The four occupations (simplified Chinese: 士农工商; traditional Chinese: 士農工商) or "four categories of the people" (Chinese: 四民) was an occupation classification used 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 BC). These were the shi (gentry scholars), the nong (peasant farmers), the gong (artisans and craftsmen), and the shang (merchants and traders). The four occupations were not always arranged in this order. The four categories were not socioeconomic classes; wealth and standing did not correspond to these categories, nor were they hereditary.
The system did not factor in all social groups present in premodern Chinese society, and its broad categories were more an idealization than a practical reality. The commercialization of Chinese society in the Song and Ming periods further blurred the lines between these four occupations. The definition of the identity of the shi class changed over time—from warriors, to aristocratic scholars, and finally to scholar-bureaucrats. There was also a gradual fusion of the wealthy merchant and landholding gentry classes, culminating in the late Ming Dynasty.
In some manner this system of social order was adopted throughout the Chinese cultural sphere. In Japanese it is called mibunsei (身分制) and is sometimes stated as "Shi, nō, kō, shō" (士農工商, shinōkōshō), although in Japan it became a hereditary caste system. In Korean as "Sa, nong, gong, sang" (사농공상), and in Vietnamese as "Sĩ, nông, công, thương (士農工商). The main difference in adaptation was the definition of the shi (士).
- 1 Background
- 2 The shi (士)
- 3 The nong (农/農)
- 4 The gong (工)
- 5 The Shang (商)
- 6 Outside China
- 7 Unclassified occupations
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
From existing literary evidence, commoner categories in China were employed for the first time during the Warring States period (403–221 BC). Despite this, Eastern-Han (AD 25–220) historian Ban Gu (AD 32–92) asserted in his Book of Han that the four occupations for commoners had existed in the Western Zhou (c. 1050 – 771 BC) era, which he considered a golden age. However, it is now known that the classification of four occupations as Ban Gu understood it did not exist until the 2nd century BC. Ban explained the social hierarchy of each group in descending order:
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 Han-era text Guliang Zhuan described the four groups in a different order, with merchants second after scholars, and the Warring States-era Xunzi placed farmers before scholars. The Shuo Yuan mentioned a quotation which stressed the ideal of equality for the four occupations.
Anthony J. Barbieri-Low, Professor of Early Chinese History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes that the classification of "four occupations" can be viewed as a mere rhetorical device that had no effect on government policy. However, he notes that although no statute in the Qin or Han law codes specifically mentions the four occupations, some laws did treat these broadly classified social groups as separate units with different levels of legal privilege.
The categorisation was sorted according to the principle of economic usefulness to state and society, that those who used mind rather than muscle (scholars) were placed first, with farmers, seen as the primary creators of wealth, placed next, followed by artisans, and finally merchants who were seen as a social disturbance for excessive accumulation of wealth or erratic fluctuation of prices. Beneath the four occupations were the "mean people" (Chinese: 賤民), outcasts from "humilitating" occupations such as entertainers and prostitutes.
The four occupations were not a hereditary system. The four occupations 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. Theoretically, any man could become an official through the Imperial examinations.
The shi (士)
Ancient Warrior class
During the ancient Shang (1600 B.C. to 1046 B.C.) and Early Zhou dynasties (1046 B.C. to 771 B.C.), 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. Initially rising to power through controlling the new technology of bronzeworking, from 1300 B.C., the shi transitioned from foot knights to being primarily chariot archers, fighting with composite recurved bow, a double-edged sword known as the jian, and armour.
The shi had a strict code of chivalry. In the battle of Zheqiu, 420 B.C., the shi Hua Bao shot at and missed another shi Gongzi Cheng, and just as he was about to shoot again, Gongzi Cheng said that it was unchivalrous to shoot twice without allowing him to return a shot. Hua Bao lowered his bow and was subsequently shot dead. In 624 B.C. a disgraced shi from the State of Jin led a suicidal charge of chariots to redeem his reputation, turning the tide of the battle. In the Battle of Bi, 597 B.C., the routing chariot forces of Jin were bogged down in mud, but pursuing enemy troops stopped to help them get dislodged and allowed them to escape.
