Name: Isabella Jackson
Title: Assistant Professor in Chinese History
About: Isabella Jackson joined the Department of History in Trinity in 2015 and is affiliated to the Trinity Centre for Asian Studies. Her research to date has focused on the history of colonialism in China. Her most recent book, Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City (2018), examines how China’s most diverse city was influenced by colonialism from multiple nations. She has also co-edited a volume in Treaty Ports in Modern China: Law, Land and Power (2016). Her next major project, which has won a prestigious Laureate Award from the Irish Research Council, examines twentieth-century campaigns against child slavery in China and what they reveal about changing conceptions of childhood.

Tell us about your research.
Up to now I have researched how colonialism worked in China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My new project takes me in a new direction, focusing on changing Chinese conceptions of childhood as revealed by attitudes towards buying and keeping girls as household slaves. This practice was widespread throughout China, despite repeated laws banning slavery. Advocates denied that slavery was the appropriate term, preferring the euphemistic term ‘mui tsai’ (Cantonese for ‘younger sister’) but as the girls were compelling to undertake labour and were unpaid, it seems entirely accurate.

Why do you think the practise of keeping unpaid domestic servants became so commonplace?
Children could be bought and sold because they were small and unable to defend themselves, because they were considered the property of their parents, and because personhood and the rights associated with it were not deemed to apply to children. Girls were far more likely to be sold due to the widespread preference for boys to continue the family line. For poor families, abandonment and infanticide were all too often the solution to having too many mouths to feed, and it was girls who were the victims. In contrast to such a fate, selling a daughter to a wealthier family as unpaid domestic labour, with the promise of marriage when she reached maturity, seemed benevolent. Parents who sold their daughters hoped that they would have a better life than they could have given them. It was a way of society dealing with children whose parents were unable to raise them, and can be seen in comparison to the widespread use of institutions for children in Ireland and Britain in the past.

Owning a slave-girl was such a widespread practice for Chinese families with any means, from the wealthy elite to those who could not afford paid servants but could give meager room and board to a slave-girl, that there were plenty of people who did not want to be portrayed as slave-owners and resisted changes to a practice that supplied them with cheap, pliant labour. Owners included the most influential members of society, so both Chinese and foreign authorities were wary of offending them.

When and why did attitudes about child slavery in China change?
Opposition to the practice of selling girls into slavery took off in the 1920s, with Chinese and foreign reformers equally concerned. The era of the League of Nations, following the First World War, was a time of benevolent European interference around the world as campaigners sought to eradicate slavery and other forms of exploitation. At the same time, political idealists in China were trying to shape the young republic. Influential figures like Sun Yat-sen called for better treatment of women and girls, including ending child marriage, concubinage and the buying and keeping of slave-girls. Reformers recounted stories of abused slave-girls in Chinese newspapers, missionary tracts and public meetings. Girls subject to violence, sexual abuse and excessive workloads in their masters’ homes were held up as objects of pity in need of protection by society.

I’m interested in how the nature of the debate changed. In the 1930s, instead of simply seeing the girls as victims needing protection like vulnerable young women, reformers increasingly argued that girls were entitled to an innocent childhood, free of labour and exploitation. I will examine how the shift in discussions about child slavery marked a change in the conception of childhood in China from a category applied only to boys and elites to a universal stage of development encompassing girls and the poor.

What initially sparked your interest in this topic?
While researching my book on Shanghai, I found that the foreign administation there came under pressure in the 1930s to appoint a ‘Protector of Mui Tsai’. They appointed an Australian woman, Eleanor Hinder, to be responsible for ensuring that slave-girls were not abused by their owners and to try to gradually eradicate the practice of keeping slave-girls. I was intrigued that this practice existed and was tolerated by the foreign authorities. The more I investigated, the more I wanted to know about the practice across China, why it was tolerated for so long and why it fell out of favour.

What implications will your research have for China and the rest of the world?
Unfortunately, trafficking children remains a common practice around the world, including in China where the government estimates that 10,000 children are trafficked every year. Understanding how attitudes to buying and selling children in the past were changed could help fight the contemporary trade in children.

It is also important to understand how apparently natural and universal ideas, such as children’s entitlement to a childhood of leisure and education and free of labour, are actually fairly recent developments that we should not take for granted.