Working like a slave

I have been to busy to post much of late, as I have been very busy. Not quite working like a slave however,

as the slave contract below shows. I use this in classes as a nice picture of the Han economy, but it is also a

lot of fun in other ways, so I thought I would post it for the beneift of our countless readers.

The Contract for a Youth

WangPao(fl. 61-54 b.c.e.)

Wang Tzu-yuan of Shu Commandery went to the Chien River on business, and went up to the home of the widow Yang Hui, who had a male slave named Pien-liao. Wang Tzu-yuan requested him to go and buy some wine. Picking up a big stick, Pien-liao climbed to the top of the grave mound and said: “When my master bought me, Pien-liao, he only contracted for me to care for the grave and did not contract for me to buy wine for some other gentleman.”

Wang Tzu-yuan was furious and said to the widow: “Wouldn’t you prefer to sell this slave?”

Yang Hui said: “The slave’s father offered him to people, but no one wanted him.”

Wang Tzu-yuan immediately settled on the sale contract, etc. The slave again said: “Enter in the contract everything you wish to order me to do. I, Pien-liao, will not do anything not in the contract.” Wang Tzu-yuan said: “Agreed!” The text of the contract said:

Third year of Shen-chiao, the first month, the fifteenth day, the gentleman Wang Tzu-yuan, of Tzu-chung, purchases from the lady Yang Hui of An-chih village in Chengtu, the bearded male slave, Pien-liao, other hus­band’s household.

The fixed sale price is 15,000 cash. The slave shall obey orders about all kinds of work and may not argue.

He shall rise at dawn and do an early sweeping. After eating he shall wash up. Ordinarily he should pound the grain mortar, tie up broom straws, carve bowls and bore wells, scoop out ditches, tie up fallen fences, hoe the garden, trim up paths and dike up plats of land, cut big flails, bend bamboos to make rakes, and scrape and fix the well pulley. In going and coming he may not ride horseback or in the cart, nor may he sit crosslegged or make a hubbub. When he gets out of bed he shall shake his head to wake up, fish, cut forage, plait reeds and card hemp, draw water for gruel, and help in making tsu-mo drink. He shall weave shoes and make other coarse things, catch birds on a gummed pole, knot nets and catch fish, shoot wild geese with arrows on a string, and shoot wild ducks with a pellet bow. He shall ascend the mountains to shoot deer, and go into the waters to catch turtles. He shall dig a pond in the garden to raise fish and a hundred or so geese and ducks; and shall drive away owls and hawks. Holding a stick, he shall herd the pigs. He shall plant ginger and rear sheep; rear the shotes and colts; remove manure and always keep things clean; and feed the horses and cattle. When the drum sounds four he shall arise and give them a midnight addition of fodder.

In the second month at the vernal equinox he shall bank the dikes and repair the boundary walls of the fields; prune the mulberry trees, skin the palm trees, plant melons to make gourd utensils, select eggplant seeds for planting, and transplant onion sets; burn plant remains to generate the fields, pile up refuse and break up lumps in the soil. At midday he shall dry out things in the sun. At cockcrow he shall rise and pound grain in the mortar, exercise and curry the horses, the donkeys, and likewise the mules—three classes.

When there are guests in the house he shall carry a kettle and go after wine; draw water and prepare the evening meal; wash bowls and arrange food trays; pluck garlic from the garden; chop vegetables and slice meat; pound meat and make
soup of tubers; stew fish and roast turtle; boil tea and fill the utensils. When the dinner is over he shall cover and put away leftovers; shut the gates and close up the passageways for dogs; feed the pigs and air the dogs.

He shall not argue or fight with the neighbors. The slave should only drink bean-water and may not be greedy for wine. If he wishes to drink good wine he may only wet the lips and rinse the mouth; he may not empty the dipper or drain the cup. He may not go out at dawn and return at night, or have dealings with close chums.

Behind the house there are trees. He should hew them and make a boat, going downriver as far as Chiang-chou and up to Chien-chu. On behalf of the storehouse assistants he shall seek spending money, rejecting the strings of cash which are defective. He shall buy mats at Mien-t’ing, and when traveling between Tu and Lo he should trade in the small markets to get powder for the ladies. When he returns to Tu he shall carry hemp about on his pole, transporting it out to the side markets. He shall lead dogs for sale and peddle geese. At Wu-yang he shall buy tea, and he shall carry lotus on his pole from the Yang family pool. When he travels to market assemblies he shall carefully guard against the practice of theft. When he enters the market he may not squat like a barbarian, loll about, or indulge in evil talk and cursing. He shall make many knives and bows, and take them into Yi-chou to barter for oxen and sheep. The slave shall teach himself to be smart and clever, and may not be silly and stupid.

He shall take an axe and go into the mountains; cut memorandum tablets and hew cart shafts; if there are leftovers he should make sacrificial stands, benches, and wooden shoes, as well as food pans for pigs. He shall burn wood to make charcoal; collect stones and heap them into retaining walls, make huts and roof houses; and whittle books to take the place of commercially prepared writing tablets. On his return at dusk he should bring two or three bundles of dry wood.

In the fourth month he should transplant; in the ninth month he should reap; and in the tenth month gather in the beans. He shall gather quantities of hemp and rushes and stretch them into rope. When it rains and there is nothing to do, he should plait grass and weave reeds. He shall plant and cultivate peach, plum, pear, and persimmon trees. He shall set out mulberry trees, one every thirty feet in rows eight feet apart, and fruit trees in corresponding sequence with the rows and intervals matching. When the fruit is ripe and is being picked or stored he may not suck or taste it. At night if the dogs bark he should arise and warn the neighbors, block the gate and bar the doors, mount the tower and beat the drum, don his shield and grasp his spear. Returning down he shall make three circuits of inspection.

He shall be industrious and quick-working, and he may not idle and loaf. When the slave is old and his strength spent, he shall plant marsh grass and weave mats. When his work is over and he wishes to rest he should pound a picul of grain.

Late at night when there is no work he shall wash clothes really white. If he has private savings they shall be the master’s gift or from guests. The slave may not have evil secrets; affairs should be open and reported. If the slave does not heed instructions, he shall be bastinadoed a hundred strokes.

The reading of the text of the contract came to an end. The slave was speechless and his lips were tied. Wildly he beat his head on the ground, and hit himself with his hands; from his eyes the tears streamed down, and the drivel from his nose hung a foot long.

He said: “If it is to be exactly as master Wang says, I would rather return soon along the yellow-soil road, with the grave worms boring through my head. Had I known before I would have bought the wine for master Wang. I would not have dared to do that wrong.”

From Mair


  1. Apart from the slavery issue, the text is also a good introduction for students as to the duties and chores that needed to be done on a mid-sized estate in Han. This is one of those texts where you could ask students to try and recreate the workings of the estate–the crops, the activities, the animals, the commerce–from a single text and see how much detail they can find and apply.

    I’m sure you’ve seen it, but the Paticia Ebrey’s Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook includes a section on contracts from the Ming Dynasty, one or two of which are for slaves. What’s always striking to the students is how the contract terms for buying an ox are far more detailed and elaborate than those for buying or selling a person.

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