The four occupations or "four categories of the people" (simplified Chinese: 士农工商; traditional Chinese: 士農工商 ) was a hierarchic social class structure developed in ancient China by either Confucian or Legalist scholars as far back as the late Zhou dynasty and is considered a central part of the fengjian social structure (c. 1046–256 BC).
In descending order, these were the shi (gentry scholars), the nong (peasant farmers), the gong (artisans and craftsmen), and the shang (merchants and traders). In some manner this system of social order was adopted throughout the Chinese cultural sphere. In Japanese it is called mibunsei (身分制) and is sometimes stated as "Shi, nō, kō, shō" (士農工商, shinōkōshō), in Korean as "Sa, nong, gong, sang" (사농공상), and in Vietnamese as "Sĩ, nông, công, thương (士農工商). The main difference in adaptation was the definition of the shi (士).
The system did not figure in all other social groups present in premodern Chinese society, and its broad categories were more an idealization than a practical reality. The commercialization of Chinese society in the Song and Ming periods further blurred the lines between these four hierarchic social distinctions. The definition of the identity of the shi class changed over time—from an ancient warrior class, to an aristocratic scholarly elite, and finally to a bureaucratic scholarly elite with less emphasis on archaic noble lineage. There was also a gradual fusion of the wealthy merchant and landholding gentry classes, culminating in the late Ming Dynasty.
From existing literary evidence, commoner rankings in China were employed for the first time during the Warring States period (403–221 BC). Despite this, Eastern-Han (AD 25–220) historian Ban Gu (AD 32–92) asserted in his Book of Han that the four occupations for commoners had existed in the Western Zhou (c. 1050 – 771 BC) era, which he considered a golden age. However, it is now known that the classification of four occupations as Ban Gu understood it did not exist until the 2nd century BC. Ban explained the social hierarchy of each group in descending order:
Scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants; each of the four peoples had their respective profession. Those who studied in order to occupy positions of rank were called the shi (scholars). Those who cultivated the soil and propagated grains were called nong (farmers). Those who manifested skill (qiao) and made utensils were called gong (artisans). Those who transported valuable articles and sold commodities were called shang (merchants).
Anthony J. Barbieri-Low, Professor of Early Chinese History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes that the classification of "four occupations" can be viewed as a mere rhetorical device that had no effect on government policy. However, he notes that although no statute in the Qin or Han law codes specifically mentions the four occupations, some laws did treat these broadly classified social groups as separate units with different levels of legal privilege.
During the ancient Shang and Zhou dynasties, the shi were regarded as a knightly social order of low-level aristocratic lineage compared to dukes and marquises. This social class was distinguished by their right to ride in chariots and command battles from mobile chariots, while they also served civil functions. They were also known by the weaponry they used, the double-edged sword, or jian. The type of clothing worn by the shi class also distinguished them from others; the shi wore long flowing silken robes, while all other men wore trousers.
As chariot warfare became eclipsed by mounted cavalry and infantry units with effective crossbowmen in the Warring States period (403–221 BC), the participation of the shi in battle dwindled as rulers sought men with actual military training, not just aristocratic background. This was also a period where philosophical schools flourished in China, while intellectual pursuits became highly valued amongst statesmen. Thus, the shi eventually became renowned not for their warrior's skills, but for their scholarship, abilities in administration, and sound ethics and morality supported by competing philosophical schools.
Under Duke Xiao of Qin and the chief minister and reformer Shang Yang (d. 338 BC), the ancient State of Qin was transformed by a new meritocratic yet harsh philosophy of Legalism. This philosophy stressed stern punishments for those who disobeyed the publicly known laws while rewarding those who labored for the state and strove diligently to obey the laws. It was a means to diminish the power of the nobility, and was another force behind the transformation of the shi class from warrior-aristocrats into merit-driven officials. The Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) unified China under the Legalist system, but became infamous for its oppressive measures, and so collapsed into a state of civil war.
The victor of this war was Liu Bang, who initiated four centuries of unification of China proper under the Han dynasty (202 BC–AD 220). One of his later successors was Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC), who not only cemented the ideology of Confucius into mainstream Chinese thought, governance, and social order, but also installed a system of recommendation and nomination in government service known as xiaolian. After the Han period, this system was replaced by the nine-rank system, a similar means of recruiting officials through recommendation. Both systems favored the wealthy, those of noble background, and the well-connected. It was not until the Sui dynasty (581–618) that a new beginning of change in the shi class would present itself by means of the civil service examination system.
The civil service recruitment system during the subsequent Tang dynasty (618–907) followed the Sui model of partial recruitment of those who passed standard exams and earned an official degree. Yet recruitment by recommendations to office was still prominent in both dynasties. It was not until the Song dynasty (960–1279) that the recruitment of those who passed the exams and earned degrees was given greater emphasis and significantly expanded. The shi class also became less aristocratic and more bureaucratic due to the highly competitive nature of the exams during the Song period.
From the 11th to 13th centuries, the number of exam candidates participating in taking the exams increased dramatically from merely 30,000 to 400,000 by the dynasty's end. Widespread printing through woodblock and movable type enhanced the spread of knowledge amongst the literate in society, enabling more people to become candidates and competitors vying for a prestigious degree. With a dramatically expanding population matching a growing amount of gentry, scholar-officials needed the gentry to perform local services such as funding public works, prefectural and county schools, or aiding in tax collection.
