While the concepts of hereditary sovereign and peerage titles and noble families were featured as early as the semi-mythical, early historical period, a settled system of nobility was established from the Zhou dynasty. In the subsequent millennia, this system was largely maintained in form, with some changes and additions, although the content constantly evolved. The last, well-developed system of noble titles was established under the Qing dynasty. The AD-1911 republican Xinhai Revolution saw the dissolution of the official imperial system although the new Republic of China government maintained noble titles like the Duke Yansheng. Though some noble families maintained their titles and dignity for a time, new political and economic circumstances forced their decline. Today, the nobility as a class is almost entirely dissipated in China, and only a very few maintain any pretense or claim to noble titles, which are almost universally unrecognized. Elevation and degradation of rank might occur posthumously, and posthumous elevation was sometimes a consideration; Guan Yu, was styled, during his lifetime, Marquis of Han Zhou (漢壽亭侯) in the Han dynasty then posthumously in the later Song dynasty elevated to Duke Zhonghui (忠惠公) then in the Yuan dynasty Prince of Xianling Yiyong Wu'an Yingji (顯靈義勇武安英濟王) then in the Ming dynasty both beatified and royalized as Saintly Emperor Guan the Great God Who Subdues Demons of the Three Worlds and Whose Awe Spreads Far and Moves Heaven (三界伏魔大神威遠震天尊關聖帝君) and in popular culture deified as a God of Prosperity, Commerce, War, and Police.
- 1 Sovereign and ruling family ranks
- 2 Enfeoffing members of Overthrown Dynasties
- 3 Pre-imperial aristocracy
- 4 After Zhou dynasty
- 4.1 Qin and Han dynasty
- 4.2 Between Han and Sui
- 4.3 Sui dynasty and Tang dynasty
- 4.4 After Tang dynasty
- 4.5 List of people granted peerage by Yuan Shikai as self-proclaimed emperor (1915-1916)
- 4.5.1 Prince of the First Rank Wuyi (武義親王 Wǔyì qīn wáng)
- 4.5.2 Dukes of the First Rank (一等公 Yī děng gōng)
- 4.5.3 Marquesses of the First Rank (一等侯 Yī děng hóu)
- 4.5.4 Counts of the First Rank (一等伯 Yī děng bó)
- 4.5.5 Viscounts of the First Rank (一等子 Yī děng zǐ)
- 4.5.6 Barons of the First Rank (一等男 Yī děng nán)
- 4.5.7 Baron of the Third Rank (三等男 Sān děng nán)
- 4.6 Modern Chinese styles for foreign monarchs
- 5 Other historical Chinese titles
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Sovereign and ruling family ranks
The apex of the nobility is the sovereign. The title of the sovereign has changed over time, together with the connotations of the respective titles. In Chinese history are generally 3 levels of supreme and fully independent sovereignty or high, significantly autonomous sovereignty above the next lower category of ranks, the aristocracy who usually recognized the overlordship of a higher sovereign or ruled a semi-independent, tributary, or independent realm of self-recognized insufficient importance in size, power, or influence to claim a sovereign title, such as a Duchy which in Western terms would be called a Duchy, Principality, or some level of Chiefdom.
As a title of nobility, Ba Wang, hegemon, recognized overlordship of several subordinate kings while refraining from claiming the title of emperor within the imperium of the Chinese subcontinent, such as its borders were considered from era to era. Sovereigns holding the title of king of an individual state within and without the shifting borders of the Chinese imperium might be fully independent heads of foreign nations, such as the King of Korea who might, in some cases, be subordinate to foreign emperors just as territorial or tribal sovereign Mongol khans might be subject to one of several Khagans or Great khans. Confusingly, some Chinese emperors styled many or all close male relatives of certain kinds such as brothers, uncles, or nephews as wang, a term for king, using it as a courtesy title. However, Chinese histories since ancient works such as Shiji were also fairly liberal in terming local tribal chiefs as "king" of a particular territory ranging from vast to tiny, using convenient terms of the form "(locality)" + "(king)" such as Changshawang, "King of Changsha" which was briefly recognized as a kingdom but was usually a smaller part of Chu state or just a county of the Sui dynasty state, or phrases such as Yiwang, "Yi (Eastern) Foreign ('barbarian') king(s)," while in other cases or by other authors other terms such as [tusi], "native chief" might be used for the same office. The downward extensibility of terms for "king" in more casual usage also influences other allusive uses of these terms. In modern colloquial Chinese the term "king" is sometimes also used, roughly as loosely as in English, for such non-literal terms as mien da wang, "great king of noodles" for a pasta-lover, where an English-speaker might use such terms as [King of the Road].
Family members of individual sovereigns were also born to titles or granted specific titles by the sovereign, largely according to family tree proximity, including blood relatives and in-laws and adoptees of predecessors and older generations of the sovereign. Frequently, the parents of a new dynasty-founding sovereign would become elevated with sovereign or ruling family ranks, even if this was already a posthumous act at the time of the dynasty-founding sovereign's accession.
Titles translated in English as "prince" and "princess" were generally immediate or recent descendants of sovereigns, with increasing distance at birth from an ancestral sovereign in succeeding generations resulting in degradations of the particular grade of prince or princess and finally degradation of posterity's ranks as a whole below that of prince and princess. Sovereigns of smaller states are typically styled with lesser titles of aristocracy such as Duke of a Duchy or Marquis rather than as hereditary sovereign Princes who do not ascend to kingship as in the European case of the Principality of Monaco, and dynasties which gained or lost significant territory might change the titles of successive rulers from sovereign to aristocratic titles or vice versa, either by self-designation of the ruler or through imposed entitlement from a conquering state. For example, when Shu (state)'s kings were conquered by Qin (state), its Kaiming rulers became Marquises such as Marquis Hui of Shu who attempted a rebellion against Qin overlords in 301 BC.
