Ancient China’s Society: The Four Professions


depiction of 4 professions in ancient CHina main

Ancient China was a strictly organized society. An emperor who had a mandate from heaven to rule oversaw everyone. There were four social classes based on your service to the Chinese people. The four occupations were scholars (prized for knowledge), peasants (effort), artists and craftspersons (skill), and merchants (disfavored). Slaves and other occupations were below everyone and outside of the official social hierarchy. 

Ancient China

As the “cradle of civilization” thrived in the Middle East, another ancient culture rose in eastern Asia. Settlements arose around ten thousand years ago. Its first dynasty arose two thousand years ago. China has the lengthiest continuous history of any country in the world.

Four Occupations 

Ancient China was a strictly organized society. There were four social classes, each with certain occupations and practices. Social mobility was extremely rare. Your birth was your destiny

The status of each social group depended on the service they provided to the Chinese kingdom. Emperors were at the top. The four occupations were scholars, farmers, artists, and merchants. 

The Emperor 

The emperor was above everyone else in the social hierarchy. He had a “mandate from heaven” to rule. Everyone else had to follow the demands of the emperor and royal family. 

Sometimes, natural disasters, warfare, or some other calamity was evidence an emperor no longer had the authority to rule. Then, a new emperor might come into power. 

Scholars (Shi) 

The scholarship class contained the nobles, officials, and learned professionals. 

Landowners, military officials, government workers, and learned professionals such as doctors and teachers were part of this class. A fundamental skill was literacy. If you knew how to read, you could train to be part of the government bureaucracy. 

Ancient China deeply respected knowledge. Knowledge allows you to study how to live a good life and serve others. Scholars were allowed to ride chariots and carry swords.  

Peasant Farmers (Nong) 

In many traditional societies, peasants are the lowest social group. Ancient China, however, deeply respected farmers. Their effort provided the food necessary for society’s survival.

Nobles owned the farms. Peasants, who made up about ninety percent of society, grew the food (rice, wheat, millet, and barley) and raised the livestock (sheep, pigs, poultry, buffalo, and oxen). 

In return, the nobles offered them protection and land to farm. Peasants also served as infantry during war campaigns. 

Artists and Craftspeople (Gong) 

Artists and craftspeople had the skills necessary to provide things society needed. 

This social class included such occupations as armor makers, carpenters, metalworkers, and silkmakers. Silk-making and other occupational techniques were a closely kept secret. Occupations took time to learn. Families kept secret their methods, generation to generation. 

(We see the actual “ancient Chinese secrets,” not the laundry detergent made famous in an old television commercial. Ask your parents or grandparents to explain this reference.)  

Artists and craftspeople did not own land. They made less money and had less prestige than nobles and peasants. Nonetheless, there was a thriving market for their services. 

Merchants (Shang) 

Merchants sold products. Ancient Chinese society did not respect merchants because they did not make anything through their efforts. The fact they could become rich only made matters worse. Merchants also were bankers, lending money out to others. 

Merchants were considered dishonorable and lazy. At first, they were not allowed to ride chariots, even if they had the money to buy one. This policy softened over time. Nonetheless, merchants were the lowest social class. They provided a necessary but unseemly service. 

Other Occupations 

Not every occupation in Ancient China fit within these four categories. These positions included domestic servants, entertainers, sex workers, and unskilled laborers.  

People who performed these tasks were considered unworthy or “filthy.” They also had various legal disabilities that other free people did not have. 

Slaves 

Slaves were also not part of the official hierarchy of Ancient China.  

Only a small number of people in Ancient China (about one percent) were slaves. Slaves were war captives, sold by family members to pay off debts or punished for crimes. 

Slaves worked for anyone able to pay them. Slavery could pass from parent to child. Slaves also were able to buy their freedom. 

Women 

Men and women played significant roles in Ancient China. 

Both sexes had occupations in each social class. Men, women, and children worked in the fields. Women also worked in different professions, including tavern keepers. They often were knowledgeable about herbs and medicines. Some local priests were women. 

Women in a higher class lived privileged lives. Women in merchant families also could benefit from their profits.  Nonetheless, officially, women had much less value. 

Women usually did not learn how to read and write. Women’s duty was to care for the home while men worked outside of the house. Again, many women worked and performed a lot of the labor necessary for the smooth running of society. 

People considered small women’s feet to be popular. Women’s feet were painfully bound to ensure this occurred.  Women did not choose who they married.

Women had a duty to listen to their parents and husbands. A woman’s most important role was to give birth to a male heir. They often lived a hard life while playing an essential role in society.

QUESTIONS

  • Analyze how the perception of the merchant class in Ancient China reflects broader societal values about work and contribution. What does this tell you about the cultural priorities of Ancient Chinese society?
  • Compare and contrast the roles and societal perceptions of women in different social classes in Ancient China. How did these roles both conform to and challenge the established social hierarchy?
  • Evaluate the statement, “Your birth was your destiny,” in the context of Ancient Chinese society. How did this belief influence the lives of individuals in different social classes?
  • Develop a hypothesis about how the social structure in Ancient China might have influenced the development of technologies and arts during that era. Use specific examples from the text to support your hypothesis.
  • Considering the societal respect given to farmers and the disdain for merchants, discuss how Ancient China’s values and social structure could have impacted its economic development.
  • Analyze the role and status of scholars in Ancient China. How did their position and responsibilities reflect the values and priorities of the society at large?

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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