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In this lesson we’ll explore the various social classes of the ancient Chinese world which existed in an extremely rigid class structure inspired by the teachings of Confucius.

Ancient Chinese Social Classes

What ‘class’ of America do you see yourself or your family in? Class today is generally considered in terms of income level. Interestingly, in America today, recent polling has shown that most of United States considers itself middle class, including families which make $40,000 a year and those who make $4,000,000 a year! Regardless of how amorphous class labels might be in America today, in some ancient cultures these labels were far more concrete and important. In this lesson we’ll explore the class system which existed in ancient China, its origins, and the important distinctions between each class.

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Origins and Emperor

The social structure of ancient China evolved over several centuries, likely solidifying sometime in either the second or third century A.D. The social structure was very rigid; there was virtually no possibility of upward (or even downward) mobility. In other words, if your father was a farmer, chances were you were going to be a farmer, too. The genders were not equal in ancient Chinese society either; women were largely domestic creatures, and even aristocratic women were not allowed to attend school.

This social structure was reinforced by the revered Chinese thinker, Confucius, who claimed that social structure and rigid order was important if one wanted a peaceful kingdom and a happy society.It should be mentioned that the one occupation which existed outside the realm of ancient Chinese social structure was the emperor and the royal family. The emperor was often considered ordained by god in ancient Chinese society and, therefore, he did not have to answer to any humans on earth.

He expected complete obedience from his subjects and had total control over military affairs.

Aristocrats and Farmers

The first social class which existed below the emperor was the aristocratic class. The aristocrats made up a very small portion of Chinese society and were often well-connected to the emperor. These aristocrats were generally landowners who collected rent from their tenants and, in turn, paid tribute to the emperor as a show of allegiance. This class is also sometimes called the ‘gentry scholars’ because many sons began their adult lives by being sent to state schools if their families could afford it. After attending school and taking the requisite exams, these young aristocrats took up positions as officials in the state bureaucracy.

The next social class in importance in ancient China was farmers. Farmers were respected in ancient China as they fed the country’s already burgeoning population. Many of these farmers were successful enough that they owned their own land, while others worked as tenants on the farms of aristocrats.

The life of a farmer in ancient China was hard as their livelihood was often subject to the randomness of weather while still being subjected to the taxes imposed by the emperor and the upper classes. In the farmer class, gender roles were not as rigid as they were in other classes; though it was considered ideal for women to stay in the house, they at times were required to help in the fields during harvest times or under extreme circumstances.

Artisans and Merchants

The next rung on the ladder of Chinese society was craftsmen and artisans. These included a wide swath of the population with varied occupations; anyone, from carpenters to metalworkers to those who crafted expensive jewelry, was considered in this class.

Artisans often did not own land, and some did not even own the tools they worked with. However, highly skilled artisans in important or rare skills, like metalworking, could make a great deal more money than farmers ever made. Artisans were generally respected for their skills, but their lack of attachment or ownership of land placed them at a social disadvantage.

The lowest class, according to ancient Chinese society, was merchants and traders. Merchants and traders, because of their occupation, could sometimes make far more money than either farmers or artisans, but were considered lower than the other two as they did not produce anything of worth. Farmers produced food, artisans produced goods, and merchants merely made a profit by buying and selling those goods.

In various ancient Chinese writings, merchants are often portrayed as greedy and avaricious.

Lesson Summary

Ancient Chinese society had a very rigid social structure, reinforced by the teachings of the revered Chinese philosopher, Confucius. Above it all sat the emperor, who answered to no man and was in general considered separate from Chinese society. The top social class below the emperor was the aristocrats and nobles, who often owned land and occupied key positions in the Chinese bureaucracy. Though they were often the poorest, the next highest social level was farmers, who produced all the food to feed the growing Chinese population. Below the farmers were the artisans and craftsmen, who produced most of the goods of ancient China, from pottery to swords.

Finally, below all were the merchants. Though merchants were often wealthier than either the farmers or the artisans, they were considered beneath them because merchants rarely produced anything of their own; they merely profited off the other classes.

Learning Outcomes

When you’re finished with the video, make it your mission to:

  • Detail the origins of Chinese social structure and know where the emperor and the royal family fit in
  • Mention the way in which aristocrats and farmers fit into the social structure
  • Consider the status of artisans and merchants

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