Social structure of China

The social structure of China has an extensive history which begins from the feudal society of Imperial China to the contemporary era.


The teaching of Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE) taught of five basic relationships in life:

  • Father to son
  • Older sibling to younger sibling
  • Husband to wife
  • Friend to friend
  • Ruler to structure

For dynasties that used Confucianism (not Legalism), the first noted person(s) in the relationship was always superior and had to act as a guide and leader/ role model to the second noted person(s), as the second person was to follow. For example: Father, 1st noted; Son, 2nd noted.

Early Imperial Period

From the Qin Dynasty to the late Qing Dynasty (221 B.C.- A.D. 1840), the Chinese government divided Chinese people into four classes: landlord, peasant, craftsmen, and merchant. Landlords and peasants constituted the two major classes, while merchant and craftsmen were collected into the two minor. Theoretically, except for the position of the Emperor, nothing was hereditary.[1]

During the 361 years of civil war after the Han Dynasty (202 B.C. - 220 A.D.), there was a partial restoration of feudalism when wealthy and powerful families emerged with large amounts of land and huge numbers of semi-serfs. They dominated important civilian and military positions of the government, making the positions available to members of their own families and clans.[2][3] After the Tang dynasty's yellow emergence, the government extended the Imperial examination system as an attempt to eradicate this feudalism.

Song dynasty

During the Song dynasty social strata was clearly divided and enforced by the law. At the bottom of the pyramid were the commoners who were categorized into two groups: Fangguo Hu (city dwellers) and Xiangcun Hu (rural population). Fangguo Hu and Xiangcun Hu had ranks. The first rank, commoners (both Fangguo and Xiangcun), were the wealthiest. The ranks of commoners could change over time, as one who acquired more wealth could be promoted to a higher rank.

On the other hand, gentries and government officials were not commoners. They and their families belong to Guan Hu (Gentries). Guan Hu was not an exclusive social stratum like European nobility, by participating and passing the imperial exam, one can be qualified as a member of Guan Hu. In addition, relatives of a government official can become a Guan Hu through the system of En Yin. In some rarer cases, a commoner can become Guan Hu by donating a large amount of money, grain or industrial materials to the imperial court. In 1006, Guan Hu accounted for 1.3% of the entire population. The percentage of Guan Hu increased to 2.8% by the year of 1190. The growing population of Guan Hu was partly due to the system of En Yin which allows a relatively easy entry into the stratum of Guan Hu.[4]

At the top of the social pyramid was the royal house of Song dynasty. The royal house consists of the Emperor, Empress, concubines, princes and princesses. The royal house enjoys the highest quality of life with everything provided by other social strata. With imperial fields (fields that were owned by the emperor), the basic food supplies of the royal house were satisfied. Luxury items in the imperial court also had their sources. Tea, for example, was provided by the imperial tea plantation. Annually, local products of various regions of China were paid as tributes to the royal house.

During the Song Dynasty, slave trading was forbidden and punished by law. However, slavery was not entirely absent from the history of the Song dynasty. To some extent, there were slave traders who illegally kidnapped commoners and sold them as slaves. Criminals were sometimes converted to slaves by the government. However, traditional slavery was not a common practice during the Song dynasty. Servants of wealthy gentries usually kept a contract-like relationship with the lords served.[5]

In reality, the Song society's structure had evolved and changed over time. After the Jingkang incident, the phenomenon of land annexation became increasingly obvious. By land annexation, the wealthy commoners and government officials privatized lands that were public or owned by poorer people. In late Song dynasty, the society's two ends polarized. Wealthy land owners devoured most of the cultivable lands, leaving others in extreme poverty. Even the imperial court's profit was curbed. Taxation was illegally avoided by wealthy landowners and the court eventually found itself collecting much less amount of taxes than ever before.[6] Xie Fangshu, an investigating censor famously described the situation as "The flesh of the poor ones becomes the food of the strong ones" (弱肉强食).[7]

