The Chinese Ming Dynasty Social Structure, Social Structure Of China

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Imperial China


Part of Qin Shi Huang”s terracotta army

In 221 B.C. the Qin kingdom conquered its last rival and the Qin ruler becamethe first Chinese emperor. Among Qin Shi Huang”s lasting achievements was theconsolidation of various earlier defensive walls into the Great Wall of China.He is also known for the thousands of life-sized statues—the terracottaarmy—that were buried with him. Qin Shi Huang”s darker side includedstamping out dissent by banning books and executing scholars. Qin Shi Huang”srule lasted only 12 years, but it crystallized an economic and political systemthat lasted 21 centuries.

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The Structure of Empire

The imperial system divided Chinese society into five broad classes: thenobility and the “four occupations.”In order of decreasing status, the “four occupations” included the shi (gentry), nong (farmers), gong (craftspeople), and shang(merchants). Three of the classes were viewed as central to society: the nobleswho ruled the country, the gentry who ran it, and the farmers who made it allpossible.


A farmer uses a seed drill to plant his crop. From a Chinese encyclopedia published in 1637.

The base of China”s economy was millions of farmers, who provided the food,cotton, silk, and other goods that China consumed. Much of the food they producedwent to others: landlords, local nobles, or the empire itself. Grain tributes wereespecially important: the imperial government was fueled by northern wheat andsouthern rice. Through levies, farming communities also provided goods needed bythe government—anything from bricks to tea. When that was not enough,farmers were conscripted for public projects. The best-known imperial project,the Great Wall, was famous as a place where conscripts were worked to death.

If wealth began at the bottom and flowed up, it was because power started at thetop and flowed down. The emperor himself claimed to rule by the mandate of heaven,and in theory his power was absolute. The empire covered a huge area and includedmillions of people, so direct rule was impossible. Instead each emperor relied ona system of civil servants to carry out his will. The civil servants weresupplied by the gentry, whose males had functioned as knights in pre-imperialtimes. The critical attribute of this class was its literacy, since governmentran on paperwork. Shi men were further expected to master literaryclassics that spelled out the moral and practical basis of Chinese society. Likethe nobles, the gentry did not perform manual labor, but they could pursuescholarly occupations such as painting and poetry.

The imperial system was born of military conquest, and imperial rule wasmaintained through harsh laws and punishments. Crimes could lead to the executionof the criminal”s entire family, for example. In time, this harshness wastempered by the Confucian principle that while people should obey their rulers,the rulers should work to benefit their people. The same Confucian ideal appliedto families. Male heads of households should govern wisely, other members of thehousehold should obey, and the expected result was a mutually beneficialharmony.

As part of the same social ideal, women were subordinated to men. Only one womenbecame Empress of China (Wu Zetian, 690–705). Elite women joined in powerstruggles but were forced to work behind the scenes, or at most acted as regentsfor underage emperors. Farmers” wives were supposed to stay at home and weave butgiven the realities of farm life, they often helped with the work in the fields.

As one consequence of unequal gender roles, powerful men had concubines inaddition to their wives. Emperors often had hundreds of concubines, and theempress Wu Zetian began as the concubine of two successive emperors. To ensurethat the imperial concubines” children were the emperor”s, the concubines wereserved by eunuchs—who developed a powerful bureaucracy of their own. ZhengHe, who commanded seven naval expeditions to the Indian Ocean, was a Ming dynastycourt eunuch.

China”s nobles required palaces; the gentry required elegant homes. Both requiredfine furnishings and servants. For clothing, only silk would do. The elite demandfor fine things fostered a population of craftspeople, whose creations continueto amaze us today. Despite their talents, craftspeople were not viewed as centralto society and as a class, they ranked lower than farmers.

China”s elites viewed merchants as non-essential. While some merchants becamerich, they were all viewed as having the lowest status of the “four occupations.”

Concerns with power, status, and achievement was irrelevant to the vast majorityof Chinese who lived by farming. Those men, women, and children all worked tosurvive. A folk song from difficult times laments, “This year famine, next yearflood. Grass roots, tree bark gone for food.”

The Empire and Change

For more than 2,000 years, Chinese society was much as described above. However,social life was not static. The most obvious source of change was the inherentinstability of imperial rule: so much power attracted the power-hungry. Dynasticcontinuity masked palace power struggles that often cost emperors their lives.Twice the old dynasty was swept away during internal struggles, allowing thevictors to establish a new regime. The Han did this in 206 BCE, and the Tangin 618.

