Social structure was very important in ancient China. The Chinese believed in strict social groups and people were expected to behave according to their social position. This belief was further reinforced by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who taught that strict social order and discipline was the key to a successful society. Men and women in ancient China were not equal and men were afforded far more privileges than women. The Chinese strongly believed in the wisdom of the elders and, as such, grandparents were greatly respected.
Beneath the emperor, there were four main social classes in ancient China. These four classes were nobles and officials, peasants, artisans and merchants.
The emperor and his family were at the top of the social scale in ancient China. The emperor ruled from a palace in the capital city. Emperors believed that they were appointed by heaven and therefore did not need to obey humans. An emperor expected his subjects to be loyal and obedient. It was common for an emperor to have many wives to increase his chance of having a son. Once the emperor chose the son that he wanted to succeed him, the mother of the son would become the empress. She was then able to grant favours to her family - often in the form of posts in the royal household and plots of land.
See image 1
The noble class in ancient China was very privileged. Nobles were typically the extended family of the emperor and empress and those people that excelled in their fields, particularly in the military. The status of nobles, however, changed frequently depending on who gained or fell out of favour with the emperor. When a new emperor came to power, it was common for him to favour a new set of nobles. Nobles often became landowners and collected taxes from those that lived on their land, meaning that they would become wealthier. They were required to give some of their income to the emperor and in return received privileges and were afforded some protection.
Most nobles lived in extravagant homes and wore expensive clothing and jewellery. For sport, they hunted wild animals. If nobles committed a crime for which they were sentenced to death, the emperor could grant them a special favour that would allow them to commit suicide, which was considered a much more honourable death.
Officials were another group that held high social status in ancient China. Boys whose families could afford to send them to school began their education at an early age so as to become officials and were required to pass a difficult exam. If they did not pass, however, they were usually still able find jobs as they were considered well educated.
Officials were arranged in ranks. The two most senior officials acted as advisers to the emperor. Most officials lived very comfortably and were well-respected due to their position and education.
Although peasant farmers in ancient China were one of the lowest social classes, they were still considered important as they produced the food that sustained the society. Most peasants were very poor and led simple lives. They worked very hard and rarely had a day off. Peasant men worked in the fields and had to endure harsh conditions. They worked through the burning heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter. The harsh conditions could also ruin their crops and land. If the crops were ruined, poor families had very little to survive on during the winter. Some