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Fēngjiàn (封建) was a political ideology developed from Confucian and "Legalist" philosophers during the latter part of the Zhou dynasty of ancient China, it's social structure forming a decentralized system of government[1] based on four occupations, or "four categories of the people." It has been compared to European feudalism, but scholarship has suggested that fengjian otherwise lacks some of the fundamental aspects of feudalism.[2][3]

Four occupations[edit]

Further information: Four occupations

The four occupations were the shì (士) the class of "knightly" scholars, mostly from lower aristocratic orders, the gōng (工) who were the artisans and craftsmen of the kingdom and who, like the farmers, produced essential goods needed by themselves and the rest of society, the nóng (农/農) who were the peasant farmers who cultivated the land which provided the essential food for the people and tributes to the king, and the shāng (商) who were the merchants and traders of the kingdom.

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. Zhuhou (诸侯), Dafu (大夫), and Shi (士) became synonyms of court officials.

The four occupations under the Fēngjiàn system differed from those of European feudalism in that people were not born into the specific classes, such that, for example, a son born to a gong craftsman was able to become a part of the shang merchant class, and so on.

The sizes of troops and domains a male noble would command would be determined by his rank of peerage, which from highest to lowest were:

  1. duke - gōng 公(爵)
  2. marquis or marquess - hóu 侯(爵)
  3. count or earl - 伯(爵)
  4. viscount - 子(爵)
  5. baron - nán 男(爵)

While before the Han dynasty a peer with a place name in his title actually governed that place, it had only been nominally true since. Any male member of the nobility or gentry could be called a gongzi (公子 gōng zǐ) (or wangzi (王子 wáng zǐ) if he is a son of a king, i.e. prince).

Well-field system[edit]

The brown border between the farms resembles the character for well (井)

The well-field system (Chinese: 井田制度; pinyin: jǐngtián zhìdù) was a Chinese land distribution method existing between the ninth century BC (late Western Zhou Dynasty) to around the end of the Warring States period. Its name comes from Chinese character (jǐng), which means 'well' and looks like the # symbol; this character represents the theoretical appearance of land division: a square area of land was divided into nine identically-sized sections; the eight outer sections (私田; sītián) were privately cultivated by serfs and the center section (公田; gōngtián) was communally cultivated on behalf of the landowning aristocrat.[4]

While all fields were aristocrat-owned,[citation needed], the private fields were managed exclusively by serfs and the produce was entirely the farmers'. It was only produce from the communal fields, worked on by all eight families, that went to the aristocrats, and which, in turn, could go to the king as tribute.

As part of a larger feudal fēngjiàn system, the well-field system became strained in the Spring and Autumn Period[5] as kinship ties between aristocrats became meaningless.[6] When the system became economically untenable in the Warring States period, it was replaced by a system of private land ownership.[5] It was first suspended in the state of Qin by Shang Yang and other states soon followed suit.

As part of the "turning the clock back" reformations by Wang Mang during the short-lived Xin Dynasty, the system was restored temporarily[7] and renamed to the King's Fields (王田; wángtián). The practice was more-or-less ended by the Song Dynasty, but scholars like Zhang Zai and Su Xun were enthusiastic about its restoration and spoke of it in a perhaps oversimplifying admiration, invoking Mencius's frequent praise of the system.[8]

Historiographic implications[edit]

Fengjian is particularly important to Marxist historiographical interpretation of Chinese history in China, from a slave society to a feudal society.[9] This kind of feudalism was very different from the kind of "feudalism" most people influenced by the theoreticians of the PRC have viewed China, with the landlord/peasant relationship, as having.

See also[edit]


  2. ^ www.chinaeducenter.com. "History of Zhou Dynasty - China Education Center". chinaeducenter.com. Retrieved 2015-10-23. 
  3. ^ Ulrich Theobald. "Chinese History - Zhou Dynasty 周 (www.chinaknowledge.de)". chinaknowledge.de. Retrieved 2015-10-23. 
  4. ^ Zhufu (1981:7)
  5. ^ a b Zhufu (1981:9)
  6. ^ Lewis (2006:142)
  7. ^ Zhufu (1981:12)
  8. ^ Bloom (1999:129–134)
  9. ^ QE WANG. Between Marxism and Nationalism: Chinese historiography and the Soviet influence, 1949–1963 – Journal of Contemporary China, 2000 – Taylor & Francis


  • Bloom, I. (1999), "The evolution of Confucian tradition in antiquity", in De Bary, William Theodore; Chan, Wing-tsit; Lufrano, Richard John; et al., Sources of Chinese Tradition 2, New York: Columbia University Press 
  • Lewis, Mark Edward (2006), The Construction of Space in Early China, Albany: State University of New York Press 
  • Zhufu, Fu (1981), "The economic history of China: Some special problems", Modern China 7 (1): 3–30, doi:10.1177/009770048100700101 

External links[edit]