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Population, Social Structure

imperial bureaucracy, harmonious society, imperial system, Communist state, factory owners

China’s traditional class and social structure traces back more than 3,000 years to the Shang (1570?-1045? bc) and Zhou (1045?-256 bc) dynasties. During this period a ruling class emerged from a combination of priests, military leaders, and administrators. By the 4th and 3rd centuries bc, the legitimacy of the ruling elite was embedded in the writings of Confucius and other scholars.

Confucian doctrine sought to develop a framework for a stable and harmonious society. In this framework, mutual responsibilities and obligations were defined between ruler and subjects, husband and wife, parents and children, father and eldest son, and eldest son and other siblings. If the roles were carried out properly, society would function in a well-ordered manner. China was defined as a male-centered society in which the family name passed down through the male line. The eldest son was charged with performing important annual rituals that involved reverence for deceased ancestors and parents. Veneration for ancestors was an important part of Chinese family life, and every Chinese home had, and typically still has, a small shrine for ancestors.

Beyond family life, Chinese social order traditionally was defined in terms of a few main social groupings. The emperor and his attendants were at the top of the social order. Below him was the imperial bureaucracy, staffed at all levels—court, province, prefecture, and county—with elite scholar officials. Through these officials, backed by the army and other imperial policing authorities, the imperial government administered the state and imposed its authority and control when challenged. Farmers, soldiers, merchants, and artisans were below the bureaucrats. This general social order persisted until the imperial system was overthrown in 1911, although over time the position of merchants had improved. By the 20th century, a number of families with commercial and industrial interests had amassed great fortunes. Their wealth permitted them the luxury of educating their children, and through this means, their families’ status advanced in the traditional hierarchy.

When the Chinese Communists gained power in 1949, the social hierarchy changed dramatically. Poor peasant farmers and people who had joined the Communist army during the revolution were held in esteem within the party, which exercised great influence over society. Landlords and educated elites often were punished, and many lost their land and other properties. In rural areas there were many executions and other punishments for landlord families.

A peasant background continues to be important for advancement within the party hierarchy. However, the value of education as a means of developing skills and strong qualifications has emerged once again as the best path to social advancement. Since the 1970s individuals from elite backgrounds have been allowed to compete for educational advancement as China has sought to use more fully its human resources. In some cases, former factory owners have been allowed to reestablish their businesses, and in this manner China has allowed a small measure of rehabilitation of its elite governing classes from the past. But China remains a Communist state and political system, and as long as it continues as such, elites are likely to be viewed with suspicion by other members of society.

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