Imperium (emperor and ennobled family)
Although formally Tianzi, "The Son of Heaven," the power of the Chinese emperor varied between different emperors and different dynasties, with some emperors being absolute rulers and others being figureheads with actual power in the hands of court factions, eunuchs, the bureaucracy or noble families.
- In the earliest, semi-mythical age, the sovereign was titled either huang (Chinese: 皇 huáng) or di (Chinese: 帝 dì). Together, these rulers were called the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. For the lists of the earliest, mythological rulers, both titles are conventionally translated in English as "Sovereigns" though individual rulers entitled either huang or di from this period are translated in English with the title "Emperor" as these early mythological histories aim to feature the sovereigns of the evolving polity of the Chinese state, tracking those states which can best be claimed in a roughly continuous chain of imperial primacy interspersed with several periods of disunity such as the Spring and Autumn Period, the Warring States Period, the Three Kingdoms Period, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, the republican Chinese Civil War and so on.
- The sovereigns during the Xia dynasty and Shang dynasty called themselves Di (Chinese: 帝 dì); rulers of these dynasties are conventionally translated with the title "king" and sometimes "emperor" in English even though the same term used in the mythologically previous dynasties is conventionally translated with the title "emperor" in English.
- The sovereign during the Zhou dynasty called themselves Wang (Chinese: 王 or 國王; wáng), before the Qin dynasty innovated the new term huangdi which would become the new standard term for "emperor." The title "Wang" should not be confused with the common surname, which, at least by middle and later Chinese historical usage, has no definite royal implications. Rulers of these dynasties are conventionally translated with the title "king" and sometimes "emperor" in English.
- Emperor or Huangdi (皇帝, pinyin: huáng dì) was the title of the Chinese head of state of China from the Qin dynasty in 221 BC until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. The first emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang) combined the two characters huang (皇 "august, magnificent") and di (帝 "God, Royal Ancestor") from the mythological tradition and the Xia and Shang dynasties to form the new, grander title "Huangdi". Since the Han dynasty, Huangdi began to be abbreviated to huang or di.
The title of emperor was usually transmitted from father to son. Most often, the first-born son of the empress inherited the office, failing which the post was taken up by the first-born son of a concubine or consort of lower rank, but this rule was not universal and disputed succession was the cause of a number of civil wars. Unlike the case of Japan, the emperor's regime in traditional Chinese political theory allowed for a change in dynasty, and an emperor could be replaced by a rebel leader. This was because a successful rebel leader was believed to enjoy the Mandate of Heaven, while the deposed or defeated emperor had lost favour with the gods, and his mandate was over, a fact made apparent to all by his defeat.
Empress, consort, concubine and other imperial spouses
It was generally not accepted for a female to succeed to the throne as a sovereign regnant in her own right, rather than playing the role of a sovereign's consort or regent for a sovereign who was still a minor in age, so that in history of China there has only been one reigning empress, the Empress Wu, whose reign punctuated the Tang dynasty. However, there have been numerous cases in Chinese history where a woman was the actual power behind the imperial throne (see éminence grise).
Hou, Empress, actually Empress Consort in English terms, was a title granted to an official primary spouse of the polygamous male Chinese Emperor, and for the mother of the Emperor, typically elevated to this rank of Empress Dowager, bearing a senior title such as Tai Hou, Grand Empress, regardless of which spousal ranking she bore prior to the emperor's accession. In practice, many Chinese Empress Dowagers, either as official regent for a sovereign who was still a minor in age or from the influence of position within family social ranks, wielded great power or is historically considered to have been the effective wielder of supreme power in China, as in the case of Empress Dowager Cixi, Regent of China considered de facto sovereign of China for 47 years during AD 1861-1908.
Imperial Madams, ranking below Empress, aren't often distinguished in English from imperial Concubines, the next lower rank, but these were also titles of significance within the imperial household, and Imperial Madams might be translated as Consorts with the intention of distinguishing them from Empresses though all Empresses except the sole case of one Empress Regnant in Chinese history are technically Empress Consorts in English terms, primacy spouses of the Emperor Regnant who is actually invested with governmental rule.
Zhou li, the Rites of Zhou, states that Emperors are entitled to the following simultaneous spouses:
- 1 Empress (皇后)
- 3 Madames or Consorts (夫人)
- 9 Imperial Concubines (嬪)
- 27 Shifus (世婦)
- 81 Imperial Wives (御妻)
Hegemony (hegemons and ennobled family)
Sovereigns styled Ba Wang, hegemon, asserted official overlordship of several subordinate kings while refraining from claiming the title of emperor within the imperium of the Chinese subcontinent, such as its borders were considered from era to era, as in the case of Xiang Yu who styled himself Xīchǔ Bàwáng, Western Chu Hegemon, appointing subordinate generals from his campaigns of conquest, including defeated ones, as Wang, kings of states within his hegemony.
Royalty (kings and ennobled family)
As noted above in the section discussing Emperors, the sovereigns during the Xia dynasty and Shang dynasty who called themselves Di (Chinese: 帝 dì)and during the Zhou dynasty who called themselves Wang (Chinese: 王 or 國王; wáng), was the title of the Chinese head of state until the Qin dynasty. The title "Wang" should not be confused with the common surname, which, at least by middle and later Chinese historical usage, has no definite royal implications. Rulers of these dynasties are conventionally translated with the title "king" and sometimes "emperor" in English.
Enfeoffing members of Overthrown Dynasties
It was a custom in China for the new dynasty to ennoble and enfeoff a member of the dynasty which they overthrew with a title of nobility and a fief of land so that they could offer sacrifices to their ancestors, in addition to members of other preceding dynasties. This practice was referred to as 二王三恪.