As chariot warfare became eclipsed by mounted cavalry and infantry units with effective crossbowmen in the Warring States period (403–221 BC), 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 BC), 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. When the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) unified China under the Legalist system, the emperor assigned administration to dedicated officials rather than nobility, ending feudalism in China, replacing it with a centralized, bureaucratic government. The form of government created by the first emperor and his advisors was used by later dynasties to structure their own government. Under this system, the government thrived, as talented individuals could be more easily identified in the transformed society. However, the Qin became infamous for its oppressive measures, and so collapsed into a state of civil war after the death of the Emperor.
The victor of this war was Liu Bang, who initiated four centuries of unification of China proper under the Han dynasty (202 BC–AD 220) In 165 BC, Emperor Wen introduced the first method of recruitment to civil service through examinations, while Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC), cemented the ideology of Confucius into mainstream governance installed a system of recommendation and nomination in government service known as xiaolian, and a national academy whereby officials would select candidates to take part in an examination of the Confucian classics, from which Emperor Wu would select officials.
In the Sui dynasty (581–618) and the subsequent Tang dynasty (618–907) the shi class would begin to present itself by means of the fully standardized civil service examination system, 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.
Beyond serving in the administration and the judiciary, scholar-officials also provided government-funded social services, such as prefectural or county schools, free-of-charge public hospitals, retirement homes and paupers' graveyards. Scholars such as Shen Kuo (1031–1095) and Su Song (1020–1101) dabbled in every known field of science, mathematics, music and statecraft, while others like Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) or Zeng Gong (1019–1083) pioneered ideas in early epigraphy, archeology and philology.
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, while the number of official posts remained constant, the graduates who were not appointed to government would provide critical services in local communities, such as funding public works, running private schools, aiding in tax collection, maintaining order, or writing local gazetteers.
The nong (农/農)
Since Neolithic times in China, agriculture was 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 usually landholders that often produced crops and foodstuffs.
Between the ninth century BC (late Western Zhou dynasty) to around the end of the Warring States period, agricultural land was distributed according to the Well-field system (井田), whereby a square area of land was divided into nine identically-sized sections; the eight outer sections (私田; sītián) were privately cultivated by farmers and the center section (公田; gōngtián) was communally cultivated on behalf of the landowning aristocrat. When the system became economically untenable in the Warring States period, it was replaced by a system of private land ownership. It was first suspended in the state of Qin by Shang Yang and other states soon followed suit.
From A.D. 485-763, land was equally distributed to farmers under the Equal-field system (均田). Families were issued plots of land on the basis of how many able men, including slaves, they had; a woman would be entitled to a smaller plot. As government control weakened in the 8th century, land reverted into the hands of private owners.
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 (工)
Artisans and craftsmen — their class identified with the Chinese character meaning labour — 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 theoretically respected more 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.
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.
Researchers have pointed to the rise of wage labour in late Ming and early Qing workshops in textile, paper and other industries, achieving large-scale production by using many small workshops, each with a small team of workers under a master craftsman.
Although architects and builders were not as highly venerated as the scholar-officials, there were some architectural engineers who gained wide acclaim for their achievements. One example of this would be the Yingzao Fashi printed in 1103, an architectural building manual written by Li Jie (1065–1110), sponsored by Emperor Huizong (r. 1100–1126) for these government agencies to employ and was widely printed for the benefit of literate craftsmen and artisans nationwide.
In the late of Ming dynasty there were many porcelain kilns created that led the Ming dynasty to be economically well off. The Qing emperors like the Kangxi Emperor helped the growth of porcelain export and by allowing an organization of private maritime trade that assisted families who owned private kilns. Chinese export porcelain, designed purely for the European market and unpopular among locals as it lacked the symbolic significance of wares produced for the Chinese home market, was a highly popular trade good.
