Buying a Slave

Among the sellers with their ropes, cages, and water tanks were the sellers of little girls. Sometimes just one man would be standing by the side of the road selling one girl. There were fathers and mothers selling their daughters, whom they pushed forward and then pulled back again. My mother turned her face to look at pottery or embroidery rather than at these miserable families who did not have the sense to leave the favored brothers and sisters home.

All the children bore still faces. My mother would not buy from parents, crying and clutching. They would try to keep you talking to find out what kind of mistress you were to your slaves. If they could just hear from the buyer’s own mouth about a chair in the kitchen, they could tell each other in the years to come that their daughter was even now resting in the kitchen chair. It was merciful to give these parents a few details about the garden, a sweet feeble grandmother, food.

My mother would buy her slave from a professional whose little girls stood neatly in a row and bowed together when a customer looked them over. “How do you do, Sir?” They would sing, “How do you do, Madam?” “Let a little slave do your shopping for you,” the older girls chorused. “We’ve been taught to bargain. We’ve been taught to sew. We can cook, and we can knit.” Some of the dealers merely had the children bow quietly. Others had them sing a happy song about flowers.

Unless a group of little girls chanted some especially clever riddle, my mother, who distrusts people with public concerns, braggarts, went over to the quiet older girls with the dignified bows. “Any merchant who advertises ‘Honest Scales’ must have been thinking about weighting them,” she says. Many sellers displayed the sign “Children and Old Men Not Cheated.”

There were girls barely able to toddle carrying infant slaves tied in slings to their backs. In the undisciplined groups the babies crawled into gutters and the older girls each acted as if she were alone, a daughter among slaves. The one-to-two year old babies cost nothing.

“Greet the lady,” the dealer commanded, just as the nice little girls’ mothers had when visitors came.

“How do you do, Lady,” said the girls.

My mother did not need to bow back, and she did not. She overlooked the infants and toddlers and talked to the oldest girls.

“Open your mouth,” she said, and examined teeth. She pulled down eyelids to check for anemia. She picked up the girls’ wrists to sound their pulses, which tell everything.

She stopped at a girl whose strong heart sounded like thunder within the earth, sending its power into her fingertips. “I would not have sold a daughter such as that one,” she told us. My mother could find no flaw in the beat; it matched her own, the real rhythm. There were people jumpy with silly rhythms; broken rhythms; sly, secretive rhythms. They did not follow the sounds of earth-sea-sky and the Chinese language.

My mother brought out the green notebook my father had given her when he left. It had a map of each hemisphere on the inside covers and a clasp that shut it like a pocketbook. “Watch carefully,” she said. With an American pencil, she wrote a word, a felicitous word such as “longevity” or “double joy,” which is symmetrical.

“Look carefully,” she said into the girl’s face. “If you can write this word from memory, I will take you with me. Concentrate now.” She wrote in a plain style and folded the page a moment afterward. The girl took the pencil and wrote surely; she did not leave out a single stroke.

“What would you do,” my mother asked, “if you lost a gold watch in a field?”

“I know a chant on the finger bones,” said the girl. “But even if I landed on the bone that says to look no more, I would go to the middle of the field and search in a spiral going outward until I reached the field’s edge. Then I would believe the chant and look no more.” She drew in my mother’s notebook the field and her spiraling path.

“How do you cast on yarn?”

The girl pantomimed the method with her large hands.

“How much water do you put in the rice pot for a family of five? How do you finish off weaving so that it doesn’t unravel?”

Now it was time to act as if she were very dissatisfied with the slave’s answers so that the dealer would not charge her extra for a skillful worker.

“You tie the loose ends into tassles,” said the girl.

My mother frowned. “But suppose I like a finished border?”

The girl hesitated. “I could, uh, press the fibers under and sew them down. Or how about cutting the fibers off?”

My mother offered the dealer half the price he named. “My mother-in-law asked me to find a weaver for her, and obviously she and I will have to waste many months training this girl.”

“But she can knit and cook,” said the dealer, “and she can find lost watches.” He asked for a price higher than her suggestion but lower than his first.

“I knit and cook and find things,” said my mother. “How else do you suppose I think of such ingenious questions? Do you think I would buy a slave who could outwork me in front of my mother-in-law?” My mother walked off to look at a group of hungry slaves across the street. When she returned, the dealer sold her the girl with the finding chant at my mother’s price.

“I am a doctor,” she told her new slave, when they were out of the dealer’s hearing, “and I shall train you to be my nurse.”

“Doctor,” said the slave, “do you understand that I do know how to finish off my weaving?”

