Social and Domestic Life in Ancient China
With so many advances in Ancient China, one might think social life in would be quite rewarding. Imagine yourself back in Ancient China around the Shang period, living near the Yellow River, or Yangtze, as they call it. You may go to the library, which would consist of over 30,000 tablets. If you didn't have a busy day you could take out your pottery wheel and whip up anything you set your mind to do.
The Eastern Zhou period also witnessed various social and economic advances. The use of iron-tipped, ox-drawn plows and improved irrigation techniques produced higher agricultural yields. This in turn supported a steady population increase. Other economic advances included the circulation of coins for money, the beginning of private ownership of land, and the growth of cities. Military technology also advanced. The Zhou developed the crossbow and methods of siege warfare, and adopted cavalry warfare from nomads (wandering pastoral people) to the north. Social changes were just as important, particularly the breakdown of old class barriers and the development of conscripted infantry armies.
The Silk Road, from its birth before Christ, through the heights of the Tang dynasty, has had a unique role not only in foreign trade and political relations, stretching far beyond the bounds of Asia itself. It has left its mark on not only the development of Ancient Chinese social life but transformed civilizations on both sides of the continent.
Early Chinese Literati Promoted Social Advances
The Shu jing (Book of History), one of the earliest transmitted texts, describes the Zhou's version of their history. It assumes a close relationship between Heaven and the king, called the Son of Heaven, explaining that Heaven gives the king a mandate to rule only as long as he does so in the interest of the people.
The Shi jing (Book of Poetry) offers another glimpse of life in early Zhou China. Its 305 poems include odes celebrating the exploits of the early Zhou rulers, hymns for sacrificial ceremonies, and folk songs. The folk songs are about ordinary people in everyday situations, such as working in fields, spinning and weaving, marching on campaigns, and longing for lovers.
In these books, the culture is described as people honoring family relationships and stressing social status distinctions. The early Zhou rulers did not attempt to exercise direct control over the entire region they conquered. Instead, they secured their position by selecting loyal supporters and relatives to rule walled towns and the surrounding territories. Each of these local rulers, or vassals, was generally able to pass his position on to a son, so that in time the domain became a hereditary vassal state. Within each state, there were noble houses holding hereditary titles. The rulers of the states and the members of the nobility were linked both to one another and to their ancestors by bonds of obligation based on kinship. Below the nobility were the officers (shi) and the peasants, both of which were also hereditary statuses. The relationship between each level and its superiors was conceived as a moral one. Peasants served their superiors, and their superiors looked after the peasants' welfare. Social interaction at the upper levels was governed by li, a set of complex rules of social etiquette and personal conduct. Those who practiced li were considered civilized; those who did not, such as those outside the Zhou realm, were considered barbarians.
The Chinese Mindset to Social and Domestic Harmony
Looking at the 5,000-year history of Chinese culture, harmony is emphasized not only philosophically but as a social and familial tenet. Thousands of years ago, Chinese carved the character "He", which means harmony and peace, on tortoise shells, and philosopher Confucius (551 B.C. to 479 B.C.) expounded the philosophical concept of "harmony without uniformity," meaning a world is full of differences and contradictions, but the righteous should balance them and achieve harmony.
Italian missionary Matteo Ricci, who came to China in the sixteenth century, wrote in comparing the Chinese and the Europeans that the Chinese were contented with the status quo and cherished harmony and peace.
In contrast, the Ancient Chinese cultural mindset carries its own set of attitudes, values, thinking, and habits determining how people think, perform, communicate, interpret information, and react to given situations, and so on. This mindset is of course a product of the culture in which one grows up and is cultivated, and in turn it also plays an impact back to the culture either as reinforcement or reform. The Chinese cultural mindset also means it can be divided into different layers of concepts, outlook, values and judgment.
Ancient Chinese society was divided into two distinct classes, the upper and the lower class. Within each class, there was also a hierarchy of social status. Below, briefly describe the members of each of these classes:
The Upper Class - The Emperor and his family were at the top of the social pyramid. Government officials were next and could come from any social class as long as they passed 3 amazingly hard tests. Lots of times, there were limited posts for government officials, so many who qualified but did not get a post were made into scholars. Scholars were never very rich, but were respected because of their knowledge. Next were the gentry, who didn't exactly have a lot of knowledge, but were businesspeople, who rented out parts of their vast amount of land that they owned to poorer people, like peasants. The gentry also mostly had their own militia, to defend themselves. This gave them enough power to become warlords.