In China, silk-worm farming was originally restricted to women, and many women were employed in the silk-making industry. Even as knowledge of silk production spread to the rest of the world, Song dynasty China was able to maintain near-monopoly on manufacture by large scale industrialization, through the two-person draw loom, commercialized mulberry cultivation, and a factory production. The organization of silk weaving in 18th-century Chinese cities was compared with the putting-out system used in European textile industries between the 13th and 18th centuries. As the interregional silk trade grew, merchant houses began to organize manufacture to guarantee their supplies, providing silk to households for weaving as piece work.
The Shang (商)
The merchants, traders, and peddlers of goods were viewed by the scholarly elite as essential members of society, yet were esteemed least of the four occupations in society, due to the view that they were a threat to social harmony from acquiring disproportionally large incomes, market manipulation or exploiting farmers.
Despite this, the merchant class of China throughout all of Chinese history were usually wealthy and held considerable influence above their supposed social standing.
Han Dynasty writers mention merchants owning huge tracts of land. A merchant who owned property worth a thousand catties of gold—equivalent to ten million cash coins—was considered a great merchant. Such a fortune was one hundred times larger than the average income of a middle class landowner-cultivator and dwarfed the annual 200,000 cash-coin income of a marquess who collected taxes from a thousand households. Some merchant families made fortunes worth over a hundred million cash, which was equivalent to the wealth acquired by the highest officials in government. Itinerant merchants who traded between a network of towns and cities were often rich as they had the ability to avoid registering as merchants (unlike the shopkeepers), Chao Cuo (d. 154 BCE) states that they wore fine silks, rode in carriages pulled by fat horses, and whose wealth allowed them to associate with government officials.
Historians like Yu Yingshi and Billy So have shown that as Chinese society became increasingly commercialized from the Song dynasty onward, Confucianism had gradually begun to accept and even support business and trade as legitimate and viable professions, as long as merchants stayed away from unethical actions. Merchants in the meantime had also benefited from and utilized Confucian ethics in their business practices. By the Song period, merchants often colluded with the scholarly elite; as early as 955, the Scholar-officials themselves were using intermediary agents to participate in trading. Since the Song government took over several key industries and imposed strict state monopolies, the government itself acted as a large commercial enterprise run by scholar-officials. The state also had to contend with the merchant guilds; whenever the state requisitioned goods and assessed taxes it dealt with guild heads, who ensured fair prices and fair wages via official intermediaries.
By the late Ming Dynasty, the officials 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 social status of merchants rose to such significance that by the late Ming period, many scholar-officials were unabashed to declare publicly in their official family histories that they had family members who were merchants.
Outside of China, the same values permeated and prevailed across other East Asian societies where China exerted considerable influence. Japan and Korea were heavily influenced by Confucian thought that the four occupational social hierarchy in those societies were modeled from that of China's.
A similar situation occurred in the Ryūkyū Kingdom with the yukatchu, but yukatchu status was hereditary and could be bought from the government as the kingdom's finances were frequently deficient. Due to the growth of this class and the lack of government positions open for them, Sai On allowed yukatchu to become merchants and artisans while keeping their high status. There were three classes of yukatchu, the pechin, satonushi and chikudun, and commoners may be admitted for meritorious service.
In Japan, the Four occupations was modified into a rigid hereditary four-caste system, where marriage across caste lines was socially unacceptable. In Japan, the Scholar role was taken by the hereditary samurai class. Originally a martial class, the samurai became civil administrators to their daimyōs during the Tokugawa shogunate. No exams were needed as the positions were inherited. They constituted about 5% of the population and were allowed to have a proper surname. (see Edo society).
In Silla Korea, the scholar-officials, also known as Head rank 6, 5, and 4 (두품), were strictly hereditary castes under the Bone rank system (골품제도), and their power was limited by the Royal clan who monopolized the positions of importance.
In Joseon Korea, the Scholar occupation took the form of the noble yangban class, which prevented the lower classes from taking the advanced gwageo exams so they could dominate the bureaucracy. Below the yangban were the chungin, a class of privileged commoners who were petty bureaucrats, scribes, and specialists. The chungin were actually the least populous class, even smaller than the yangban. The yangban constituted 10% of the population. From the mid-Joseon period, military officers and civil officials were separately derived from different clans.
