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The Five Constant Relationships: Descriptive Essay on Chinese Dynasties

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The Five Constant Relationships

The term Li (禮) was used in Confucian and post-Confucian philosophy to describe 'the way things should be done'

In Li, one has to be mindful of how to behave and work within a society. You can cultivate your character in Li best by understanding what it entails. Li encompasses most importantly the Doctrine of the Mean and the Five Constant Relationships.

The Doctrine of the Mean is the way in which one should make decisions in life, in which the best decision is always the middle between unworkable extremes. Taking the middle road as Confucius said would guide one to the way things should be done.

The Five Constant Relationships outline how everyone should act in society, being the relationships between parent and child, husband and wife, older sibling and junior sibling, elder friend and junior friend, and ruler and subject. With these continuous rules for relationships, Li creates a hierarchy between the two parties and determines the accepted responses and acts between them.

  1. A parent is to be loving, a child obedient.
  2. An elder sibling is to be gentle, and younger siblings are respectful.
  3. Husbands are to be good and fair, and wives understanding.
  4. Older friends are to be considerate, younger friends reverential.
  5. Rulers should be benevolent, and subjects loyal.

For dynasties that used Confucianism (not Legalism), the first noted person in the relationship was always superior and had to act as a guide and leader/role model to the second noted person, as the second person was to follow.

  1. Nylan, Michael. (Article) “Li” from “The Encyclopedia of Confucianism” RoutledgeCurzon: 2003

China's social structure has a long history beginning from Imperial China's feudal society to the contemporary era.

The most important aspects of China's social structure come from the cycles of dynastic rise and fall, sporadic hostility from northern invaders, a differing degree of tolerance to the outside world's cultural influences, and social harmony dynamics.

I will discuss about the first and last four dynasties that ruled China and the various effects they had on the different social classes of people. These are the Shang Dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty, the Qin Dynasty, the Han Dynasty, and then the Song Dynasty, the Yuan Dynasty, the Ming Dynasty, and the Qing Dynasty.

The Chinese government divided Chinese people into four groups from the Qin Dynasty to the late Qing Dynasty (221 B.C.-A.D. 1840): landlord, peasant craftsman, and merchant. The two main classes were landowners and peasants while merchants and craftsmen were grouped into the two smaller classes. In theory, nothing was hereditary except for the Emperor's position.

There was a gradual revival of feudalism during the 361 years of civil war after the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.–220 A.D.), when wealthy and powerful families emerged with vast amounts of land and huge numbers of semi-serfs. They controlled the government's powerful civil and military roles, making them available only to members of their own families and clans.

Let’s get into some details about the above dynasties.

  1. Dr. Yi Li, 'The Structure and Evolution of Chinese Social Stratification', University Press of America (January 2005),
  2. Robert Mortimer Marsh, Mandarins: The Circulation of Elites in China, 1600-1900, Ayer (June 1980), hardcover, ISBN 0-405-12981-5
  3. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 13, 30

2.1 Shang Dynasty

The Shang dynasty (商朝), was a Chinese dynasty that ruled in the Lower Yellow River Valley in the second millennium BC, succeeding the semi-mythical Xia dynasty and followed by the Zhou dynasty. The classic account of the Shang comes from texts such as the Book of Documents, Bamboo Annals, and Records of the Grand Historian. According to the traditional chronology based on calculations made approximately 2,000 years ago by Liu Xin, the Shang ruled from 1766 to 1122 BC, but according to the chronology based upon the 'current text' of Bamboo Annals, they ruled from 1556 to 1046 BC. The state-sponsored Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project dated them from c. 1600 to 1046 BC based on the carbon 14 dates of the Erligang site.

There were thirty kings and seven separate cities in the Shang empire.

The Shang people had worship-related bronze weapons and bronze vessels. They also grew grains like millet and some wheat harvested with the help of sickles.

One of the Shang people's most important accomplishments was the invention of writing. The writings were discovered on oracle bones, which were obtained from a number of animals, and on bronze and stone.

The Shang people worshipped “Shang Ti”. A major aspect of the Shang religion was a sacrifice to the gods and the ancestors.

The capital was the center of the life of the court. Over time, court rituals developed to appease spirits, and the king would serve as the head of ancestor worship cult in addition to his secular duties. Often, the king would even perform oracle bone divinations himself, especially near the end of the dynasty. Proof from royal tomb excavations suggests that royalty were buried with valuable items, probably for afterlife use. Perhaps for the same cause, the royal corpse was buried with hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves.