“Yes, we fooled him very well,” said my mother.

The unsold slaves must have watched them with envy. I watched them with envy. My mother’s enthusiasm for me is duller than for the slave girl; nor did I replace the older brother and sister who died while they were still cuddly. Throughout childhood my younger sister said, “When I grow up, I want to be a slave,” and my parents laughed, encouraging her. At department stores I angered my mother when I could not bargain without shame, poor people’s shame. She stood in back of me and prodded and pinched, forcing me to translate her bargaining, word for word.

the preceding is an excerpt from The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

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24 Responses to Buying a Slave

  1. Anonymous says:

    Is there still a slave market in Beijing, why would anyone want a Chinese slave?

    In my opinion the celestial race is terribly lazy, prone to wallowing about the day, content to spit, smoke, and speak their incomprehensible heathen language.

    Give me a hard working Filipino field hand, and I will show you a well tilled field.

  2. Ernie says:

    It gets worse than that, laoban. Bonafide slavery is alive and well, and slaves are cheaper than ever.

  3. laoban173 says:

    “Slavery ” still exists in China—-today it is economic slavery

    Women who need money are linked with uncaring husbands who use them as unpaid nurse maids, or maids or cleaners.

    Women are sent from the countryside to be maids, and have all their wages sent back to their husbands who could use the money for raising the family –but often use it for drinking and gambling….

    Its time to treat each other as humans , not chattle.

  4. sex toys says:

    Many of the slaves probabby had miserable lives. Lucky for those ones who find themselves having good masters.

  5. Many of the slaves probabby had miserable lives. Lucky for those ones who find themselves having good masters.

  6. This is against the Human rights that we are going to sell a person, I think strict actions required against those people who are doing this. Thanks

  7. Buying and selling of slaves is against the basic human rights. United Nations must come up with regulations to control buying of slaves. Thanks

  8. Government should take action regarding the buying and selling of was strictly against the human rights….

  9. China Tour says:

    When seeing the article from the begining, I was shocked. After reading the whole passage, I guess the main character must be the mother. Hope I could have the chance to read this book and know how the woman fights against the reality.

  10. Really,it is a shocking news for the world.China is the largest populated company and it is one of the fast growing country of the world.In this 21st century,independence is mere important for human being and the world is developing at a faster rate both in technology and welfare.So i am totally disagree with this type of activities and chinese government has to take responsibility for these types of activities.both parents and the buyers has to be punished severely then only they fear to do these activities.Hope for a change

  11. Nicely presented information in this post about slavery system in China, I prefer to read this kind of stuff. The quality of content is fine and the conclusion is good. Thanks for the post.

  12. memory foam mattresses says:

    Humans should be treated as humanely as possible. There is no such thing as slave or any of this sort. The mere fact that these people are hungry for the right treatment, they should be loved, fed and sheltered with their basic rights restored. 

  13. ألعاب says:

    this is the worrest thing can a human do to a human we all have burned free have all rights to live and die free

  14. soakaway says:

    I thought slavery was already eradicated in China? This is really sad. But the mother was really kind to teach the “slave” she bought to be a nurse. Bless her.

  15. Ernie says:

    You should write children's books.

  16. When seeing the article from the begining, I was shocked. After reading the whole passage, I guess the main character must be the mother. Hope I could have the chance to read this book and know how the woman fights against the reality.

  17. shadoblade says:

    All of you cry boo-hoo and government and U.N. Regulations. the ppl in this (ahem) story are poor, their own parents sold them which should tell you something, it is a basic need for survival that drives these people. I’m not saying its right but what would you do? You are a mother or father, you work hard, you can barely provide for 1 or 2 meals a day, and you have children, starving and dieing. I say get over yourselves, if you want to help them, buy a slave, save her life.

  18. Robert says:

    What happened to the wonderful socialist paradise the Chairman promised? How far off is it?
    The intelligent slave owner pays his/her slave(s) a little pocket money, especially for extra service. A clean bed, plain but decent clothing, good shoes or sandals. a little kindness every once in a while goes a long way.
    If the slave malingers or steals, do not go to excess in punishment. Use corporal discipline only as a last resort, and then only on the buttocks.
    A slave may not cost much but it takes a lot of time and effort to train a slave the way you want. An experienced, well-trained, diligent slave is worth far more than the money (s)he would bring if sold.
    Never forget that things can change suddenly. Imagine if the tables turned and your slave was now your master or mistress and you the slave. Did you treat the (now former) slave decently enough that (s)he will perhaps return the favor?

  19. Ernie says:

    It’s about as far off as the Change Obama promised. Oh wait, I do have 37 cents left in my pocket….