Vietnamese dynasties also adopted the examination degree system (khoa-cử) to recruit scholars for government service. The Vietnamese political elite consisted of educated landholders whose interests often clashed with the central government. Although all land theoretically was the ruler's, and was supposed to be distributed equitably by the Equal-field system (khau phan dien che) and non-transferable, the court bureaucracy increasingly appropriated land which they leased to tenant farmers and hired labourers to till.
There were many social groups that were 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. People who performed such tasks that were considered either worthless or "filthy" were placed in the category of mean people (賤人), not being registered as commoners and having some legal disabilities.
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. Under the principle of the Mandate of heaven, the right to rule was based on "virtue"; if a ruler was overthrown, this was interpreted as an indication that the ruler was unworthy, and had lost the mandate, and there would often be revolts following major disasters as citizens saw these as signs that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn. The Mandate of Heaven does not require noble birth, depending instead on just and able performance. The Han and Ming dynasties were founded by men of common origins.
Although his royal family and noble extended family were also highly respected, they did not command the same level of authority.
During the initial and end phases of the Han dynasty, the Western Jin Dynasty, and the Northern and Southern dynasties, the members of the Imperial clan were enfeoffed with vassal states, controlling military and political power: they often usurped the throne, intervened in Imperial succession, or fought civil wars. From the 8th century on, the Tang dynasty imperial clan was restricted to the capital and denied fiefdoms, and by the Song dynasty were also denied any political power. By the Southern Song dynasty, imperial prince's were assimilated into the scholars, and had to take the imperial examinations to serve in government, like commoners. The Yuan dynasty favoured the Mongol tradition of distributing Khanates, and under this influence, the Ming dynasty also revived the practice of granting titular "kingdoms" to Imperial clan members, although they were denied political control; only near the end of the dynasty were some permitted to partake in the examinations to qualify for government service as common scholars.
The court eunuchs who served the royals 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. In an extreme example, the eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627) had his critics from the orthodox Confucian 'Donglin Society' tortured and killed while dominating the court of the Tianqi Emperor—Wei was dismissed by the next ruler and committed suicide. In popular culture texts such as Zhang Yingyu's The Book of Swindles (ca. 1617), eunuchs were often portrayed in starkly negative terms as enriching themselves through excessive taxation and indulging in cannibalism and debauched sexual practices. The eunuchs at the Forbidden City during the later Qing period were infamous for their corruption, stealing as much as they could. The position of eunuch at the Forbidden City offered such opportunities for theft and corruption that countless men willingly become eunuchs in order to live a better life. Ray Huang argues that eunuchs represented the personal will of the Emperor, while the officials represented the alternate political will of the bureaucracy. The clash between them would thus have been a clash of ideologies or political agenda.
Although shamans and diviners in Bronze Age China had some authority as religious leaders in society, as government officials during the early Zhou dynasty, with the Shang dynasty Kings sometimes described as shamans, and may have been the original physicians, providing elixirs to treat patients, ever since Emperor Wu of Han established Confucianism as the state religion, the ruling classes have shown increasing prejudice against shamanism, preventing them from 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).
Fortune-tellers such as geomancers and astrologers were not highly regarded.
Buddhist monkhood grew immensely popular from the fourth century, where the monastic life's exemption from tax proved alluring to poor farmers. 4,000 government-funded monasteries were established and maintained through the medieval period, eventually leading to 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.
However from the fourth to twentieth centuries, Buddhist monks were frequently sponsored by the elite of society, sometimes even by Confucian scholars, with monasteries described as "in size and magnificence no prince's house could match". Despite the strong Buddhist sympathies of the Sui Dynasty and Tang dynasty rulers, the curriculum of the Imperial Examinations was still defined by Confucian canon as it alone covered political and legal policy necessary to government.
