Sold People: Traffickers and Family Life in North China

In This Review

Sold People: Traffickers and Family Life in North China
By Johanna S. Ransmeier
Harvard University Press, 2017
408 pp.
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Making innovative use of police and court archives dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ransmeier shows that Chinese families often bought and sold family members. Some families purchased male children to adopt as heirs. Others bought young girls to serve as future brides for their sons. Still others indentured children to work as servants or purchased children, women, and disabled people to serve as beggars, laborers, or prostitutes or to be sold on the international “coolie” market. For every buyer, there was a seller, usually driven by need—except in cases where traffickers snatched people off the street. Modernizing officials outlawed some but not all of these practices; many forms of buying and selling were covered by a veneer of kinship. China today still suffers from widespread human trafficking. Ransmeier’s richly detailed stories of individual cases show how societies can come to accept the trade in people as a normal kind of business.