When the Xia dynasty was overthrown by the Shang dynasty, Xia descendants were given a title and fiefs by the Shang King in the Qi (Henan), and Zeng (state). (The Kings of Yue (state) claimed to be a cadet branch of the Xia).
When the Shang dynasty was overthrown by the Zhou dynasty, the Zhou King granted a Shang descendant the title of Duke and fief in the Song (state), and the Zhou King also reconfirmed the titles of the Xia descendants in the Qi and Zeng. Confucius was a descendant of the Shang Kings via the Song Dukes and Confucius' descendants held the hereditary title Duke Yansheng right to 1935.
When the Han dynasty Emperor Xian of Han was dethroned by the Cao Wei Emperor Cao Pi, Cao granted Emperor Xian the title Duke of Shanyang (山陽公). His grandson Liu Kang (劉康) inherited his dukedom, which lasted for 75 more years and two more dukes, Liu Jin (劉瑾) and Liu Qiu (劉秋), until the line was exterminated by invading Xiongnu tribes in about 309, during the Jin dynasty.
The Emperors of Shu Han came from a cadet branch of the Han dynasty. When the Shu Han Emperor Liu Shan was defeated by Cao Wei, the Cao Wei enfeoffed Liu Shan as the "Duke of Anle" (安樂公; literally meaning "duke of peace and comfort") while his sons and grandsons became marquises. Liu Shan died in 271 in Luoyang, and was given the posthumous name "Duke Si of Anle" (安樂思公; literally "the deep-thinking duke of Anle"). His dukedom lasted several generations during Wei's successor state, the Jin Dynasty, before being extinguished in the turmoils caused by the Wu Hu.
When the Eastern Wu was defeated by the Jin Dynasty, the Jin Emperor granted the Eastern Wu Emperor Sun Hao the title of "Marquis of Guiming". Sun Hao's sons were made junior officials in the Jin government.
When the Jin Dynasty Emperor Gong of Jin was overthrown by the Liu Song Emperor Wu of Liu Song, Emperor Wu enfeoffed Emperor Gong as Prince of Lingling. However Emperor Gong was ordered killed. Sima Guang was a Jin Imperial family descendant who became a chancellor in the Song dynasty hundreds of years after the fall of the Jin.
The Xianbei Tuoba royal family of Northern Wei started to arrange for Han Chinese elites to marry daughters of the royal family in the 480s. Some Han Chinese exiled royalty fled from southern China and defected to the Xianbei. Several daughters of the Xianbei Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei were married to Han Chinese elites, the Han Chinese Liu Song royal Liu Hui 刘辉, married Princess Lanling 蘭陵公主 of the Northern Wei, Princess Huayang 華陽公主 to Sima Fei 司馬朏, a descendant of Jin dynasty (265–420) royalty, Princess Jinan 濟南公主 to Lu Daoqian 盧道虔, Princess Nanyang 南阳长公主 to Xiao Baoyin 萧宝夤, a member of Southern Qi royalty. Emperor Xiaozhuang of Northern Wei's sister the Shouyang Princess was wedded to The Liang dynasty ruler Emperor Wu of Liang's son Xiao Zong 蕭綜.
When the Eastern Jin dynasty ended Northern Wei received the Jin prince Sima Chuzhi 司馬楚之 as a refugee. A Northern Wei Princess married Sima Chuzhi, giving birth to Sima Jinlong 司馬金龍. Northern Liang King Juqu Mujian's daughter married Sima Jinlong.
When the Northern Zhou Emperor Jing of Northern Zhou was overthrown by the Sui dynasty Emperor Wen of Sui, Emperor Wen enfeoffed Emperor Jing as Duke of Jie. However, he had all of close male clansmen of the duke—all grandsons of Emperor Jing's great-grandfather Yuwen Tai—put to death, as well as Emperor Jing's brothers Yuwen Kan (宇文衎) the Duke of Lai and Yuwen Shu (宇文術) the Duke of Yan. About three months later, Emperor Wen had the Duke of Jie secretly assassinated as well, but pretended to be shocked and declared a mourning period, and then buried him with honors due an emperor. The dukedom was passed to a distant relative, Yuwen Luo (宇文洛).
When the Western Liang (Southern and Northern Dynasties) (西梁) Emperor Jing of Western Liang was overthrown by the Sui dynasty Emperor Wen of Sui, Emperor Wen enfeoffed Emperor Jing as Duke of Ju (莒公) and then as Duke of Liang (梁公). His nephew Xiao Ju (蕭鉅) inherited the title of Duke of Liang.
The Tang dynasty Emperors claimed descent from the Dukes of Western Liang (Sixteen Kingdoms) (西涼) and posthumously gave them Imperial titles.
When the Wuyue King Qian Chu surrendered to the Song dynasty the Song Emperor Taizong of Song raised the prefecture of Yangzhou to the nominal state of Huaihai, and installed Qian Chu as King of Huaihai. In 984, Qian Chu was made King of Hannan (a smaller nominal feoff) instead, and in 987 reduced again to King of Hanyang, with the right to take up residence in Hanyang, but then immediately additionally created Prince of Xu, with an enlarged fief. In 988, Qian Chu lost his title as king and was made Prince of Deng instead, with a larger nominal fief and actual income.
When the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) defeated the Liao dynasty and Northern Song Dynasty Emperor Tianzuo of Liao and Emperor Qinzong of Song were first enfeoffed with derogatory titles by the Jin, with Emperor Tianzuo becoming the Prince of Haibin 海滨王 ("Seashore Prince") and Emperor Qinzong becoming the Marquess of Chonghun (重昏, "Doubly muddled"); his father received a similarly derogatary-sounding title. In 1141, as the Jin relations with the Southern Song were about to normalized, Qinzong's captors granted him a neutrally-sounding title of the Duke (公, gong) of Tianshui Jun, after a commandery in the upper reaches of the Wei River (now in Gansu), while his father (who had died in 1135) was posthumously styled the Prince of Tianshui Jun; a few months later he started receiving a stipend due to his rank. Liao royal family members who stayed in the Jin state like Yelu Lu and his son Yelü Chucai served the Jin and then the Yuan dynasty as officials. Other members of the Khitan Liao royal family like Yelü Dashi and Song Imperial family like Emperor Gaozong of Song both survived to rule the Kara-Khitan Khanate and Southern Song dynasty respectively.