The Lower Class - Soldiers were considered lower class because they were only sent out to fight and most likely die. Only the generals earned respect. Merchants were looked down on, mainly because they sold things that other people had made. Although they were a big part of China's economic growth, they were considered thieves. Scientists had helped the society with their 'inventions' such as gunpowder, paper etc. The reason why scientists were not considered of the Upper Class was because they did not prove themselves from taking any test or anything. They just fooled around with tools and objects and eventually something "magical" happened, thanks to happy accidents, and they had an invention. The peasants had small families and lived in mud-brick houses. They owned very little land, usually rented the gentry's land, and were generally living in poverty. Even if they worked very hard, they stayed as peasants because of high taxes.
Hierarchy of Social Status: Four Occupations
The four occupations or "four categories of the people" was a hierarchic social class structure developed in ancient China by either Confucian or Legalist scholars as far back as the late Zhou Dynasty and is considered a central part of the Fengjian social structure (c. 1046-256 BCE). In descending order, these were the shi (gentry scholars), the nong (peasant farmers), the gong (artisans and craftsmen), and the shang (merchants and traders). These broad categories were more an idealization than a practical reality. This was due to commercialization of Chinese society in the Song and Ming periods, blurring the lines between these four hierarchic social distinctions. The system also did not figure in all other social groups present in premodern Chinese society. The definition of the identity of the shi class changed over time as well, from an ancient warrior caste, to an aristocratic scholarly elite, and finally to a bureaucratic scholarly elite with less emphasis on archaic noble lineage. There was also a gradual fusion of the wealthy merchant and landholding gentry classes, culminating in the late Ming Dynasty.
Scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants; each of the four peoples had their respective profession. Those who studied in order to occupy positions of rank were called the shi (scholars). Those who cultivated the soil and propagated grains were called nong (farmers). Those who manifested skill (qiao) and made utensils were called gong (artisans). Those who transported valuable articles and sold commodities were called shang (merchants).
The Shi - During the ancient Shang and Zhou dynasties, the shi were regarded as a knightly social order of low-level aristocratic lineage compared to dukes and marquises. This social class was distinguished by their right to ride in chariots and command battles from mobile chariots, while they also served civil functions. They were also distinguished by the weaponry they used, the double-edged sword, or jian. The type of clothing worn by the shi class also distinguished them from others; the shi wore long flowing silken robes, while all other men wore trousers. As chariot warfare became eclipsed by mounted cavalry and infantry units with effective crossbowmen in the Warring States Period (403-221 BCE), the participation of the shi in battle dwindled as rulers sought men with actual military training, not just aristocratic background. This was also a period where philosophical schools flourished in China, while intellectual pursuits became highly valued amongst statesmen. Thus, the shi eventually became renowned not for their warrior's skills, but for their scholarship, abilities in administration, and sound ethics and morality supported by competing philosophical schools.
Under Duke Xiao of Qin and the chief minister and reformer Shang Yang (d. 338 BCE), the ancient State of Qin was transformed by a new meritocratic yet harsh philosophy of Legalism. This philosophy stressed stern punishments for those who disobeyed the publicly-known laws while rewarding those who labored for the state and strove diligently to obey the laws. It was a means to diminish the power of the nobility, and was another force behind the transformation of the shi class from warrior-aristocrats into merit-driven officials. The Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) unified China under the Legalist system, but became infamous for its oppressive measures, and so collapsed into a state of civil war.
The victor of this war was Liu Bang, who initiated four centuries of unification of China proper under the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). One of his later successors was Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE), who not only cemented the ideology of Confucius into mainstream Chinese thought, governance, and social order, but also installed a system of recommendation and nomination in government service known as xiaolian. After the Han period, this system was replaced by the nine-rank system, a similar means of recruiting officials through recommendation. Both systems favored the wealthy, those of noble background, and the well-connected. It was not until the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE) that a new beginning of change in the shi class would present itself by means of the civil service examination system.