The social category of the soldier was left out of the social hierarchy due to the gentry scholars' embracing of intellectual cultivation (文 wén) and detest for violence (武 wǔ). 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.
Soldiers were not highly respected members of society, specifically from the Song dynasty onward, due to the newly instituted policy of "Emphasizing the civil and downgrading the military" (Chinese: 重文輕武). 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. Peasants were encouraged to join militias such as the Baojia (保甲) or Tuanlian (團練), but full-time soldiers were usually hired from amnestied bandits or vagabonds, and peasant militia were generally regarded as the more reliable.
From the 2nd century B.C. onward, 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, under the Tuntian system (屯田), the Weisuo system (衛所) and the Fubing system (府兵). Under these schemes, multiple dynasties attempted to create a hereditary military caste by exchanging border farmland or other privileges for service. However, in every instance, the policy would fail due to rampant desertion caused by the extremely low regard for violent occupations, and subsequently these armies had to replaced with hired mercenaries or even peasant militia.
However, for those without formal education, the quickest way to power and the upper echelons of society was to join the military. Although the soldier was looked upon with a bit of disdain by scholar-officials and cultured people, military officers with successful careers could gain a considerable amount of prestige. Despite the claim of moral high ground, scholar-officials often commanded troops and wielded military power.
Entertainers and courtiers were often dependents upon the wealthy or were associated with the often-perceived immoral pleasure grounds of urban entertainment districts. Musicians who played music as full-time work were of low status. To give them official recognition would have given them more prestige.
"Proper" music was considered a fundamental aspect of nurturing of character and good government, but vernacular music, as defined as having "irregular movements" was criticised as corrupting for listeners. In spite of this, Chinese society idolized many musicians, even women musicians (who were seen as seductive) such as Cai Yan (ca. 177) and Wang Zhaojun (40-30 B.C). Musical abilities were a prime consideration in marriage desirability. During the Ming dynasty, female musicians were so common that they even played for imperial rituals.
Private theatre troupes in the homes of wealthy families were a common practice.
Professional dancers of the period were of low social status and many entered the profession through poverty, although some such as Zhao Feiyan achieved higher status by becoming concubines. Another dancer was Wang Wengxu (王翁須) who was forced to become a domestic singer-dancer but who later bore the future Emperor Xuan of Han. Institutions were set up to oversee the training and performances of music and dances in the imperial court, such as the Great Music Bureau (太樂署) and the Drums and Pipes Bureau (鼓吹署) responsible for ceremonial music. Emperor Gaozu set up the Royal Academy, while Emperor Xuanzong established the Pear Garden Academy for the training of musicians, dancers and actors. There were around 30,000 musicians and dancers at the imperial court during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, with most specialising in yanyue. All were under the administration of the Drums and Pipes Bureau and an umbrella organization called the Taichang Temple (太常寺).
Professional artists had similarly low status.
Slavery was comparatively uncommon in Chinese history but was still practiced, largely as a judicial punishment for crimes. In the Han and Tang dynasties, it was illegal to trade in Chinese slaves (that were not criminals), but foreign slaves were acceptable. The Xin dynasty emperor Wang Mang, the Ming dynasty Hongwu emperor, and Qing dynasty Yongzheng emperor attempted to ban slavery entirely but were not successful. Illegal enslavement of children frequently occurred under the guise of adoption from poor families. It has been speculated by researchers such as Sue Gronewold that up to 80% of late Qing era prostitutes may have been slaves.
Six dynasties, Tang dynasty, and to a partial extent Song dynasty society also contained a complex system of servile groups included under "mean people" (賤人) that formed intermediate standings between the four occupations and outright slavery. These were, in descending order:
- the musicians of the Imperial Sacrifices 太常音聲人
- general bondsmen 雑戶, including Imperial tomb guards
- musician households 樂戶
- official bondsmen 官戶
- government slaves 奴婢
And in private service,
- personal retainers 部曲
- female retainers 客女
- private slaves 家奴
These performed a wide assortment of jobs in households, in agriculture, delivering messages or as private guards.
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- National Occupational Classification
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