The Silk Road is often idealized, conjuring up romantic visions of caravans laded with exotic silks and aromatic spices. The glamorous version of the Silk Road persists because at least one unsavory aspect of the trade, slavery, has received little scholarly attention. In this lecture, Professor Jonathan Skaff presents a rare glimpse of the eastern slave trade from Chinese-language contracts and travel permits that have survived at the Silk Road oasis city of Turfan in modern Xinjiang. Central Asian merchants and Tang elites can be seen buying, selling and traveling with human chattel with Chinese and foreign names. Tang law and imperial institutions may have stimulated this traffic in human beings. A legal prohibition against enslaving free Tang subjects created a perverse incentive to import foreign slaves. In addition, the Tang Empire’s legal, military, administrative and transportation systems also facilitated human trafficking by providing public safety over road networks and enforcing slave contracts.
Dr. Jonathan Skaff is a Professor of History at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, where he has also served as Director of International Studies. After teaching English in Shanghai in the mid-1980s, Skaff pursued graduate studies at The University of Michigan where he received his Ph.D. in History in 1998. Dr. Skaff's research reassesses medieval China’s frontier interactions with Inner Asia via borderlands and overland trade routes. His book, Sui-Tang China and its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power and Connections, 580-800 (Oxford University Press, 2012) received fellowship support from the Institute for Advanced Study, National Endowment for Humanities, and the American Philosophical Society. A Chinese translation is forthcoming from the Social Sciences Academic Press. His second book Silk Roads and Steppe Roads of Medieval China: History Unearthed from Tombs, forthcoming from Princeton University Press, is based on the Rostovtzeff lectures that he delivered at the NYU, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in Spring 2016. He has sixteen additional published or forthcoming articles and book chapters, several of which have been translated into Chinese.
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