Jurchen Empire

The Jurchen Jin dynasty coexisted with the Song dynasty after Jingkang incident. The Jurchen empire ruled the north part of China. Under the Jurchen rule, the conventional code Begile was introduced. Under this code, an emperor and his courtiers were equal. Emperor Xizong of Jin reformed the empire's legal system and abolished the begile during the reform of Tianjuan. The reform eliminated the aboriginal Jurchen conventions and substituted them with the conventions of Song and Liao dynasty. During Jin dynasty, Minggan Moumuke, groups of Jurchen soldiers who settled down in Northern China, changed their nomadic life-style to the agricultural life-style of Chinese commoners.[8]

Yuan dynasty

Kublai, the founder of the Yuan dynasty, notably gave many financial privileges to the gentries of Jiangnan region. After the defeat of Song dynasty by Yuan, making friends with the local elites of Song became important. As a consequence, the most wealthy ones in the Song social strata remained wealthy in the Yuan dynasty.

Contrary to the situation of the gentries, commoners of Yuan dynasty found themselves less protected by the law. Mongol rulers did not seem to take the interests of commoners a priority. A great number of ordinary farmers were converted to plantation workers working for the gentries. The wealthy entered upon the properties of commoners while making them essentially slave-peasants.[9]

The Mongols in the Yuan dynasty belong to numerous clans. Tao Zongyi first provided a list of all the Mongol clans which was later falsified by Japanese historian Yanai Watari. However, Tao's account was one of the few contemporary accounts of Mongols during Yuan dynasty. The records and documents of Yuan dynasty provide extremely limited information about the social strata of Mongols. Despite of the lack of historical records, it is safe to say that Mongols enjoyed privileges that other ethical groups did not. During their reign, the Mongols converted a large amount of rice fields into pastures because agriculture was foreign to them. Both the government and Mongol nobles opened up pastures in China by taking the rice fields away from ordinary farmers.[10]

Other social castes including Semu, Hanren and Nanren existed under the rule of Mongols. Hanren refers to dwellers of Northern China, Korea and Sichuan. Nanren refers to citizens of the Song dynasty (excluding people from Sichuan, although the region was a part of Song).[11]

Yuan dynasty introduced the policy of Colored population statistics(Chinese: 諸色戶計). The policy divided commoners according to their occupation.Farmers, soldiers, craftsmen, hunters, physicians, messengers and Confucian scholars are some of the categories under this policy. The farmers had the largest population among all the commoners in Yuan dynasty. These categories are hereditary. One soldier will give birth to a son who will later become a soldier. In comparison with other commoners, craftsmen were treated more fairly since the Mongols deemed the skills of making weapons necessary for their conquest of the world. The Mongols routinely massacred Chinese civilians with the exception of Craftsmen.[12]

Slavery was common during the Yuan dynasty. The main sources of slaves include captives,[13] criminals, kidnapped commoners, buying and selling of human lives. Slave status was also hereditary. A slave will give birth to slave children.[14][15]

Ming dynasty

The Ming dynasty was the second to the last imperial dynasty of China established in 1368 following the fall of Yuan dynasty. The imperial court of Ming kept a nationwide register of every subject---Ji(籍).[16] This practice of registering population was inherited from the previous Yuan dynasty. Venetian traveler Marco Polo noticed similar policy during his visit of Hangzhou.[16] Ming government formalized the registration with the yellow booklet which records every member of a given family. In addition, there was the white booklet which records the taxation of a family.[17]

The policy of Colored population statistics of Yuan dynasty was inherited by Ming and reformed. The numerous categories of commoners were reduced into only 3 categories. Soldier, Commoners, and Craftsmen. These castes were hereditary and fixed. Moving from one category to another was virtually impossible. Subcategories of the three main categories were more specific and profession-based. According to Taiwanese historian Cai Shishan, there were also salt refiners which were independent from other 3 categories.[18]

Gentries in Ming dynasty belong to the caste of commoners. There were two types of gentries. Those who passed the entry-level exam of the imperial exam were called Shengyuan(生員). All Shengyuan receive a fixed amount of allowance from the imperial court. The average amount of allowance ranges from 18 tael to 12 tael. The rest of the gentries mainly earned their living by teaching in private schools as mentors.[19]