The civil service recruitment system during the subsequent Tang Dynasty (618-907) followed the Sui model of partial recruitment of those who passed standard exams and earned an official degree. Yet recruitment by recommendations to office was still prominent in both dynasties. It was not until the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that the recruitment of those who passed the exams and earned degrees was given greater emphasis and significantly expanded. The shi class also became less aristocratic and more bureaucratic due to the highly competitive nature of the exams during the Song period. From the 11th to 13th centuries, the number of exam candidates participating in taking the exams increased dramatically from merely 30,000 to 400,000 by the dynasty's end. Widespread printing through woodblock and movable type enhanced the spread of knowledge amongst the literate in society, enabling more people to become candidates and competitors vying for a prestigious degree. With a dramatically expanding population matching a growing amount of gentry, scholar-officials needed the gentry to perform local services such as funding public works, prefectural and county schools, or aiding in tax collection.
The Nong - Since Neolithic times in China, agriculture has a key element to the rise of China's civilization and every other civilization. The food that farmers produced sustained the whole of society, while the land tax exacted on farmers' lots and landholders' property produced much of the state revenue for China's pre-modern ruling dynasties. Therefore, the farmer was a valuable member of society, and even though he was not considered one with the shi class, the families of the shi were still landholders that often produced crops and foodstuffs. Although soldiers were not highly respected members of society, soldiers traditionally came from farming families, while some were simply debtors who fled their land (whether owned or rented) to escape lawsuits by creditors or imprisonment for failing to pay taxes. Soldiers along China's frontiers were also encouraged by the state to settle down on their own farm lots in order for the food supply of the military to become self-sufficient. Farmers were also encouraged to join peasant militias to act as supporting units to the official standing army.
By the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the socioeconomic class of farmers grew more and more indistinct from another social class in the four occupations: the artisan. Artisans began working on farms in peak periods and farmers often traveled into the city to find work during times of dearth. The distinction between what was town and country was blurred in Ming China, since suburban areas with farms were located just outside and in some cases within the walls of a city.
The Gong - Artisans and craftsmen of their class identified with the Chinese character meaning labor, were much like farmers in the respect that they produced essential goods needed by themselves and the rest of society. Although they could not provide the state with much of its revenues since they often had no land of their own to be taxed, artisans and craftsmen were still given a higher place than merchants. Since ancient times, the skilled work of artisans and craftsmen was handed down orally from father to son, although the work of architects and structural builders were sometimes codified, illustrated, and categorized in Chinese written works. One example of this would be the Yingzao Fashi printed in 1103, an architectural building manual written by an official put in charge of government agencies for construction. Artisans and craftsmen were either government-employed or worked privately. A successful and highly skilled artisan could often gain enough capital in order to hire others as apprentices or additional laborers that could be overseen by the chief artisan as a manager. Hence, artisans could create their own small enterprises in selling their work and that of others, and like the merchants, they formed their own guilds.
The Shang - The merchants, traders, and peddlers of goods were viewed by the scholarly elite as essential members of society, yet were placed on the lowest of the four grades in the official Chinese social hierarchy. The scholars' attitudes towards commerce and business were almost universally apparent in their writings which denounced the merchant class as greedy and lacking moral character. It was also unacceptable for scholar-officials to engage in personal profiteering outside their official salary, even though by the Song period they were using intermediary agents to handle their anonymous business affairs for them. Merchants were seen as somewhat parasitic to the needs of all other groups in society, since it was acknowledged that they used the goods that others produced and made their own profits from them. In essence, they were seen as business savvy, but not morally cultivated enough to be leading members of society or highly venerated representatives of Chinese culture.
