Fujitani says the process was driven by the emergence of commercialised agriculture, which, at the time, saw plantation owners buy up swathes of arable land.
Eventually, a sharecropping system emerged, in which landlords would rent out plots of land to peasants.
“A comparison between Russian serfs and the Chinese peasantry is valid in many ways. There is a similar dependence on the landlord and a similar inability to leave the land. China was definitely not unique in the use of agricultural bonded labour,” said Fujitani.
The academic told the Post that the Chinese characters for the system roughly translate to “sharecropping” in English.
It exposed peasants to the whims of weather, exploitation by their landlords and price manipulation.
Their vulnerability created increased levels of debt during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), and, through desperation, peasants often sold themselves or their children into slavery.
“There were millions of poverty-stricken parents who had to make horrible choices to survive, and millions of children who were separated from their families. Some were sold domestically and others internationally,” said Fujitani.
The sale was final and the parents ceded all legal rights to the child, including removing the youngster from the family registry.
Also, contracts were often intergenerational, meaning the child’s grandchildren would be born into slavery.
Seeking alternatives to the landlords, Chinese peasants would often flee or turn to a life of banditry.
The other option was to sell their family to merchants in Macau, which was a Portuguese-administered enclave at the tip of southern China for 400 years.
In 1999, Beijing regained sovereignty over Macau and the tiny territory became one of only two Special Administrative Regions in China, the other being Hong Kong.
In his paper, Fujitani writes: “The first point to note is that peasants had to make a very intentional choice to sell to the Portuguese. It was not a casual decision. It meant taking significant legal, financial, and even physical risks.”
During the Ming dynasty, speaking to foreigners was illegal and could be punished by death, but the Portuguese typically paid more for their slaves so temptation often won out.
Middlemen facilitated the transactions, and the Pearl River Delta in southern China – a gathering point for foreign smugglers – would have been a hot spot for child trafficking.
Many peasants would also convince themselves that their children would face a better future in a foreign land.
One important example of an enslaved Chinese child was Victoria Diaz, who was born between 1550 and 1555 and claimed the unenviable status of being the first Chinese slave in Europe.
Born in China, she was either captured or sold to merchants and spent much of her life running a household for the businessman Henrique Dias de Milão in Lisbon, Portugal.
She cooked food for the family and raised the children, according to a paper by Lúcio de Sousa, an associate professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
In his 2019 paper about the subject, de Sousa wrote: “Victoria Diaz could not remember the region or the city in China where she had lived because she had been so young when she left.”
While financial desperation was a core reason for parents to sell their children, China was also plagued by kidnap gangs who which sold abducted youngsters.
“The fact that this became such a problem gives many interesting hints about what life was like in country villages,” said Fujitani.
“Kids were apparently running around freely, quite far from their homes, without any adult supervision. There were probably few strangers around. Everybody in the village knew each other and assumed that it was safe.”
The records are clear that selling children into slavery was a pernicious issue in Ming-dynasty China, but Fujitani said historians cannot pinpoint exactly how many children met this fate.
“There are many reasons why it’s impossible to know. There was an incredible amount of illegal trafficking and smuggling, and even the legal Portuguese merchants kept very bad records of what they carried in their ships,” he said.
In publishing the report, Fujitani wanted to “commemorate” the victims and remind readers that the stories of poor and vulnerable people are often lost to history.
“We only know a few of their names and very little about their lives, even though they faced some of the most desperate conditions in the human experience.
“I wanted to recover their memory, even if only a little,” he said.