Project (2023)

Lost People on the Ming Frontiers: Captivity and Labor Acquisition in Early Modern China

My project contributes a distinct community of labor to “Ability and Authority”: one that was created through cross-border captivity. This project will expand the spatial and temporal parameters of the working group to Chinese frontiers—Inner Mongolia, the East China sea, and the Zomia highland—in the mid-sixteenth century, a time when cross-border captivity reached a new height. The massive scale of capture, I argue, was a form of labor and expertise acquisition prompted by state building efforts on the frontiers to compete with Ming China (1368–1644).

Capture was not new to China. The Ming empire suffered regular raids on its frontiers in the hands of Mongols, pirates, and indigenes. Yet so far historians have mostly focused on the loss of goods and viewed such raids as recourse to formal tributary trade constantly denied by the Ming court. However, the forced movement of goods was almost always accompanied by the movement of people. In fact, the Ming sources documented hundreds of thousands of Ming subjects abducted across borders. Yet we know so little about their fate afterwards: what happened to their life after crossing to the other side? What drove up the surge in capture?