A line of hereditary Shang kings ruled much of northern China, and Shang troops fought regular wars from the southern Asian steppes with nearby towns and nomadic herdsmen. Throughout his oracular divinations, the Shang King repeatedly expressed concern about the fang tribes, the barbarians living outside the civilized tu regions that formed the core of the Shang territory.

In addition to their position as commander-in-chief of the military, Shang kings also claimed their spiritual dominance by serving as the high priests of society and heading the ceremonies of divination.[56 ] As the oracle bone texts show, the Shang kings were seen as the best-qualified members of society to make sacrifices to their royal ancestors and the supreme god Di, who was responsible in their beliefs for the rain, wind, and thunder.

  1. Sun, Yan (2006), 'Colonizing China's Northern Frontier: Yan and Her Neighbors During the Early Western Zhou Period', International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 10 (2): 159–177
  2. 'The Shang: China's first historical dynasty, in Loewe, Michael; Shaughnessy, Edward L. (eds.), The Cambridge History of Ancient China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 232–291, ISBN 978-0-521-47030-8.

2.2 Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou dynasty (周) was a Chinese dynasty that followed the Shang dynasty and preceded the Qin dynasty. The Zhou dynasty lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history (790 years).

During the Zhou empire, centralized power declined in the last two decades of the dynasty during the Spring and Autumn era until the Warring States period. The Zhou court had little control over its constituent states during this period, which were at war with each other until the Qin state consolidated power and formed the Qin dynasty in 221 BC. The Zhou dynasty had fallen formally only 35 years earlier, though at that stage the dynasty had only nominal power.

The Zhou Dynasty emerged as semi-nomadic tribes living west of the kingdom of Shang. They learned how to work with people from different cultures because of their roving ways, thus becoming stronger than the Shang and defeating them in a war in 1040 BC. They established their capital in Xi'an after that victory.

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The Zhou adopted most of the Shang dynasty's lifestyle patterns and used their craftsmen's knowledge in a wide range of aspects.

The Zhou also adopted the same writing system patterns and administrative functions as the Shang people. The Zhou practiced heavenly cults and banned the sacrifice of man. They mostly worshiped the sun and the stars.

Western authors describe the Zhou period as 'feudal' because the Zhou's fēngjiàn (封建) system encourages comparison with the medieval rule in Europe.

In inheritance matters, only patrilineal primogeniture was accepted by the Zhou dynasty as legal.

The system, also called 'extensive stratified patrilineage', was defined by the anthropologist Kwang-Chih Chang as 'characterized by the fact that the eldest son of each generation formed the main of line descent and political authority, whereas the younger brothers were moved out to establish new lineages of lesser authority. The farther removed, the lesser the political authority. Ebrey defines the descent-line system as follows: 'A great line (ta-Tsung) is the line of eldest sons continuing indefinitely from a founding ancestor. A lesser line is the line of younger sons going back no more than five generations. Great lines and lesser lines continually spin off new lesser lines, founded by younger sons'. K.E. Brashier writes in his book Ancestral Memory in Early China' about the Tsung-fa system of patrilineal primogeniture: 'The greater lineage, if it has survived, is the direct succession from father to the eldest son and is not defined via the collateral shifts of the lesser lineages. In discussions that demarcate between trunk and collateral lines, the former is called a zong and the latter a Zu, whereas the whole lineage is dubbed the shi. [...] On one hand, every son who is not the eldest and hence not heir to the lineage territory has the potential of becoming a progenitor and fostering a new trunk lineage (Ideally he would strike out to cultivate a new lineage territory). [...] According to the Zou commentary, the son of heaven divided the land among his feudal lords, his feudal lords divided the land among their dependent families, and so forth down the pecking order to the officers who had their dependent kin and the commoners who 'each had his apportioned relations and all had their graded precedence''[27]

  1. Brashier, K. E. (2011-01-01). Ancestral Memory in Early China
  2. Ancestral Memory in Early China Written By K. E. Brashier

2.2.1 Fēngjiàn system and bureaucracy

There were five peerage ranks below the royal ranks, in order of importance with common English translations: gōng 公 'duke', hóu 侯 'marquis', bó 伯 'count', zǐ 子 'viscount', and nán 男 'baron'. A vigorous duke sometimes took power from his nobles and centralized the state. Centralization became more necessary as the states began to fight each other and decentralization promoted the further war. If a duke took power from his peers, appointed officials would have to administrate the government bureaucratically.