Farmers during the Ming dynasty had two groups. Self-sustained farmer accounted for 10% of all farmers while employee farmers of wealthy landlords made up as much as 90%. Employed farmers had more burdens and gained less harvest than self-sustained farmers.[19]

Craftsmen were severely exploited by the government. They had to provide free services upon the demand of the imperial court without any reward.[18] The two groups of Craftsmen are: Official craftsmen who directly worked for the court and Common craftsmen who provide paid services for others.[19]

In Ming dynasty, Royal house was a large and special social stratum. The royal house of Ming includes any descendants of Emperor Taizu of Ming and his nephew Prince Jingjiang Zhu Shouqian. Emperor Taizu had 26 sons and 19 of them had offspring. With the line of Prince Jingjiang, the royal house consists of 20 different cadet branches. Members of the royal house were not allowed to have an ordinary life by laboring. All the expenditures of the royal house were paid by the money taken from the annual tax revenue collected from commoners. Additional perks such as legal privileges and luxury items were given as gifts by the imperial court.[20] In the middle of the 17th century, the population of the royal house was so large that their living expenditures had taken up to 225.79% of the annual tax revenue causing a virtual bankruptcy of the government.[21]

Qing dynasty

In the Qing dynasty, the population could be divided into five classes. The top class was obviously the emperor and his immediate family. Right after that were Social-Bureaucrats and Gentrys, who all ran the government. Below that was the working class and finally the lower classes


Gentry were from the Gentry Society. Most Gentry owned land, which was where most of their income came from. Their main source of income, however, was from their government service because they had certain academic degrees. Unlike other elite individuals, who lived in rural areas, gentry usually resided in large cities or towns, where they managed political, social and economic affairs. Once they were done with their service to the government, they would rejoin Gentry Society.[22]


Social-bureaucrats were the lifeline of Qing China. They also had the responsibilities of organizing public works projects and had a crucial role in the management of society. Social-bureaucrats wore distinctive clothing, including black gowns with blue borders and a multitude of rank insignia. Commoners addressed them with honorific titles and they received a high status along with favorable legal treatment.[22]

Working class

The working class was a very broad designation, including everyone from day laborers, to tenant farmers and landlords. It could also be divided into three subcategories: peasants, workers and merchants. Peasants were the largest and most respected class out of the three, because they were seen as honest workers for providing food for the entire nation. Despite the workers lower status, they often earned more than peasants. Artisans and Workers often worked directly for the state or gentry. Merchants were ranked at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Merchants could include anyone from street peddlers to individuals with high influence and wealth. Most individuals say merchants as a low ranking class because of their ruthless strategies. They would either bribe government officials or use profit-sharing to gain funding. Merchant families could then use this wealth and give their children an education which would allow them to move up in society.[22]

Lower classes

The lower classes of ordinary people were divided into two categories: one of them the good "commoner" people, the other the "mean" people. Slaves, Servants, Prostitutes, Entertainers, Low Level Government Employees and Military Forces were part of the mean class. The soldiers were called a necessary evil, and civilians were placed in command to keep the military from dominating society.[22] The mean people were heavily discriminated against, forbidden to take the Imperial Examination, and mean and good people could not marry each other.[23][24][25][26][27]

Social structure in modern China

1911 to 1949

After 1911, China entered the Warlord Era. During this time, industrialization was slow to non-existent; between the years 1920 and 1949, the industrial sector had only increased by less than three million members, mainly women and children working in cotton mills. The main changes in social structure were military.

In 1924, the Soviet Union helped Sun Yat-sen rebuild the Nationalist Kuomintang, GMT, and KMT military force, most notably through the Military Academy, an island on Pearl River near Guangzhou. Many military leaders of the following decades were Huangpu graduates, including Lin Biao, as well as nationalist Chinese generals.

After the allied forces of the Kuomintang and the Communists reunified China, Chiang Kai-shek, with the help of underworld forces such as the Green Gang, attacked the Communists. This had the effect of suppressing labor unions.

