Serving and Working for Others

Negotiating Legal Status and Social Relations of Household Laborers in Late Imperial China

In: Journal of Global Slavery
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  • 1 CNRSFranceLyon
  • | 2 Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery StudiesGermanyBonn
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Over the past decades, “wage labor” has been a lingering issue in studies on the development patterns of late imperial China. The legal reconfiguration of the category of “hired laborers” (gugong 僱工) between 1588 and 1788, in particular, has been foregrounded as a salient manifestation of the “incipient capitalism” going hand in hand with the emergence of a “free” labor market and with the decline of bound labor. Questioning the preconception that the mere appearance of labor relations mediated by means of wages would suffice to prove the existence of “free labor,” this article proposes to revisit the issue of “hired labor” in late imperial China. It approaches this issue from a conceptual standpoint, as a first step toward an overdue reassessment of the significance of wages in labor relations and their impact on the status of workers. The first section endeavors to sketch out a general conceptualization of gugong from the Great Ming Code and from Ming and Qing legal exegesis. The second section focuses on the study of the legal redefinition of gugong between the late sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and looks for the social and legal implications of being hired. By doing so, it also explores changes in the Chinese conception of the notion of “service” and its relationship with what we would name “servitude.”

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