Chapter 5: Social Structure
Chinese traditional society was strictly hierarchically ordered, with the population basically divided into two different classes, the rulers and the ruled. The rights, obligations and privileges of each class were clearly delineated and left little room for individual freedom or initiative. Box 5.1 depicts the social structure which developed in the Ming–Qing period and remained stable up to the modern period. At the apex of the Chinese social pyramid stood the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, whose function was to guarantee the harmony between heaven and earth. Closest to him was the hereditary imperial nobility, made up of the Emperor’s clansmen. The next level, the non-Imperial nobility, was created as status reward for exceptional, mostly military, services and these positions were not hereditary. The next level was made up by the scholar-officials or the gentry. The gentry, the scholar-elite, were given the power to govern the country because of their scholastic achievements which comprised both academic achievements and character-forming Confucian ethics. According to the monumental studies of Chang (1955) and Ho (1964) the Chinese gentry can be further subdivided into two main groups. The first of these consisted of degree holders with official appointments. Government officials were further divided into nine ranks. The first three ranks were made up of senior government bureaucrats at the central and provincial government levels, such as the Prime Minister, the Governor General and other provincial government officials. The second tier, which included the 4th to 7th rank, was constituted by mid-level bureaucrats, such...
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