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Trinity Professor of Chinese History Examines ‘Younger Sister’ Practice in China

Charlemont AwardsIsabella Jackson, Assistant Professor in Chinese History at Trinity College Dublin, has been awarded a Royal Irish Academy Charlemont Grant as part of her research project ‘Debating Chinese Child Slavery: Child Protection in 1930s Shanghai’. Professor Jackson is among four Trinity researchers who have been awarded grants as part of the RIA Charlemont Grant 2016. Other awardees in this category were Julie Bates and Ailise Bulfin of the School of English, and Grainne McEvoy from the School of Histories and Humanities.

In 1936 the Shanghai City Government Police Bureau called for the voluntary registration of all ‘female slaves’ in the city. The government was responding to international and local pressure to clamp down on the practice of Chinese families adopting ‘younger sisters’ or mui tsai to work as domestic servants, sold by parents who could not afford to keep them. Professor Jackson says that while there is not a huge amount of knowledge about why this practice began, by the 18th century it was widespread in China. ‘In times of hardship when families were struggling to feed all their children, China is known to have had infanticide – but a more humane practice was to sell your daughter to rich families who couldn’t have children, or wanted to bring up a future wife for their sons to marry, or just liked the idea of having another pair of hands around the house.’

The practice of adopting a mui tsai is said to have originated from Southern China but as people migrated to other areas in China and further afield, even to San Francisco and Australia, the practice continued there. During the 19th century the practice came under increasing scrutiny.

Open to Abuse

Shanghai StreetProfessor Jackson says the practice of adopting ‘younger sisters’ was particularly susceptible to abuse: ‘In theory, (the families) would bring up these girls as their daughters but in practice they were often used as unpaid drudges doing all sorts of work around the home. They were subject to abuse because there was no regulation around this practice.’

While some girls were sold unknowingly into trafficking, others suffered abuse at the hands of their adopted families. ‘Some people would sell their daughters to traffickers believing that they would be placed into nice middle class families while actually they would be fed into prostitution. Within the household, there are many interviews with women who remember being abused by the head of the household or people who were supposed to be their brothers or the mother of the household beating them or sexually abusing them; this is not to say that this was happening everywhere –some of them would have been given better life opportunities – but as a result of the girls being placed in such vulnerable positions, many of them remember being treated badly.’

When criticism of the ‘younger sister’ practice first arose in Hong Kong in the 1870s, Professor Jackson says the dominant response within Chinese society was to defend the system, saying that it was an alternative to infanticide and the neglect of children. The interference of the Hong Kong Government in ‘traditional practices’ was viewed with contempt. 

Ironically in later years, the one child policy would change the traditionally low value attached to daughters. ‘One of the surprisingly positive results of the one child policy is that if you just have one child, and if it’s a girl, then you are going to look after her and you invest huge amounts of resources in her.  Girls who used to be denied the same educational access as their brothers were now expected to achieve as much in life as their male counterparts. While I certainly wouldn’t defend it as a good policy, one of its unintended consequences was to elevate the position of women in Chinese society.’

Under Scrutiny

Shanghai LibraryIncreased scrutiny around the adoption of mui tsai was driven in part internationally by Clara Hazlewood, a British woman who found out about the practice and campaigned against it in Britain. She raised awareness of the plight of mui tsai in the British parliament where Winston Churchill spoke about the issue. The League of Nations, which at the time had an anti-slavery committee, heard about this controversy and decided that it should become part of its campaigning activities, which then propelled the problem into a global issue.

Professor Jackson’s earlier research on the nature of colonialism in Shanghai has had further relevance for her current focus on mui tsai. She says the nature of colonialism in Shanghai meant that it was extremely difficult to control social practices. ‘It was an unusual type of colonialism; although the British dominated, there was also a French Concession there, and the British in the International Settlement worked with the Americans, Japanese, and, earlier, with Russians and Germans. Any port city has a lot of transient people coming through so there tends to be quite a big prostitution industry. Shanghai was also a more male society as most migrant cities tend to be. Because it was a divided city, there were two foreign controlled areas – the International Settlement and French Concession – and then the wider Chinese city which was under Chinese government. One area would ban prostitution and then all the brothels would move to the French Concession, for example. So the tension between those governing bodies in tackling the mui tsai problem is also something I want to look at.’

When the system came under renewed scrutiny in the 1930s, Professor Jackson points to an increased level of disagreement in Chinese communities. ‘One of the things I want to investigate is why scrutiny of the system died away and then resurged in the 1930s. By that point it seems that there was much more disagreement among the Chinese communities. There were some people who still saw it as a widespread practice - the dominant classes often had mui tsai themselves so they thought it was acceptable - but there was now a new reforming younger generation who were very aware of China being criticised internationally and didn’t like the way that this made them look, so they started campaigning against mui tsai.

The proposed research will explore the way in which anti-mui tsai campaigns saw the emergence of civil society in China and reflect the growing influence of international civil society through organisations such as the League of Nations.

Civil Society

Isabella JacksonThis tension between diverging responses to traditional practices in the 1930s will be the focus of Professor Jackson’s research when she visits Shanghai in July, a research trip which will be funded by the Charlemont Grant. ‘I want to look at whether this tension could be considered as constituting a new civil society. I’ll look at records from the International Settlement and the Chinese city and see correspondence with the public and I’ll also look at newspapers from the time and see how they’re reporting on the controversy.’

Professor Jackson reflects on the level of attention which China gets in the media now compared to when she began studying Chinese History at university. The growth of the economy and the power of big business there brings a new focus to the divide between the state and civil society. ‘This is why I believe my research has contemporary resonance because this is something political scientists are investigating: there’s a big debate as to how strong civil society is in China. There are thousands of protests going on each year in China, which is something we don’t tend to hear about in the media. While these protests may be about small scale things, about local issues on the whole, it is evidence that people do mobilise and care about their society.’

Professor Jackson’s research brings a renewed focus to debates about the existence and nature of the public sphere in China, in the context of humanitarian concerns.


Isabella Jackson was appointed Assistant Professor in Chinese History at the Department of History, Trinity College Dublin in 2015, after lecturing at the Universities of Aberdeen and Oxford. Her research focuses on the modern history of China and the global and regional networks that shaped the treaty ports, which were opened to foreign traders by force in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Professor Jackson is also closely involved with the Trinity Centre for Asian Studies.  The Trinity Centre for Asian Studies acts as a focal point for Asian Studies at Trinity College Dublin, and brings together teaching and research in Chinese, Korean and Japanese Studies as well as other regionally-based scholarship and pan-Asian research. Activities at the Centre are focused around contemporary society and culture, language learning, diaspora studies, and comparative studies including Asian-European studies.

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