Ancient Chinese Class System

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

A large country like ancient China needed a vast caste system to make sure that society ran smoothly. In this lesson, we describe that caste system, as well as forms of social mobility.

One Massive Society

If you had to use one word to describe Chinese society, 'big' simply isn't big enough. For thousands of years, China has been one of the most massive societies in history. It remains the largest country in the world by population today, and that's after decades of trying to slow the birth rate! However, such a massive society required a multi-level system of social class in the past. In this lesson, we'll look at the social classes of ancient China, drawing special attention to where they differ from other ancient societies.

The Emperor and Nobility

At the top of everything in ancient China was the Emperor. He went by a number of honorifics, like Son of Heaven, because he was supposed to control the Mandate of Heaven, literally permission from the gods to govern the people. Whenever something went right, it was because the Emperor still held the Mandate. Whenever something went wrong, then clearly the Emperor no longer held the Mandate of Heaven and a change was in order.

An army of terracotta soldiers were buried with one of the emperors of Ancient China.
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As a change would have meant an end to the Emperor's reign, he used a large collection of nobility to help him maintain control. However, these nobles were not always to be trusted. Many of them came from proud families, and may have had their eyes on the throne! In any event, these nobles were highly trained in Confucian ideals, and provided a ready and able set of administrators for the Emperor.

Chinese nobility commanded large armies
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Aristocrats

After the Emperor and the nobility was another social class, the aristocracy. These were the rich land owners who didn't have a noble title, but still had plenty of power and influence. Sometimes you'll see them referred to as the Chinese Gentry. As landowners, they held a lot of respect from the rest of society. As you'll see, to get a place of respect in Chinese society, your relationship with the land mattered. The Emperor governed the land, and the aristocrats ruled the land. This, along with the fact that the aristocrats often collected taxes, meant that this class was very important to the Emperor.

Farmers

By far, the largest social class in China were the farmers. The vast majority of the population were peasants, meaning that they worked on the land to produce food for the Chinese state. In other ancient societies, perhaps only slaves ranked lower in social class than the farmers. However, China was different. Recognizing the importance of growing food, China actually gave a sort of middle-class social ranking to the farmers. Whether or not they owned land, the fact that they had a deep connection with it was worthwhile.

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