When the Kingdom of Dali was conquered by the Yuan dynasty, King Duan Xingzhi of Dali was then enfeoffed as Maharaja by the Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan. The Southern Song dynasty Emperor Gong of Song was enfeoffed as the Duke of Ying (瀛國公) by Kublai Khan, however, the Emperor Yingzong of Yuan ordered him to commit suicide. The Song Prince Zhao Yurui was enfeoffed with the title Duke of Pingyuan Canton (平原郡公) by Emperor Kublai Khan. Other Song Imperial family members like Zhao Mengfu and Zhao Yong were left alive by the Yuan. Zhao Yiguang was a Song Imperial family descendant who was a writer during the Ming dynasty.
When the Ming dynasty fell and the Qing dynasty took over, the Qing Emperors granted a Ming descendant the title Marquis of Extended Grace and gave him a stipend to perform sacrifices to his ancestors, the Ming Emperors at the Ming Imperial Tombs. The Qing granted Zheng Keshuang of the Kingdom of Tungning the title of "Duke of Haicheng" (海澄公) after he surrendered to the Qing.
When the Northern Yuan Chahar Borjigin Mongol Khan Ejei Khan surrendered to the Qing, he was given the title of Prince of the first rank (Qin Wang, 親王), a title he held until his death in 1661, and inherited by his younger brother Abunai (阿布奈). Abunai openly showed his discontent toward the Manchu and he was put under house arrest in Shenyang by the Kangxi Emperor in 1669 and his imperial title / rank was given to his son Borni (布尔尼) in September of that same year. Borni (布尔尼) was careful to not show any sign of disrespecting the Qing Dynasty, but finally in 1675, he suddenly rebelled along with his younger brother Lubuzung (罗布藏), capitalizing on the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. However, they had made a serious miscalculation in wrongfully believing that other Mongols would join them, when in reality only three thousand Chahar (Mongols) joined the rebellion. It only took a single decisive battle on April 20, 1675 to defeat Abunai (阿布奈) and his followers, who were all killed subsequently in their retreat. The Qing Dynasty's punishment of the rebellion was very harsh: all royal males of Chahar (Mongols) were executed, including infants born to Qing / Manchu princesses, and all royal females of Chahar (Mongols) were sold to slavery except these Qing / Manchu princesses.
The Republic of China allowed the last Qing Emperor to stay in the Forbidden City and keep his title, treating him as a foreign monarch until 1924. The descendants of Confucius were maintained in the title of Duke Yansheng until 1935 when the title was changed to Sacrificial Official to Confucius (大成至聖先師奉祀官), which remains as a position to this day, currently held by Kung Tsui-chang.
The Zhou dynasty not only preceded the full unification of early China under the Qin dynasty, the first empire whose realm would subsequently be considered to extend broadly enough to be national in the context of the territorial concept of China, the Zhouli, Rites of Zhou were subsequently canonized by Confucius among his Confucian Chinese classics as a model precedent in principles of government, so ranks of nobility in later regimes both in periods of unified sovereignty and of competing smaller states would typically draw from its catalog of peerage. From Zhouli, later Confucian political philosophy and government publications, and from the surrounding historical literature of particular individuals, localities and events, the following social classifications have been attested.
Honors and awards, and clan law, of the Zhou dynasty
The social system of the Zhou dynasty is sometimes referred to as the Chinese proto-feudalism and was the combination of Fengjian (honors and awards) and Zongfa (clan law). Male subjects were classified into, in descending order of rank:
- the nobles – Zhuhou (諸侯 pinyin zhū hóu),
- the gentlemen ministers (of the royal court) – Qing (卿 qīng),
- the gentlemen bureaucrats – Daifu (大夫 dà fū)
- the yeomen – Shi (士 shì)
- the commoners – Shumin (庶民 shù mín).
Zongfa (宗法, clan law), which applied to all social classes, governed the primogeniture of rank and succession of other siblings. The eldest son of the consort would inherit the title and retained the same rank within the system. Other sons from the consort, concubines and mistresses would be given titles one rank lower than their father.
As time went by, all terms had lost their original meanings nonetheless. Qing (卿), Daifu (大夫) and Shi (士) became synonyms of court officials. Physicians were often called Daifu during the Late Imperial China. Referring to a male or self-reference of a male as Gongzi eventually became a way to raise one's mianzi (refer to Face (social concept)), and would indeed be considered flattery today.
Peer ranks of the Zhou dynasty
- Duke, gōng 公, which especially featured sovereign family members, though after changes of lines within an imperial or royal House or between dynasties, or through internal adoptions or coups, a Duchy's current rulers might have been severed from current imperial or royal sovereigns and have become a distinct lineage of their own; high dukes might be styled, though not explicit "royal dukes" as in the English peerage. A Chinese royal duke might be a clan prince or (courtesy title) family "king" under the emperor while simultaneously holding a Duchy, whether enfoeffed with land or without portfolio. A character whose fundamental meaning is "public", gōng is also used in titles, ordinary names, and honorific names including deified stylings in ways other than indicating the peerage rank of duke.
- Marquis, hóu 侯, usually with the same emphasis on being a national borderland march lord as with the European title marquess.
- "count" bó 伯
- "viscount" zǐ 子, which is also extensively used in Chinese nicknames as the meaning of the character is "child," as well as in courtesy names and honorific names in which context the character came to mean "master" as in Kongfuzi or Kongzi, Confucius, Master of surname Kung, or the Daoist patriarch Laozi, Old Master.