Twice the empire fell apart, to be replaced by smaller, competing kingdoms. This was the case from 222 to 589 (the Six Dynasties period) and again from 907to 960 (the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period). During the turmoil, thecompeting kingdoms maintained imperial approaches to government and the Chinesesocial fabric never unraveled. At the end of each period, one kingdom wasvictorious and re-established a unified empire. The Sui Dynasty began this wayin 589, and the Song in 960.

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Twice, warriors from the north swept past the Great wall and establishedthemselves on the imperial throne. In 1279 Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis,founded the Yuan dynasty. Mongolian emperors ruled until 1368, when the Yuan dynasty was deposed by armies led by a peasant-born Buddhist monk—whothen founded the Ming dynasty. In 1644 the Ming were overthrown by a new wave ofnorthern invaders, this time from Manchuria. The invaders established the Qingdynasty, which ruled China until the end of the imperial era.

Challenges to imperial rule sometimes came from below. When the centralgovernment weakened, local nobles could increase their own power. When orderand prosperity slipped, banditry and piracy flourished. At times, farmers” livesbecame so desperate that they risked the little they had and rose against theirrulers. While the imperial system survived these challenges again and again,Chinese history includes a long list of internal wars.

Religion was also a source of social tension. Taoism and then Buddhism providedalternatives to Confucianism. When the Chinese extended their empire westward,they absorbed Muslim populations. Other religions, including Christianity, gainedChinese converts.

Many changes were more positive. Paper was invented in China and spread fromthere to the Muslim world and then to Europe. The Chinese also inventedporcelain, a feat the West was unable to duplicate for centuries. The Chineseadvanced the making of steel, including by inventing the blast furnace. Twoother Chinese inventions, the compass and gunpowder, became critical toEuropean expansion.


Smelting iron ore. The blast furnace is on the right. From a Chinese encyclopedia published in 1637.

A national system of canals and roads, with official way stations and couriers,made it easer to move grain and other tributes, armies, imperial officials, andstate documents around the country. The unintended beneficiaries of thetransportation system were the merchants, who could reach more distant markets.Local markets increasingly became nodes in larger systems of commerce.

The merchants also benefited from the development of a monetary system. Coinagebegan before the imperial era, but was now standardized. Chinese imperial coinshad holes that allowed them to be strung on cords. By the Tang dynasty, merchantsbegan circulating paper receipts to avoid transporting the heavy loops of coins,and in the Song dynasty such receipts were transformed into the world”s firstgovernment-backed paper money. Merchants created their own medium of exchange:small ingots of silver and gold. Known as sycees, the ingots continued in useuntil the early 1900s. In the Ming dynasty the government both recognized andintensified the emergence of a money-based economy by taking taxes in the formof silver rather than grain and other goods.

As part of the country”s economic growth, merchants also establishedinternational trade routes, by land (via the Silk Road) and by sea. By the finalcenturies of the empire the merchant class had become highly successful. Unlikecountries in the West, the central government never worked its merchantsinto its system of governance, and thus never co-opted their connections andabilities.By the Ming dynasty, however, local officials often were more pragmatic aboutthe supposedly lowly merchants. Faced with the need to maintain public projects,the officials turned to the merchants for donations. In turn, the merchantscultivated the local officials, gaining prestige and smoothing the way for theirown activities. In hindsight, China”s mercantile class was essential to theempire”s economic health, contradicting the merchants” supposed low socialstatus.

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The empire had little control over the greatest change it faced: the rise of aglobal economy dominated by Western nations. For much of the empire”s historythe Chinese had rightly regarded themselves as the world”s most successful civilization, but from the 1500s onward China was in a game increasinglycontrolled by others. In a sense, the imperial system had worked too well; theWesterners” drive to innovate and conquest was fueled by a wish for wealth andsplendor, but China”s leaders had those already, and had nothing to gainpersonally by changing the country. Outside countries pried open China tobenefit their commerce, mostly through a series of humiliating military campaigns.Outside ideas came in as well, presenting alternatives to imperial rule. In 1911a revolution overthrew the Qing dynasty, ending the empire established in 221 B.C.

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