After these major classes lie the actual social hierarchy of ancient China that was based on the occupation of people.


The Shi held the Chinese social hierarchy's highest status and wore silk robes as an identification of their rank. They had the right to ride in chariots, carry arms, and command battles. They were also well educated. They served as advisors, clerks, overseers, and scribes in various job roles. They also served in various administrative services. They performed different civil duties. The people of this group gave tests to get into different positions in the government. They entered into governments of various levels such as district, provincial and federal levels.

The Shi were the gentry scholars in the time of the ancient Zhou and Shang dynasties. Such were seen in the social structure as the low-level aristocratic lineage. They also had some advantages that other citizens were not granted as they were allowed to ride in chariots and order the battles from their mobile chariots. The members of this group were also appointed to the country's civil services. Earlier these were the people who were known for their warrior skills and were recognized double-edged sword that was known as Jian, but later on the people started recognizing this knowledge, scholarship, and their administration abilities.


The Nong class was comprised by peasant farmers. Since the Neolithic age, Chinese agriculture has remained a key element of the whole civilization since the farmers produced food to sustain society as a whole. According with craftsmen and merchants, these were considered part of higher ranks. While they did not enjoy the rights granted to the Shi community, they were regarded as important members of society. These were landowners and were in charge of producing food and vegetables for themselves and society.


The Gong class is made up of artisans and craftsmen. These were considered labors according to Chinese understanding. They were like farmers but because they didn't own any land on their own, they managed to grow products and crafts. This was also a wealthy class, but in the social structure, it was not considered a good class, and therefore privileges & rights were not granted in contrast with the higher classes.


The lower class in ancient China's social hierarchy was the Shang class consisting of merchants and traders. Because these individuals were unable to achieve good status in society, they were put at the lower levels of the social structure. They had significant wealth, but they were not considered decent citizens in society because they indulged in selling and transporting goods that were made by the other men.

Despite all these similarities, there are a number of important differences from medieval Europe. One obvious difference is that rather than castles the Zhou ruled from walled cities. Another was China's distinct class hierarchy without a structured clergy.

When a dukedom was centralized, these people would find employment as government officials or officers. These hereditary classes were comparable in rank and training to Western knights, but they were expected to be something of a scholar rather than a soldier like the Western clergy. They would switch from one country to another when they were selected. Some would travel from state to state peddling schemes of administrative or military reform. Many who were unable to find work would often end up teaching young men aspiring to official status.

2.3 Qin Dynasty

  • The Qin dynasty came to power in 221 BC. They were one of the Western states that conquered the Warring States and unified China for the first time in ancient history.
  • The Qin dynasty was the strongest dynasty militarily. For warfare, they used various new technologies They used cavalry for the most part.
  • The Qin dynasty also made several changes aimed at unifying China and strengthening administrative procedures.
  • The Emperor was the highest rank, and the commanderie leaders had to report in writing to the Emperor.

The Qin administration was extremely hierarchical, and a system of officials governed it, all representing the First Emperor. The Qin brought Han Feizi's teachings into effect, allowing the First Emperor to command all his domains, including those newly conquered. All aspects of life were structured, from measurements and language to more practical details like chariot axle lengths.

Commoners and rural farmers who made up more than 90% of the population, very seldom left the villages or farms where they were raised. Common modes of work varied from region to region, but farming was common almost uniformly. Professions were hereditary; a father's employment was passed to his eldest son after he died.

2.4 Han Dynasty

The period of the Han dynasty in ancient China hegemony began when Liu Bang, a Han prince conquered the Qin army in 206 BC.

He founded his new capital, Ch'ang-an, when Liu Bang invaded the Qin. The king retained the bulk of the rules and regulations similar to the Qin dynasty.

Like Qin, the main goal of the Han was also to unify China.

Education was an important aspect of the Han dynasty.

The emperor was at the center of Han society and government in the hierarchical social order. Nevertheless, the emperor was often a minor, governed by a regent like the empress dowager or one of her male relatives. The kings who belonged to the same Liu family clan were ranked directly below the emperor. The rest of society, including nobles below the kings and all commoners except slaves, belonged to one of twenty ranks.

Each successive rank granted greater retirement and legal privileges to their holder. The highest rank, of a full marquess, came with a state pension and a territorial fiefdom. Holders of the rank directly below, that of ordinary marquess, received a pension but had no territorial rule. Officers serving in government belonged to the broader general class of society and were ranked in social prestige just below nobles. The highest government officials could be enfeoffed as marquesses.

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