- "baron" nán 男, which is also used outside of its use as a peerage term to indicate male gender in individual names and in classifications such as "men", as the character's fundamental meaning is "male".
Titles of female members of the aristocracies varied in different dynasties and eras, each having unique classifications for the spouses of the emperor. Any female member excluding a spouse of an emperor can be called a princess or gōngzhǔ (公主), and incorporated her associated place into her title if she had one.
Other titles and honorifics
Besides the systematized ranks listed above, there were also other familial appellations used as titles, e.g. Shu (叔, paternal younger uncle) or Jiu (舅, maternal uncle).
Sons of kings who did not receive other titles were generically called Wangzi (王子, king's son), and their children Wangsun (王孫, king's grandson). Similarly, sons and grandsons of dukes and lords are called Gongzi (公子, duke's son) and Gongsun (公孫, duke's grandson).
These honorifics occasionally became heritable titles, no longer indicating relation with the reigning king. And some clans even took them as family names. Gongzi eventually evolved into the generic honorific for all young gentry. Today it is either used as a flattering way to address an interlocutor's son, or an pejorative term for a wealthy man. Wangzi, on the other hand, is used today as the generic translation for foreign princes (in the sense of a monarch's son, as opposed to a sui generis title).
The southern state of Chu had a notably distinct culture from the central plain states, including the nobility system. The royal Xiong clan and its collateral branches of Qu, Jing and Zhao formed the main aristocracy of Chu. Besides the royal clans, Chu did not have a system of nobility early on. Chu's formal system of rank only appeared around late Spring and Autumn period, with such titles as Tonghou (通侯, lit. marquis-peer), Zhigui (執珪, lit. jade scepter bearer), Zhibo (執帛, lit. silk bearer). Noble ranks come with a state stipend, and holders of the highest ranks also received fiefs and the honorific title Jun (君, lord), e.g. Lord Chunshen.
Noble titles in Chu were bestowed primarily as reward for military and civil service, and were not heritable in principle.
After Zhou dynasty
Qin and Han dynasty
Prior to the Qin dynasty, Wang (sovereign) was the title for the ruler of whole China. Under him were the vassals or Zhuhou (諸侯), who held territories granted by a succession of Zhou dynasty kings. They had the duty to support the Zhou king during an emergency and were ranked according to the Five Orders of Nobility. In the Spring and Autumn Period, the Zhou kings had lost most of their powers, and the most powerful vassals became the de facto ruler of China. Finally, in the Warring States period, most vassals declared themselves Wang or kings, and regarded themselves as equal to the Zhou king. After Zheng, king of the state of Qin, later known as Qin Shi Huang, defeated all the other vassals and unified China, he adopted the new title of Huangdi (emperor). Qin Shi Huang eliminated noble titles, as he sponsored legalism which believed in merit, not birth. He forced all nobles to the capital, seized their lands and turned them into administrative districts with the officials ruling them selected on merit. After the demise of Qin Er Shi, the last Qin ruler to use the title Huangdi (his successor Ziying used the title King of Qin rather than Emperor), Xiang Yu styled himself Hegemon King of Western Chu (Xichu Bàwáng 西楚霸王) rather than Emperor. Xiang Yu gave King Huai II of Chu the title of Emperor of Chu (楚義帝) or The Righteous Emperor of Southern Chu (南楚義帝) and awarded the rest of his allies, including Liu Bang, titles and a place to administer. Xiang Yu gave Liu Bang the Principality of Han, and he would soon replace him as the ruler of China.
The founder of the Han dynasty, Liu Bang, continued to use the title Huangdi. In order to appease his wartime allies, he gave each of them a piece of land as their own "kingdom" (Wangguo) along with a title of Wang. He eventually killed all of them and replaced them with members of his family. These kingdoms remained effectively independent until the Rebellion of the Seven States. Since then, Wang became merely the highest hereditary title, which roughly corresponded to the title of prince, and, as such, was commonly given to relatives of the emperor. The title Gong also reverted purely to a peerage title, ranking below Wang. Those who bore such titles were entirely under the auspices of the emperor, and had no ruling power of their own. The two characters combined to form the rank, Wanggong, grew to become synonymous with all higher court officials.
The title of Duke of Song and "Duke Who Continues and Honours the Yin" (殷紹嘉公) were bestowed upon Kong An 孔安 (東漢) by the Eastern Han dynasty because he was part of the Shang dynasty's legacy. This branch of the Confucius family is a separate branch from the line that held the title of Marquis of Fengsheng village and later Duke Yansheng.
Between Han and Sui
Special "commanderies of immigrants" and "white registers" were created for the massive amount of northern origin Han Chinese who moved south during the Eastern Jin dynasty. The southern Chinese aristocracy was formed from the offspring these migrants. Celestial Masters and the nobility of northern China subdued the nobility of southern China during the Eastern Jin and Western Jin in Jiangnan in particular. The most populous region of China was southern China after the depopulation of the north and the migration of northern Chinese to southern China. Different waves of migration of aristocratic Chinese from northern China to the south at different times resulted in distinct groups of lineages, with some lineages arriving in the 300s-400s and others in the 800s-900s.
All ethnicities who were of the literati were possibly called Haner because ethnic Xianbei were referred to as "damned Chinese" by the Northern Qi. Appearing as culturally Xianbei and at the same time declaring Han Chinese ancestry was done by Gao Huan and the Han family. The Han Chinese Gao family of Bohai (渤海高氏) was claimed by Gao Huan as his ancestors.
Of Han Chinese background who was Xianbeified, he was raised in Huaishuozhen while his family came from Bohai prefecture in Hebei. He became Xianbeified since his clan was raised in Inner Mongolia after being relocated from what is modern Hebei (Bohai) where his Han Chinese ancestors lived. Honorary Bohai descent was bestowed upon Gao Longshi by Gao Huan. Bohai was asserted as the ancestral home of Gao Huan by Gao Huan.