1949 to 1976

In 1949, in the wake of the communist victory in the Chinese civil war, Chinese society experienced massive upheaval. The communist revolutionaries who had eschewed capitalism and elitism now became the rich ruling class they had sought to overthrow. The Communist Party cadres became the new upper class.[28] The misuse and manipulation of the ration system by members of the cadre class threatened to change them into a new class of privileged bureaucrats and technicians, mere descendants of the pre-revolutionary ruling class of cadre technocrats and selected representatives of the old proletariat. Whereas in the past, their position had been accessed primarily through acceptance to the best schools, now cadre status came to give them access to materials and options not fairly distributed amongst all. Housing had always been in demand in China, particularly in the larger cities, and cadres were protected from the intense competition for living space.

In the countryside, the landlord class was eliminated during the land reform. In 1959, there were ten million state cadres, thirty-five million state workers, and two hundred million peasants.[29] Chinese society was typical of agrarian societies because the peasant class composed the majority of the population.

Following the implementation of land reforms, Mao instituted a process of collectivization in response to the selling of land by peasants to the new generation of rich landowners. Afraid of creating a new landlord class, Mao instituted a system of communes where land was supposed to be worked equally by peasants. His idea was to capitalize on the sheer number of peasants and effectively produce a surplus harvest that would help industrialization. This was known as the Great Leap Forward, which was a failure and resulted in the deaths of twenty to thirty million peasants.[30]

Just as farmers were put into communes, state workers were placed in large work units called danweis. Since urban education reform was growing at a much faster rate than in rural areas, more and more workers were high school graduates. The slowing down of state industries and the increasing number of qualified middle-class candidates contributed to the fact it became more and more difficult to obtain a position as a state worker.

At this time, the hukou system was implemented, which divided the population into urban and rural residents. This was done to make the distribution of state services through danweis and communes easier and to better organize the population in preparation for a possible invasion from the Soviet Union. The hukou system made it illegal to migrate from the countryside to the city.

During the Cultural Revolution, the composition of society changed again. Schools were closed and many youths were sent down to the countryside putatively to learn from the peasants. Concern for peasants was reflected in the rural medical and educational services known as barefoot doctors and barefoot teachers. The life expectancy of peasants increased from less than forty years before 1949 to more than sixty years in the 1970s. At the same time, peasants were still the most illiterate, most powerless, and poorest social class.[31]

In a speech made shortly after the communist's victory in 1949, Mao Zedong claimed that Chinese society had four distinct social classes; this is often cited as the reason why the Chinese flag has four small stars on it. In his On the People's Democratic Dictatorship speech he defined the Chinese people as consisting of four social classes, also referred to in Asian cultures as the four occupations (士農工商) shi, nong, gong, shang ("the working class, the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie".[32] Mao made the claim that these classes had been unified by the revolution, but severe class stratification still existed in post 1949 China, especially when comparing the rights ordinary citizen to the extreme privileges afforded to the elites of the Communist party.

After 1979

After the Gaige Kaifang policy was implemented in the late 1970s, the Communist system Mao had instituted disintegrated in the face of economic development. In the countryside, communes had disappeared by 1984. State-run enterprises known as danweis began to lay off workers, "smashing the iron rice bowl" because of their expense and inefficiency.[33]


