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The Class Structure of Tang Dynasty Society

Emperor, aristocrats, workers, peasants and slaves. Who was respected and why?

One of the distinctive and characteristic features of East Asian societies is their insistence on status and of class structure. Visitors to Seoul in South Korea have the opportunity to witness this in a very vivid way at the Gyeongbukgung Palace, for example. In the courtyards in which people would be received by the king, standing stones mark out places and positions in which people (men, of course) would stand in rigid lines determined by their position within the kingdom. The king or his designated officials might then reward or punish individuals by causing them to move from their current position to the new position. Humiliations or rewards were phenomena enacted wholly in the public sphere. Even today in modern China, the concept of the public haranguing or criticism remains a potent means of punishment.

The same structures were in place during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). The Tang Dynasty, especially during its earlier years, is remembered as a Golden Age for China because of the robust, effective government and the flowering of art and philosophy. One of the more influential reasons for this was the possibility for social mobility, underwritten by the Imperial Examination system which made it possible for boys of humble birth but high levels of diligence and talent to enter the civil service and rise up through the ranks. However, despite that social mobility, the class structure as a whole remained quite strong. People were expected to respect and show deference towards those above them in the social hierarchy and behave decently to those beneath them. The philosophy of Confucius was used to buttress these ideas. Sumptuary laws were in force which made sure that people wore the clothes appropriate to their station in life, lived in houses in certain areas and owned certain items all according to the class they inhabited. There was no sense of equality.

At the very top of the social tree was the Emperor and then the emperor’s family. The aristocracy were below the emperor – although when the ruler was from an arriviste family, it was possible for the aristocracy to outweigh the imperial family according to some criteria. Beneath the aristocracy was the bureaucracy, divided between the superior mandarins who were recognised scholar-officials and the functionaries, who actually did the tedious scribing and clerical tasks on which the imperial bureaucracy depended. Beneath the bureaucracy, in structural terms, were the eunuchs, who were usually minor imperial servants who might one day aspire to a position in the palace. There may have been up to 5,000 of these at any one time. The next class was the clergy, the religious types who led devotions, tended to temples and led the spiritual life in its various manifestations. There were more than a quarter of a million such people. Next in status were the peasants, who laboured in the fields and whose produce fed the empire. Around 80-90% of the entire population of the Tang Empire was composed of peasants and their families. Beneath the peasants were the artisans and traders, who were the prototype for the urban working class and who were held to be low down on the social scale – indeed only the slaves were subject to more discrimination.

 

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