A fief of 100 households and the rank of 崇聖侯 Marquis who worships the sage was bestowed upon a Confucius descendant, Yan Hui's lineage had 2 of its scions and Confucius's lineage had 4 of its scions who had ranks bestowed on them in Shandong in 495 and a fief of ten households and rank of 崇聖大夫 Grandee who venerates the sage was bestowed on 孔乘 Kong Sheng who was Confucius's scion in the 28th generation in 472 by Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei.
Sui dynasty and Tang dynasty
The northwest military aristocracy was where the Sui dynasty Emperors originated from and they emphasized that their patrilineal ancestry was ethnic Han, claiming descent from the Han official Yang Zhen. and the New Book of Tang traced his patrilineal ancestry to the Zhou dynasty kings via the Dukes of Jin. The Sui Emperors had maternal Xianbei ancestry from a woman of the Xianbei Dugu family.
The Tang dynasty Imperial family claimed to be paternally descended from Laozi (whose personal name was Li Dan or Li Er), the Han dynasty General Li Guang, Qin General Li Xin and Western Liang ruler Li Gao. This family was known as the Longxi Li lineage (隴西李氏). The Tang Emperors had Xianbei maternal ancestry, from Emperor Gaozu of Tang's Xianbei mother Duchess Dugu. Ancient Han ancestry was asserted by the Tang and Sui Emperors. 
The northeastern Chinese aristocracy during the Sui-Tang period was of pure Han blood, while they looked down upon the northwestern aristocracy which was of mixed Han and Xianbei blood. The hybrid mixed blood Chinese and Northwestern (Guanlong) 關隴集團 aristocracy was where the Sui dynasty Emperors and Tang dynasty Emperors originated from. It came from their Xianbei mothers. Dugu Tang Sui Guanlong Sui. China was reunited by them. The Northeastern aristocracy supported Wu Zetian while the Northwestern aristocracy opposed her. The northwestern aristocracy was countered by the northeastern aristocracy who were supported by the Sui Yangdi Emperor. There was not necessarily unity on political positions within both the northeastern and northwestern aristocracies.
During the Tang dynasty, nobles lost most of their power to the mandarins when imperial examination replaced the nine-rank system. The Anding origin noble Liang family produced Liang Su, a Confucian scholar. An anti-meritocratic pro-aristocratic faction was led by Li Linfu.
A "marriage ban" was applied to the northeastern aristocracy.
During the Tang dynasty the Li family of Zhaojun 赵郡李氏, the Cui clan of Boling, the Cui clan of Qinghe, the Lu clan of Fanyang, the Zheng family of Xingyang w:zh:荥阳郑氏, the Wang family of Taiyuan 太原王氏, and the Li family of Longxi 隴西李氏 were the seven noble families 七姓十家 between whom marriage was banned by law. Moriya Mitsuo wrote a history of the Later Han-Tang period of the Taiyuan Wang. Among the strongest families was the Taiyuan Wang. The prohibition on marriage between the clans issued in 659 by the Gaozong Emperor was flouted by the seven families since a woman of the Boling Cui married a member of the Taiyuan Wang, giving birth to the poet Wang Wei. He was the son of Wang Chulian who in turn was the son of Wang Zhou. The marriages between the families were performed clandestinely after the prohibition was implemented on the seven families by Gaozong. The Zhou dynasty King Ling's son Prince Jin is assumed by most to be the ancestor of the Taiyuan Wang. The Longmen Wang were a cadet line of the Zhou dynasty descended Taiyuan Wang, and Wang Yan and his grandson Wang Tong hailed from his cadet line. Both Buddhist monks and scholars hailed from the Wang family of Taiyuan such as the monk Tanqian. The Wang family of Taiyuan included Wang Huan. Their status as "Seven Great surnames" became known during Gaozong's rule. The Taiyuan Wang family produced Wang Jun who served under Emperor Huai of Jin. A Fuzhou based section of the Taiyuan Wang produced the Buddhist monk Baizhang.
Other clans included the Zhao of Tianshui 天水趙氏, the Gao of Bohai 渤海高氏, the Liu of Pengcheng 彭城劉氏, the Zhang of Qinghe 清河張氏, the Zhang of Nanyang 南陽張氏, the Pei of Hedong 河東裴氏, the Wei of Jingzhao 京兆韋氏, the Yang of Hongong 弘農楊氏, and the Wang of Langye 琅邪王氏.
The Zheng family of Xingyang 滎陽鄭氏 claim descent from the Zhou dynasty Kings via the rulers of the State of Zheng. The Marquis of Xingyang rank was created for Zheng Xi. The Xingyang Zheng spawned Zheng Daozhao and Zheng Xi. Zheng Wanjun was a member of the Xingyang Zheng. The Xingyang Zheng spawned Zheng Yuzhong (Zheng Qiao). The Xingyang Zheng spawned Zheng Jiong. The Zheng of Xingyang may have been miswritten in the records as the Zheng of Rongyang.
The bigger Longxi Li lineage outside of the Tang Imperial family has prominent members like Li Jiongxiu, Li Yiyan, Li Kui (chancellor), Li Wei (Tang dynasty), Li Fengji, Li Zhongyan, Li Jing (general), Li Zhaode, and Li Bai.
The Tianshui Zhao 天水趙氏. The Song dynasty Emperors hailed from the Guandong Zhao while the Longxi Li produced the Tang Emperors.
The seven clans were divided into a further 44 sub branches.
The Li of Zhaojun and the Lu of Fanyang hailed from Shandong and were related to the Liu clan which was also linked to the Yang of Hongnong and other clans of Guanlong.
