Domestic Ties, Household Bondage, and Trading of People in North China

Christopher Weber
Photo Credit: 
Drawing by William Alexander, draughtsman of the Macartney Embassy to China in 1793.

Matchmakers are commonly considered romantic figures right out of Fiddler on the Roof. The classic archetype is of a loquacious, respected elder, usually female, who knits families together via matrimony.

Johanna Ransmeier, a new assistant professor of history, has discovered that, at least in turn-of-the-twentieth-century China, matchmakers played a less wholesome role.

Ransmeier, who studies human trafficking in northern China in the late Qing and Republican periods (1870-1937), and who’s writing the first book on the subject, has linked these seemingly benign operators to kidnappers and slave brokers.

“Matchmakers connected families with all kinds of domestic workers,” she says. These included rickshaw pullers, wet nurses, concubines, prostitutes, and apprentices. Matchmakers could also augment families by locating children for adoption.

In the broadest sense, matchmakers stood at the end of a vast network of brokers dealing in human beings, according to Ransmeier.

 “A person might pass through a number of brokers' hands before ending up with a matchmaker,” she says. “She might start out in Sichuan, be kidnapped and brought to Chongqing, sent to Beijing, and then end up being matched with a family through a matchmaker.”

“Matchmakers tended to know everyone in the neighborhood quite well. In cities, there were actual matchmaker shops that were like little employment bureaus. While the majority of urban matchmakers were older women, the role could be filled by enterprising men or women of all ages. Continued success as a matchmaker depended on developing a reputation for the quality of the matches he or she was able to make.”  

In the course of her research, Ransmeier spent four years poring over historic police reports and court records. (Even courts had their own unofficial matchmakers, who functioned as social workers connecting unattached or displaced persons with families—albeit via bondage.)

In the archives, Ransmeier encountered legal contracts for some of the illegal activities in which matchmakers participated. Slavery was technically forbidden after 1910, but even so, citizens went to great lengths to document their human transactions as proof against disputes that might occur down the road. The contracts listed the matchmakers involved, along with witnesses, legal advisors, scribes, and other intermediaries who might have been involved in a sale.

Frequently, these contacts began with a signal phrase: “Because I am poor, I have no choice . . .” Ransmeier adopted the phrase as her book’s title: No Other Choice: Domestic Ties, Household Bondage, and the Trade in People in North China.

Human trafficking has become hot topic of late overseas, foregrounding Ransmeier’s work, which just a few years ago might have been considered arcane. “In the Chinese press recently, there's been a lot of coverage of contemporary trafficking in China. That’s helped historical forms of bondage go from something that ordinary people denied to something people acknowledge and want to learn about.”

Meanwhile, Ransmeier has found eager audiences on campus, not least because China’s ascendency has piqued broad interest in Chinese history. Ransmeier spoke at a recent conference on humanitarianism and co-sponsors the bi-weekly East Asia: Transregional Histories workshop with her fellow East Asian historians. With her arrival, Chicago’s history department now boasts five faculty members specializing in modern China.

“It's fun to teach in a place where so many students are learning Chinese and able to explore Chinese primary sources,” says Ransmeier.


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