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  • Sold People: Traffickers and Family Life in North China by Johanna S. Ransmeier
  • Gilbert Z. Chen (bio)
Johanna S. Ransmeier. Sold People: Traffickers and Family Life in North China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. ix, 395 pp. Hardcover $49.95, isbn 978-0-674-97197-4.

It is almost a truism among scholars of Chinese studies that precommunist China used to have “one of the most largest and most comprehensive markets for the exchange of human beings in the world.”1 Most scholars tend to treat the sale of people as a mere manifestation of a broader social dysfunction such as famine or prostitution. Few, as Johanna S. Ransmeier has told us, however, have actually analyzed trafficking as a phenomenon in its own right, and attempted to show the nature of such a phenomenon with detailed examples and with a lucid explanatory framework. That is precisely what the author accomplishes in this book. At the highest level of abstraction, the book asks and answers how human trafficking was carried out and evolved, and how the state and ordinary people understood and dealt with it in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century North China. It is a welcome and important addition [End Page 182] to the growing literature that has been revising our conventional picture of the regime of the Chinese family as stable and self-contained.2

As Ransmeier informs us, scholars are, by and large, split in their opinions regarding the thorny question of defining slavery: some advocate the position of slaves as property, whereas others interpret slavery as one particular form of power relationship. The China case, the author contends, shows that the above-mentioned two theses can be complementary rather than antithetical in a concrete historical context, that is, Chinese slaveholders exerted a combined force of proprietary relationships and power in relation to the sold people. Furthermore, contrary to the general historiography of slavery which underlines that slavery has caused the demise of the family, Ransmeier reminds us that in China the sale of people not only tore families apart, but, more crucially, reconstituted them. The rationale behind such a seemingly counterintuitive proposition is Ransmeier’s main argument of this well-researched book, namely, “Chinese families were transactional families” (p. 2). The author argues that with a few exceptions such as childbirth and death, exchange (whether monetary or material in nature) and mediation (offered either by a local intermediary or professional broker) were always present in the movement of people from one household to another. Women and children were readily understood by ordinary Chinese families as transferable, being expendable in a crisis situation or desperately pursued in another. Following this line of thought, Ransmeier proclaims that “family boundaries were more permeable than traditionally appreciated” (p. 4), thereby adding significant new weight to the revisionist argument that has been gaining currency.

In this context, China’s transactional families constantly approached traffickers due to the shortage of reproductive and domestic labor and diminishing numbers of marriageable young women resulting from female infanticide and skewed sex ratios, and consequent anxieties over male offspring. Although other revisionist historians like Matthew Sommer have recently emphasized that poverty-stricken families throughout the Qing readily traded a wife’s sexual and reproductive services for survival, Ransmeier, based on the close reading of Qing and Republican judicial and police archives as supplemented by contemporary newspapers and early twentieth-century sociological investigations, demonstrates that trafficking, rather than being a last resort of the desperately poor as usually assumed, was instead routinely accepted and expedited by ordinary people and local communities as a conventional means to tackle everyday concerns like a cuckolded husband’s efforts to get rid of his adulterous wife. Put another way, in many cases, when people decided to sell their family members, “they made a rational economic decision” (p. 150). This discourse of “no other choice,” Ransmeier writes, was actually generated and perpetuated by the Qing judicial system. Although the Qing code outlawed many forms of the sale of people, it also incorporated [End Page 183] important modifications that sanctioned the trade in people in a wide spectrum of situations including the commonplace practice of exchanging bride price for wives...


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pp. 182-187
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