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Family or Servants? The Ambiguity of Status in Early Chinese Households

Yifan Zheng

Pages 7 - 46

In this paper, I contextualize two different commentaries in early histories with respect to jiaren 家人 (lit., “family person”), in order to clarify family relationships and social status in early Chinese empires regarding their legal and sociopolitical dimensions. The first part of this paper starts by illustrating the philological ambiguity in the interpretation of jiaren and examines early legal and administrative texts which show that servants were integrated into the family and had a status comparable to that of children in the household. I continue by examining the other commentary, which reads jiaren as commoners, and contextualize this reading within the framework of the state-family relationship. I argue that the broad semantic range of jia and its changes over time led to divergences among commentators. Thus, it is important for modern readers to always base analyses on the relevant context instead of unreflectively extracting a word from its context or following prevalent theories.

Keywords: Early Chinese Households, Slavery in Ancient China, State-Family Relation, Ru-Daoist Contention, Social Status


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