The Yang of Hongnong 弘農楊氏 were asserted as ancestors by the Sui Emperors like the Longxi Li's were asserted as ancestors of the Tang Emperors. The Dukes of Jin were claimed as the ancestors of the Hongnong Yang. The Yang of Hongnong spawned 楊昭儉 Yang Zhaojian. This clan was the family of Yang Guozhong, Yang Guifei,  and Yang Wan Their ancestor was Yang Zhen who served during the reign of Emperor An of Han. He is mentioned in the Book of the Later Han.
The Yang of Hongnong, Jia of Hedong, Xiang of Henei, and Wang of Taiyuan from the Tang dynasty were claimed as ancestors by Song dynasty lineages.
After Tang dynasty
Some Song dynasty families were descended from Tang era nobility.
Some of the Tang dynasty Imperial family's cadet branches ended up in Fujian- one founded by Li Dan 李丹 which became prominent in the Song dynasty. another founded by Li Fu 李富 also becoming prominent during the Song dynasty.
Descendants of the Tang Emperors live in Chengcun village near the Wuyi mountains in Fujian.
Subsequent dynasties expanded the hereditary titles further. Not all titles of peerage are hereditary, and the right to continue the heredity passage of a very high title was seen as a very high honour; at the end of the Qing dynasty, there were five grades of princes, amongst a myriad of other titles. For details, see Qing dynasty nobility.
A few Chinese families enjoyed hereditary titles in the full sense, the chief among them being the Holy Duke of Yen (the descendant of Confucius); others, such as the lineal descendants of Wen Tianxiang, ennobled the Duke of Xingguo, not choosing to use their hereditary title.
When the Ming dynasty emerged Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's military officers who served under him were given noble titles which privileged the holder with a stipend but in all other aspects was merely symbolic. (功臣世表) Mu Ying's family was among them. Special rules against abuse of power were implemented on the nobles.
Duke Huan of Lu's son through Qingfu (慶父) was the ancestor of Mencius. He was descended from Duke Yang of the State of Lu 魯煬公 Duke Yang was the son of Bo Qin, who was the son of the Duke of Zhou of the Zhou dynasty royal family. The genealogy is found in the Mencius family tree (孟子世家大宗世系).
In 1452 Wujing Boshi was bestowed upon the offspring of Mengzi-Meng Xiwen 孟希文 56th generation and Yan Hui-Yan Xihui 顔希惠 59th generation, the same was bestowed on the offspring of Zhou Dunyi-Zhou Mian 週冕 12th generation, the two Cheng brothers (Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi-Chen Keren 程克仁 17th generation), Zhu Xi-Zhu Ting 朱梴 (Zhu Chan?) 9th generation, in 1456-1457, in 1539 the same was awarded to Zeng Can's offspring-Zeng Zhicui 曾質粹 60th generation, in 1622 the offspring of Zhang Zai received the title and in 1630 the offspring of Shao Yong. Zhang Zai's offspring received the appointment as wujing boshi along with Zhu Xi's, Cheng Hao's, Cheng Yi's, and Zhou Dunyi's offspring. Biographies of those who were awarded the title of Wujing Boshi in the Ming dynasty are found in Volume 284, Biographies 172 of the History of Ming (明史).
The Imperial Clansmen consisted of those who trace their descent direct from the founder of the Qing dynasty, and were distinguished by the privilege of wearing a yellow girdle; collateral relatives of the imperial house wore a red girdle. Twelve degrees of nobility (in a descending scale as one generation succeeds another) were conferred on the descendants of every emperor; in the thirteenth generation the descendants of emperors were merged in the general population, save that they retain the yellow girdle. The heads of eight houses, the Iron-capped (or helmeted) princes, maintained their titles in perpetuity by rule of primogeniture in virtue of having helped the Manchu conquest of China.
Confucian sages (Disciples of Confucius and Neo Confucian scholars) offspring were granted the office of "Wujing Boshi" (五经博士; 五經博士; Wǔjīng Bóshì). There were 22 of them. "Present Day Political Organization of China" by V.V. Hagelstrom and H.S. Brunnert contains a list of people who were awarded the title: The title of 五經博士 Wu3 Ching1 Po2 Shih4, or simply 博士 Po2 Shih4 (literary designation, 大瀚博 Ta4 Han4 Po2), is also transmitted to the eldest, in a direct line, of the descendants of the following famous men of antiquity : 1. 周公 Chou1 Kung1, 2. 顏淵 Yen2 Yüan1, 3. 曾子輿 Tsêng1 Tzu3-yü2, 4. 閔子騫 Min3 Tzu3-ch'ien1, 5. 仲季路 Chung4 Chi4-lu4, 6. 有子有 Yu3 Tzu3-yu3, 7. 端木子貢 Tuan1 Mu4 Tzu3 Kung4, 8. 卜子夏 Pu3 Tzu3-hsia4, 9. 言子游 Yen2 Tzu3-yu2, 10. 冉伯牛 Jan3 Po2-niu2, 11. 冉仲弓 Jan3 Chung4-kung1, 12. 顓孫子張 Chuan1 Sun1 Tzu3 Chang1, 13. 孟子 Mêng4 Tzu3, 14. 伏生 Fu2 Shêng1, 15. 韓愈 Han4 Yü4, 16. 周敦頤 Chou1 Tun1-i2, 17. 邵雍 Shao4 Yung1, 18. 程顥 Ch'êng2 Hao4, 19. 程頤 Ch'êng2 I2, 20. 張載 Chang 1 Tsai3, 21. 朱熹 Chu1 Hsi3, and 22. 關羽 Kuan1 Yü3. It was also granted to the cadet branch of the Confucius family at Quzhou.
