You are here: Home » History » The Class Structure of Tang Dynasty Society

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.


Liked it
User Comments
  1. Ms.Cullen

    On January 8, 2009 at 8:54 am

    This website is so boring it dosen\’t even make sense. It doesn\’t give a lot of information on the social structure of the tang. Warning: NEVER COME TO THIS WEBSITE!!!!!!!!

  2. ms.Ching Ching Chong

    On January 8, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Yall website is way to boring and stupid upgrade that thank ya

  3. Cool Person

    On January 28, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    This website gave me ALOT of very useful info on the tang dynasy and i think that whoever is Ms. Cullen and ms.Ching Ching Chong
    are seriously mistaken thanks John Walsh for providing students with this info

  4. meeeeeee!

    On February 1, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    this sucks they should take it out of the website or just make it cooler and cool person you suck.

  5. cooler than cool person

    On February 1, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    i agree with ms. cullen and ms. ching ching chong cool person never again place a comment

  6. mr.SSSSSSSSSl

    On April 29, 2009 at 8:29 am

    I think Cool Person id 100% right….and btw if u think it boring y u read it????????

  7. cooler than all of yall

    On September 13, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    this website was horrible anybody u thinks it was good u suck

  8. Don

    On September 29, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    ms. cullen and ms. ching ching chong cool should write theirs and stop talking non-sense

  9. xD

    On December 11, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    this gave me a lot of info thanks!

  10. jojo

    On January 5, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    THIS SUCKS! WTF! lol but seriously, complete wast of my time!
    any one who agrees with me, say I

    omg it would be so cool if u changed this website to an online movie and tv show site. lol

  11. Wolfy

    On March 23, 2010 at 11:22 am

    You people are crazy if you thought this wasent usfull, im doing a project on this stuff and it helped so much thatnk you and back off people just comment if you liked it what if i went on something you took a bunch of time doing and said it was stuped, poinless and a waist of time how would you feel? BAD SO SHUT IT!

  12. mr. taco

    On March 25, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    i like sexy tacos……hey chek out my website taco my taco @

  13. Lolita

    On November 8, 2010 at 5:40 am

    Seriously, you guys spam like Losers. This is awesome. Thanks

  14. Anonymous

    On January 6, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Dearest Ms. Cullen,
    I am not sure if I can trust your opinion when you seem to think one can turn back time. I cannot never go on this website if I am already on.
    Person Who Got Useful Information From This Website

Post Comment
Powered by Powered by Triond