  20. stan catts says:

    Slavery in china dosn,t surprise me.What values do they have,they pushed communism on the end of a gun through asia and then later slaughtered those standing in Tiamin Square.

  21. Robert says:

    Washington, D.C.’s slave code defined a slave as “a human being, who is by law deprived of his or her liberty for life, and is the property of another.”
    One’s liberty is what (s)he can do with his/her life. Labor is time, not energy. The amount of energy you spend in the service of another is not what one sells but the hours of his/her life.

    Taking part of your life from you without your voluntary consent is involuntary servitude. Even the most oppressed slaves had some time to attend to their own needs and perhaps wants.

    The individual income tax on compensation for labor is nothing but involuntary servitude. Instead of one individual taking the labor of another without paying for it and without the other’s voluntary consent, it is the state (government) doing the taking. The only way to avoid having one’s labor confiscated is to live off the gifts of others. New York Federal Reserve chairman Beardsley Ruml said, in a speech he gave before the American Bar Association, printed in American Affairs, January 1946, page 35, that taxes for the purpose of raising a revenue (to run the government on) were obsolete, that they were for social and economic control.

    This is the kind of invasive tax that the framers of the constitution were opposed to. Making every working, enterprising individual into an unpaid tax collector is opposed to the kinds of taxes they preferred: “Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises.” As “Duties, Imposts and Excises” are specific classes of “Taxes,” the kinds of taxes the federal government levied until the Civil War were import duties and excises on certain commodities, like alcoholic beverages, slaves and tobacco. If taxing the wages of individuals had been understood to have been included, I’m sure that Congress would have done just that. In fact, Congress did just that but it was abolished in 1872 and then stricken down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1890.
    The United States Supreme Court, in its January 24, 1916 ruling on page 11 of Brushaber v. Union Pacific, the first case under the 16th amendment to reach the Court, calls the assumption that the 16th amendment (1913) removes the apportionment requirement for direct taxation “erroneous.” That the 16th was never ratified according to the requirements of the constitution does not at present need to be addressed, as the Court lays out the intent of the framers of the 16th on page 18 of its ruling.

    The individual income tax as we know it, levied on wages, salaries and other compensation for labor, is in contravention to the constitution on several counts: the taxing power as specified in Article I, section 8; the 13th (anti-slavery) amendment, and, as Brushaber points out, the 16th, the very provision of the constitution the promoters of the individual income tax cite in support.

    That it took congress from 1866 to 1872 to repeal the 1862 tax act shows the reluctance of congress to let go of a source of revenue once it is obtained, though illegally to start with. Not until (discounting the short-lived income tax of the 1880s) another war, WWII, did congress again seize power to grab part of the labor of workers, with the withholding tax act of 1942. Since there was a war on, and a big one, anyone who objected to this violation of the constitution was suspected to be at least somewhat treasonous. Congress had not even dared to enact an individual income tax in WWI. The 16th amendment was new and was being challenged in the courts at the time. It took the
    (F.D.) Roosevelt “Great Depression” era to soften the people up, and a war to get the individual income tax accepted by the mass of the population.

    And so we have it to this day. Only recently has opposition to the individual income tax become widespread and even respectable. It has not been so long since to speak out against the individual income tax made one a fringie, perhaps a little looney, and perhaps “anti-American.” Of course, people feared betrayal to the IRS, which has since been restrained somewhat by new acts of congress.

  22. Really robert? says:

    @Robert are you seriously trying to draw a parallel between income tax and slavery? You are bloody disgusting- let me guess, you’re a white, middle aged middle class male?
    Slaves are forced to endure rape (sexual slavery), exposure to AIDS, beatings, starvation, injury and so on with no recourse.
    To compare having to cough up some tax to help pay for the roads you drive on to a human rights tragedy like slavery makes me want to vomit on you for all eternity. I hope you either get a reality check or DIAF post haste.

    As for the rest of you expressing surprise… do you all live under a rock? Slavery exists in every country, including our so called “first world” countries like the USA, England and so on. Google isn’t that hard to use.

  23. Amy Paris says:

    Im looking for a 6ft thai slave male or female will do who is strong on plough and good with tilling the land. Will pay in peanuts and will put up in outside shed. Must have pigeon english and strong wrists for husbands pleasure time

  24. Ernie says:

    FIXED: I’m looking for a 6ft thai slave, shemale will do, who is strong on plough and good with tilling the land. Will pay in peanuts and will put up in outside shed. Must have pigeon english and strong fists for husband’s pleasure time.

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