Despite this disdain for the merchants, by the mid Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), many families who produced scholar-officials had members who were merchants or had a merchant as a descendant of some kind. Even more significant was the fact that scholar-officials who had familial ties with merchants from the past or in the present became unabashed about these ties and made it publicly known in the writing of their official family histories. During the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, scholar-officials could derive enough of their own revenues to fund vital public works. By the late Ming Dynasty, they often needed to solicit funds from powerful merchants to build new roads, schools, bridges, pagodas, or engage in essential industries, such as book-making, which aided the gentry class in education for the imperial examinations. Merchants began to imitate the highly cultivated nature and manners of scholar-officials in order to appear more cultured and gain higher prestige and acceptance by the scholarly elite. They even purchased printed books that served as guides to proper conduct and behavior and which promoted merchant morality and business ethics.
The renowned Emperor Taizong of Tang (r. 626-649 CE); the emperor represented the pinnacle of traditional Chinese society, and was above that of the scholar-official. There were many social groups that were precariously excluded from the four broad categories in the social hierarchy. These included soldiers and guards, religious clergy and diviners, eunuchs and concubines, entertainers and courtiers, domestic servants and slaves, prostitutes, and low class laborers other than farmers and artisans. The emperor - embodying a heavenly mandate to judicial and executive authority - was on a social and legal tier above the gentry and the exam-drafted scholar-officials. Although his royal family and noble extended family were also highly respected, they did not command the same level of authority.
There were motives behind the aristocratic officials and later scholar-officials' classifying of certain groups in the hierarchy and leaving others out. The scholar-officials placed farmers as the second most prestigious group because the aristocratic officials and scholar-officials were landholders themselves, much like farmers (the ones who weren't tenant farmers or serfs). Both farmers and artisans were placed on a higher tier than merchants because the two former groups produced crops and manufactured goods, essential things needed by the whole of society. The merchants were seen as merely talented at business and trading, and were often seen as greedy and even parasitic to the needs of all other groups.
The social category of the soldier was left out of the social hierarchy due to the gentry scholars' embracing of intellectual cultivation (wen) and detest for violence (wu). The scholars did not want to legitimize those whose professions centered chiefly around violence, so to leave them out of the social hierarchy altogether was a means to keep them in an unrecognized and undistinguished social tier. Entertainers and courtiers were often dependents upon the wealthy or were associated with the often-perceived immoral pleasure grounds of urban entertainment districts. To give them official recognition would have given them more prestige. Although shamans and diviners in Bronze Age China had some authority as religious leaders in society, the scholars did not want religious leaders amassing too much power and influence like military strongmen (one example of this would be Zhang Jiao, who led a Taoist sect into open rebellion against the Han government's authority). There were also multiple persecutions of Buddhism in China, a lot of the contention being over Buddhist monasteries' exemption from government taxation, but also because later Neo-Confucian scholars saw Buddhism as an alien ideology and threat to the moral order of society. The court eunuchs were also viewed with some suspicion by the scholar-officials, since there were several instances in Chinese history where influential eunuchs came to dominate the emperor, his imperial court, and the whole of the central government.
Domestic Structure and Hierarchy
Of the five relationships in Confucianism, three were determined by kinship and family ties. Traditionally, ancient China was family centered, not oriented toward God or the State, thus promoting filial piety to enhance family life and society.
Being born a boy in ancient China meant you were lucky. Boys, especially if they were the eldest, became head of the household, and his siblings then brought their families to live with him. Boys were considered as superior to girls, and, as head of the household, they were expected to keep up religious sacrifices to their family ancestors. A boy was expected to marry as soon as he was of age. A wealthy man also had many 'minor' wives, called concubines.
Girls didn't have very nice lives, as wherever they went they had to obey all males. They first had to obey their father, then their husband, and finally their eldest son. Women had practically no power back then; they weren't allowed to own any property, and when they became old the only power they had was being able to boss their daughter-in-law around.
The main household rule was that children should obey their parents at all times, even if you were a boy. At an early age, children had to swear to care for their parents if they got sick and in old age. Poor families, if they were desperate, had to sometimes sell their daughters to be servants or slaves to the rich.
The names of the Chinese underscore reflected the importance of their family. The last name was always written first, and the first name last, and this is still the custom today. Sometimes, during festivals, a family got together and relaxed for a while- quite the opposite to the normal strict routines of home. Fathers, during this relaxed time, might stay with their wives and children or go to an ancestor's grave to pay their respects. For more information on the traditional Chinese household go to Family Life.