Feudalism in Ancient China: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

Ancient China built its society on commoners, nobles, and emperors. Learn about the feudal structure of China and the ranking of peoples in this lesson.

Who's in Charge?

Imagine you could be anyone in the world--a president, an astronaut, or a rock star. While the odds may be long, it's possible to work hard and achieve your dreams, but for many ancient societies people only could go as far as what their parents and grandparents did. That's because many cultures had a hierarchy, a ranking of peoples according to their social status and responsibilities. In the case of ancient China, that society followed a hierarchy called feudalism. Feudalism means that most of the population of commoners had little money and opportunity, while nobles and emperors got to rule over everyone.

Painting of a Chinese emperor.
Chinese emperor

Good to Be Emperor

If you got to be in charge of an entire country, what would be the first thing you'd do? Maybe fill a swimming pool full of ice cream! In ancient China, the emperor had lots of power and lots of money, making him capable of doing just about anything that he pleased. People believed that the emperor received his authority from Heaven itself, meaning that nobody questioned his actions (at least not to his face) and that everyone in China had to serve him. Almost all the emperors were men. Only one woman in all of Chinese history managed to become an empress: Wu Zetian, who helped build a massive castle called the Wild Goose Pagoda.

Wild Goose Pagoda castle.
Wild Goose Pagoda

The emperors couldn't control all of China on their own, however. They needed the help of the nobility in order to govern, collect taxes, and keep the population in line.

Noble Causes

If you were lucky enough in ancient China to be born to a rich and powerful family, you had a lot of advantages. The nobles who had the most power in China, known as the ''gong,'' enjoyed privileges because they could trace their family or ancestors to the emperor himself. Only members of the emperor's extended family could be ''gong'' lords and they received the most land, servants, and wealth. Chinese nobles had their own hierarchy: the ''gong'' sat at the very top, while the ''nan'' had the least amount of land and power. Nevertheless, being at the bottom of the lordly ladder is still better than being a commoner.

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