The Zhikou (Chikow) Chiangs such as Chiang Kai-shek were descended from Chiang Shih-chieh who during the 1600s (17th century) moved there from Fenghua district, whose ancestors in turn came to southeastern China's Zhejiang (Chekiang) province after moving out of Northern China in the 13th century AD. The 12th century BC Duke of Zhou's (Duke of Chou) third son (管叔鮮) was the ancestor of the Chiangs.
The oldest held continuous noble title in Chinese history was that held by the descendants of Confucius, as Duke Yansheng, which was renamed as the Sacrificial Official to Confucius in 1935 by the Republic of China. The title is held by Kung Tsui-chang.
Han defectors played a massive role in the Qing conquest of China. Han Chinese Generals who defected to the Manchu were often given women from the Imperial Aisin Gioro family in marriage while the ordinary soldiers who defected were often given non-royal Manchu women as wives. The Manchu leader Nurhaci married one of his granddaughters to the Ming General Li Yongfang 李永芳 after he surrendered Fushun in Liaoning to the Manchu in 1618. The offspring of Li received the "Third Class Viscount" (三等子爵; sān děng zǐjué) title. Li Yongfang was the great great great grandfather of Li Shiyao 李侍堯.
Shi Lang received the title of Marquis Jinghai from the Qing.
Most titles of nobility were officially abolished when China became a republic in 1912, with the Republic maintaining some titles like Duke Yansheng. They were briefly expanded under Yuan Shikai's empire and after Zhang Xun's coup. The last emperor was allowed to keep his title but was treated as a foreign monarch until the 1924 coup. Manchukuo also had titles of nobility.
The bestowal of titles was abolished upon the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
The families of the descendants of the Four Sages 四氏 still hold hereditary offices in the Republic of China (Taiwan) such as the Sacrificial Official to Confucius, "Sacrificial Official to Mencius", "Sacrificial Official to Zengzi", and "Sacrificial Official to Yan Hui".
The modern purported descendants of Cao Cao were authenticated with Y chromosome DNA testing, since the remains of Cao Cao's granduncle provided Y chromosome O2*-M268 which matched that of the claimed descendants.
List of people granted peerage by Yuan Shikai as self-proclaimed emperor (1915-1916)
After the fall of the Qing dynasty and its "Last Emperor" Puyi in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, Chinese President Yuan Shikai attempted to resurrect the imperial system, proclaiming himself emperor in his brief Empire of China (1915-1916) which ended with his death 83 days after its inauguration. During this period, Yuan Shikai as sovereign declared the ennoblement of several people, in this case not so much his family and clan as allies and those he sought as supporters for the new Empire. Some declined the honors.
Prince of the First Rank Wuyi (武義親王 Wǔyì qīn wáng)
Dukes of the First Rank (一等公 Yī děng gōng)
Marquesses of the First Rank (一等侯 Yī děng hóu)
- Tang Xiangming (湯薌銘)
- Li Chun (李純)
- Zhu Rui (朱瑞)
- Lu Rongting
- Zhao Ti (趙倜)
- Chen Yi
- Tang Jiyao
- Yan Xishan
- Wang Zhanyuan (王占元)
- Lui Kang
Counts of the First Rank (一等伯 Yī děng bó)
- Zhang Xiluan (張錫鑾)
- Zhu Jiabao (朱家寶)
- Zhang Mingqi (張鳴岐)
- Tian Wenlie (田文烈)
- Jin Yunpeng
- Yang Zengxin (楊增新)
- Lu Jianzhang (陸建章)
- Meng Enyuan (孟恩遠)
- Qu Yinguang (屈映光)
- Qi Yaolin (齊耀琳)
- Cao Kun
- Yang Shande (楊善德)
Viscounts of the First Rank (一等子 Yī děng zǐ)
Barons of the First Rank (一等男 Yī děng nán)
- Ma Anliang (馬安良)
- Xu Shiying (許世英)
- Qi Yang (戚揚)
- Ren Kecheng (任可澄)
- Wang Yitang (王揖唐)
- He Zonglian (何宗蓮)
- Zhang Huaizhi (張懷芝)
- Long Jinuang (龍覲光)
- Chen Bingkun
- Lu Yongxiang (盧永祥)
- Lü Diaoyuan (呂調元)
- Jin Yong (金永)
- Cai Rukai (蔡儒楷)
- Duan Shuyun (段書雲)
- Long Jianzhang (龍建章)
- Shen Jinjian (沈金鑑)
- Pan Juying (潘矩楹)
Baron of the Third Rank (三等男 Sān děng nán)
Modern Chinese styles for foreign monarchs
Traditional Chinese political theory held that "All lands under Heaven belong to the emperor, all people under Heaven belong, are subjects of the emperor." (普天之下，莫非王土;率土之濱,莫非王臣). Thus, a foreign monarch would also be referred to as Wang, implying that one was inferior in rank and thus subject to the Chinese Emperor.
In modern Chinese, a king is referred to as a Wang, while an emperor would be referred to as Huangdi. The king in those times were referred to as the mandate of heaven. Therefore, Victoria of the United Kingdom was styled Nü-Wang (Queen) of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Nü-Huang (Empress) of India.
Other historical Chinese titles
Other titles might be tailored down to a single individual being officially honored for a particular achievement, with or without executive portfolio following the granting of the title, and might truly be titles outside the executive government structure, even when words used in their phrasing would otherwise imply executive office, e.g.,
Protector General (都護; Duhu) – for example, Ban Chao.
On the other hand, victorious generals were often granted official praise-names or names implying particular old and new duties or some combination of these, which would be quasi-executive or fully executive titles honored as much like peerage as like actual military rank, as in the case of Liu Bei promoting Guan Yu to a rank phrased as General Who Exterminates Rebels (蕩寇將軍) during the active course of Guan Yu's military career.
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- (Chinese) 孔姓 (The Kong family, descendents of Confucius)
- (Chinese) 孟姓 (The Meng family, descendents of Mencius)
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