Ancient Chinese society had a strict social hierarchy with four classes: shi, nong, gong, and shang. Moving up the social ladder was difficult, as it usually required luck or marriage into a higher class. Most people remained in the class they were born into for their entire lives.
China’s social structure was organized around four occupations, with each group defined by the specific daily tasks and services performed for the kingdom.
1. The Shi (Nobles, scholars, and ofﬁcials)
The ruling class in ancient China, known as the shi class, held significant power and influence. This social group consisted of regional governors, military commanders, land-owning nobles, and scholars.
The governors, often regional warlords, commanded armies and held immense power during the Shang Dynasty. Tombs from this period reveal the presence of powerful war chariots and the burial of numerous followers. The land-owning nobles gained their power through inheritance and were responsible for raising armies and acting as battlefield commanders.
The scholars, highly respected for their knowledge and literacy, worked as bureaucrats in the imperial government. The shi class exerted authority over the lower social classes, which comprised the majority of ancient Chinese society.
2. The Nong (Peasant farmers)
The majority of Chinese society, about 90%, consisted of peasants who lived in small rural communities and worked on farms owned by the shi class. These peasants were responsible for growing crops and raising livestock, which provided food for the country and generated taxes.
Despite their importance, most peasants remained relatively poor and had limited land and income. During times of hardship, some families were even forced to sell their children into slavery.
Additionally, when war broke out, peasants were recruited as infantry and faced high casualties. Although life was difficult for peasants, there were two social classes below them in the hierarchy.
3. The Gong (Artisans and craftspeople)
Artisans and craftspeople in ancient Chinese society possessed specialized skills and created valuable goods for the wealthy.
Although they did not own land and were considered inferior to peasants, their products were essential for daily life. These skilled individuals were highly valued, with their expertise passed down through generations and some even building successful businesses.
4. The Shang (Merchants and traders)
The fourth and final social class in ancient Chinese society consisted of merchants and traders who focused on selling objects to others. They were placed at the bottom of the social structure because they did not produce anything themselves, which was considered dishonorable and lazy.
However, despite their low status, merchants had the potential to become incredibly wealthy by lending money or exporting valuable products like silk.
In ancient Chinese society, merchants were considered less honorable than any other members, except for slaves. Slavery was not common, with less than 1% of the population being slaves.
People became slaves through capture in war, selling themselves to pay off debts, or as punishment for crimes. Slaves could be owned by anyone who could afford them, but most worked for the wealthy shi class.
What about the emperor?
The emperor in ancient Chinese society held the highest position and had absolute control over all social classes. This power was derived from the ‘mandate of heaven’, which granted the emperor and the royal family unparalleled authority.
However, the emperor’s position was not secure, as losing the ‘mandate of heaven’ could lead to overthrow and replacement. Despite the emperor’s immense power, ruling well was crucial to maintain the respect and obedience of society.
Women in Chinese society
Chinese society believed that women were inferior to men and treated them as such, favoring sons over daughters and even killing baby girls in times of hardship.
Women in the wealthy shi class had more privileges, but regardless of social class, women were valued most when they gave birth, especially to sons. When they married, women were expected to live with their husband’s family and obey not only their husband but also his parents.
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