Beyond Slavery: Dependency in Asian History

Research Group Leader: Dr. Claude Chevaleyre

PhD Researcher: Anas Ansar

Slavery has become a major topic within the field of Global Labor History. While these factors have stimulated the renewal of slavery and "unfree labor" studies all over the world, they have not produced similar effects on the history of slavery in East Asia. Although a new field of "Slavery in Asia" (mostly colonial South/South-East Asia) has been on the rise over the past few years, and despite the recent vitality of gender approaches in Early Modern Chinese and Japanese studies, East Asia remains a blind spot in the world history of slavery and dependency. The members of the Research Group therefore take "East Asia" as their area of expertise to explore the various dimensions of dependency in a global perspective.

Central Aim

The Research Group is committed to two principal tasks:

  1. By exploring slavery and dependency in East Asia in all their historical depth and complexity, the Research Group intends to lift the veil on what remains an overlooked area of the global history of dependency – one where "slavery" is often regarded as having been "mild" or "non-economic".
    Taking dependency as a "total social fact" that impacts the whole political economy of "premodern" Asian societies, the Research Group potentially tackles any aspect and dimension of "slavery and dependency". Its primary concern nonetheless focuses on the exploration of institutions (legal, political and economic, as well as cultural, religious, and domestic), the various and often competing sets of norms and practices, and the circulations of dependent individuals, groups, and even norms and concepts, at various spatial levels (from the local to the transnational). In so doing, the Research Group is dedicated to the task of methodically deconstructing the structures of dependency throughout East Asia
  2. By taking "East Asia" as its basic research unit the Research Group also aims at providing a substantial contribution to the writing of a new "grammar of dependency". Looking at dependency in Asia as a whole allows to de-compartmentalize entities (the changing, artificial, and plural constructions subsumed in contemporary nation-states) which shared strong conceptual and normative similarities, but also gave rise to highly divergent practices of dependency. Doing so therefore allows to play more broadly on scales, to initiate new comparisons, to explore regional interactions and global entanglements, etc. Moreover, looking at dependency from Asia provides an entry-point to decenter the perspective and to "provincialize" Western historical experiences. It also helps to question the relevance of the concepts and categories of human bondage we tend to regard as universal and encompassing by acknowledging that they are the specific products of historically situated contexts.

Therefore, the issue of the Research Group is to set aside the familiar binary frameworks – the "slavery—freedom" or "free—unfree" analytical pairs, the "West and the rest" comparative approach, or the "internal—external" choice in the translation process. We want to ask what these experiences and configurations have to say about the relevance, the singularity and universality of the West in the global history of dependency. Taking Asia as a center point also allows to engage in a dialogue with a wider variety of geographical areas and historical fields, a task which is crucial to the elaboration of a new "Grammar of dependency".

Research Projects

Claude Chevaleyre focuses on two main themes Interactions between various sets of norms and practices in Early Modern China and the reconstruction of interregional and transnational networks of human trafficking.

The PhD students might address any issue relevant to the study of "Slavery and Dependency", from any discipline, in any period, and on any scale. Topics can therefore be as various as the comparative analysis of Early Modern East Asian concepts and norms of dependency; labor coercion on state, elite, and religious estates; transnational forced relocation throughout Asia before and beyond the "coolie trade" etc.


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Dr. Claude Chevaleyre

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