  1. Dr. Yi Li, "The Structure and Evolution of Chinese Social Stratification", University Press of America (January 2005),
  2. Robert Mortimer Marsh, Mandarins: The Circulation of Elites in China, 1600-1900, Ayer (June, 1980), hardcover, ISBN 0-405-12981-5
  3. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 13, 30
  4. Wang, Zenyu (2010). Social Strata of Song Dynasty. Renmin University of China. pp. 247–256. ISBN 9787300115207.
  5. Wang p.501
  6. Lü, Yuezhong (2014). "贾似道的公田法研究". 宁波大学 via 知网.
  7. Fan, Wenlan (2009). General History of China. 人民出版社. ISBN 9787010020297.
  8. Li, Yujun (Summer 2016). "金代法制变革与民族文化认同". 学习与探索.
  9. Zheng, Kesheng (1989). "Jiangnan Gentries and the Society of late Yuan dynasty". 南开史学: 1–2.
  10. Meng p.155
  11. Meng, Siming (2006). Social castes of Yuan dynasty. Shanghai: 上海人民出版社. ISBN 9787208063914.
  12. Meng p.172
  13. History of Yuan vol.119,120
  14. Meng 179-182
  15. Tao, Zongyi (2006). 南村辍耕录. Zhonghua Book company. ISBN 9787101017274.
  16. Gao, Shouxian (Summer 2013). "关于明朝的籍贯与户籍问题". 北京联合大学学报:人文社会科学版.
  17. History of Ming vol.77
  18. Cai, Shishan (2011). Women in Ming dynasty. Zhonghua Book Company. ISBN 9787101080711.
  19. Chen, Baoliang (Winter 2016). "明代社会各阶层的收入及其构成 ——兼论明代人的生活质量". 中国社会科学网.
  20. Robinson, David (Summer 2012). "PRINCELY COURTS OF THE MING DYNASTY" (PDF). Ming Studies. 65.
  21. Jin, Guantao (2011). 兴盛与危机. 法律出版社. p. 104. ISBN 9787511812346.
  22. 1949-2012., Bentley, Jerry H., (2011). Traditions & encounters : a global perspective on the past. Ziegler, Herbert F., 1949-, McGraw-Hill Book Company. (5th., AP ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 9780076594382. OCLC 853494457.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  23. Susan Naquin; Evelyn Sakakida Rawski (1989). Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century (reprint, illustrated ed.). Yale University Press. p. 117. ISBN 0-300-04602-2. Retrieved 2011-10-31.
  24. Jacob E. Safra (2003). The New Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 16 (15 ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. p. 122. ISBN 0-85229-961-3. Retrieved 2011-11-07.
  25. Britannica Educational Publishing (2010). Kenneth Pletcher (ed.). The History of China. The Rosen Publishing Group. p. 226. ISBN 1-61530-181-X. Retrieved 2011-11-07.
  26. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc (1998). The New Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 8; Volume 16 (15 ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. p. 122. ISBN 0-85229-633-9. Retrieved 2011-11-07.
  27. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc (1991). The New Encyclopædia Britannica: Marcopædia. Volume 16 of The New Encyclopædia Britannica (15 ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. p. 122. ISBN 0-85229-529-4. Retrieved 2011-11-07.
  28. Yin Qian, "Dynamics Vs. Tradition in Chinese Foreign Policy Motivation: Beijing's Fifth Column Policy in Hong Kong as a Test Case", Nova Science Publishers, 1999
  29. Huang McBeath, Jenifer, McBeath, Jerry,"Environmental Change and Food Security in China", Springer Netherlands,2010
  30. Jean Lipman-Blumen,"The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt and Politicians - and How We Can Survive Them", Oxford University Press,(October 1, 2006)
  31. Everett Zhang, Arthur Kleinman, Weiming Tu, "Governance of Life in Chinese Moral Experience: The Quest for an Adequate Life", Routledge, 2011
  32. ""On the People's Democratic Dictatorship : In Commemoration of the Twenty-eighth Anniversary of the Communist Party of China, June 30, 1949"". Retrieved 2017-09-27.
  33. Kjeld Erik Brødsgaard, Mads Kirkebæk,"China and Denmark: Relations Since 1674", NIAS, 2000


  1. China Cadre Statistics Fifty Years, 1949–1998, 1.
  2. China Labor Statistical Yearbook 1998, 9., 17.
  3. China Statistical Yearbook 2002, 120-121.
  4. China Statistical Yearbook 2004, 126-127 and 150.
  5. People's Daily Overseas Edition, 10/11/2002, 1.
  • The figures of cadre from 19661970, as well as 20022003 are estimated.
  • From 1958 to 1977, the figure of peasant workers was around 20 million. However, China's official statistics had begun to count them only from 1978.
  • From 1979 to 1993, the number of cadres increased from eighteen million to thirty-seven million.

Further reading

  • Duara, Prasenjit, State Involution: A Study of Local Finances in North China, 1911-1935, in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 132–161, Cambridge University Press JSTOR 178784
  • Ch'u T'ung-tsu, Han Social Structure (Washington U. Press, 1972)
  • Li Yi. "The Structure and Evolution of Chinese Social Stratification". University Press of America. 2005. ISBN 0-7618-3331-5
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