved a significant portion of the capital city’s population, also explicitly and publicly reducing the status of the prior emperor and his family to that of commoners. It is a prime example of endogenous slavery, or enslavement of one’s own people; and was followed, less than a century later, by the conquest of the Jin by the Mongols, who proceeded to do exactly the same thing.
The book also addresses East Asian perceptions of blackness, or kunlun, which, while initially referring to a place, became a status that ‘was relative (that is, in comparison to the Chinese) darkness to blackness of skin’ (51). Thus, it was applied not only to Africans but to ‘Malays, Negritos, Papuans, Melanesians, Khmers, Champans, Srivijayans, Javanese, Borneans, Ceylonese, and Indians of South Asia as well as a host of West Asian (or Middle Eastern) peoples’ (51). We do begin to see interactions between East Asians and Africans beginning around the tenth century, first through intermediaries from West Asia (particularly Persia) who brought enslaved Africans with them, and later more directly by way of maritime routes across the Indian Ocean.
In short, as Wyatt observes, ‘beyond our unavoidable realization that the chief driver of conflict was always greed, we have learned something of just how much war functioned as a peculiarly pernicious facilitator of unfreedom’ (48). He elaborated during our discussion that ‘unfreedom is older and more primitive than freedom […] These studies remind us that however far we think we’re moving on the spectrum toward freedom, unfreedom will always be with us, and is probably embedded in the human consciousness.’
There weren’t too many other sources referenced during the discussion, but I do want to mention some, and I want to thank Professor Wyatt for bringing them to my attention.
First, Dong Wang interviewed Professor Wyatt about his book for the New Books Network podcast in May 2023. This interview contextualizes the book within Professor Wyatt’s body of work, and provides an excellent introduction for anyone who isn’t able to readily access a copy.
Episode 6: Understanding Slavery in Medieval China, on New Frontiers Podcast from the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs at Middlebury College.
Hannah Barker, Teaching Medieval Slavery and Captivity (Database)
Professor Wyatt also has a forthcoming article that addresses a number of the broader topics we discussed, particularly the connections between West, East, and South Asia as well as the transport and importation of enslaved peoples.
“Eastward Across the Western Sea: The Indian Oceanic Trafficking of Africans into China,” Itinerario: Journal of Imperial and Global Interactions 47.3: Regimes of Bondage: The encounter between Early Modern European and Asian Slaveries (2023): TBA.
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