In Korea, the noble yangban class prevented the lower classes from taking the advanced gwageo exams so they could dominate the bureaucracy. Below the yangban were the chungin, a class of privileged commoners who were petty bureaucrats, scribes, and specialists. The chungin were actually the least populous class, even smaller than the yangban.
A similar situation occurred in the Ryūkyū Kingdom with the hereditary yukatchu but yukatchu status can be bought from the government as the kingdom's finances were frequently deficient. Due to the growth of this class and the lack of government positions open for them, Sai On allowed yukatchu to become merchants and artisans while keeping their high status.
In Japan, this role was taken by the hereditary samurai class. Originally a martial class, the samurai became civil administrators to their daimyōs during the Tokugawa shogunate. No exams were needed as the positions were inherited. They constituted about 5% of the population and were allowed to have a proper surname. (see Edo society).
Since Neolithic times in China, agriculture was a key element to the rise of China's civilization and every other civilization. The food that farmers produced sustained the whole of society, while the land tax exacted on farmers' lots and landholders' property produced much of the state revenue for China's pre-modern ruling dynasties. Therefore, the farmer was a valuable member of society, and even though he was not considered one with the shi class, the families of the shi were still landholders that often produced crops and foodstuffs.
Soldiers were not highly respected members of society. Soldiers traditionally came from farming families, while some were simply debtors who fled their land (whether owned or rented) to escape lawsuits by creditors or imprisonment for failing to pay taxes. Soldiers along China's frontiers were also encouraged by the state to settle down on their own farm lots in order for the food supply of the military to become self-sufficient. Farmers were also encouraged to join peasant militias to act as supporting units to the official standing army.
By the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the socioeconomic class of farmers grew more and more indistinct from another social class in the four occupations: the artisan. Artisans began working on farms in peak periods and farmers often traveled into the city to find work during times of dearth. The distinction between what was town and country was blurred in Ming China, since suburban areas with farms were located just outside and in some cases within the walls of a city.
Artisans and craftsmen — their class identified with the Chinese character meaning labor — were much like farmers in the respect that they produced essential goods needed by themselves and the rest of society. Although they could not provide the state with much of its revenues since they often had no land of their own to be taxed, artisans and craftsmen were still given a higher place than merchants. Since ancient times, the skilled work of artisans and craftsmen was handed down orally from father to son, although the work of architects and structural builders were sometimes codified, illustrated, and categorized in Chinese written works.
One example of this would be the Yingzao Fashi printed in 1103, an architectural building manual written by an official put in charge of government agencies for construction. Artisans and craftsmen were either government-employed or worked privately. A successful and highly skilled artisan could often gain enough capital in order to hire others as apprentices or additional laborers that could be overseen by the chief artisan as a manager. Hence, artisans could create their own small enterprises in selling their work and that of others, and like the merchants, they formed their own guilds.
The merchants, traders, and peddlers of goods were viewed by the scholarly elite as essential members of society, yet were placed on the lowest of the four grades in the official Chinese social hierarchy, due to the view that they do not produce anything, only profit from others' creations. This was in spite of the fact that throughout Chinese history, the merchant class were often wealthy and held considerable influence above and beyond their supposed social standing.
The scholars' attitudes towards commerce and business was almost universally apparent in their writings which denounced the merchant class as greedy and lacking moral character. It was also unacceptable for scholar-officials to engage in personal profiteering outside their official salary, even though by the Song period they were using intermediary agents to handle their anonymous business affairs for them.
Merchants were seen as somewhat parasitic to the needs of all other groups in society, since it was acknowledged that they used the goods that others produced and made their own profits from them. In essence, they were seen as business savvy, but not morally cultivated enough to be leading members of society or highly venerated representatives of Chinese culture.
Despite this disdain for the merchants, by the mid Ming dynasty (1368–1644), many families who produced scholar-officials had members who were merchants or had a merchant as a descendant of some kind. Even more significant was the fact that scholar-officials who had familial ties with merchants from the past or in the present became unabashed about these ties and made it publicly known in the writing of their official family histories. During the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, scholar-officials could derive enough of their own revenues to fund vital public works.
By the late Ming Dynasty, they often needed to solicit funds from powerful merchants to build new roads, schools, bridges, pagodas, or engage in essential industries, such as book-making, which aided the gentry class in education for the imperial examinations. Merchants began to imitate the highly cultivated nature and manners of scholar-officials in order to appear more cultured and gain higher prestige and acceptance by the scholarly elite. They even purchased printed books that served as guides to proper conduct and behavior and which promoted merchant morality and business ethics.
There were many social groups that were excluded from the four broad categories in the social hierarchy. These included soldiers and guards, religious clergy and diviners, eunuchs and concubines, entertainers and courtiers, domestic servants and slaves, prostitutes, and low class laborers other than farmers and artisans. The emperor—embodying a heavenly mandate to judicial and executive authority—was on a social and legal tier above the gentry and the exam-drafted scholar-officials. Although his royal family and noble extended family were also highly respected, they did not command the same level of authority.
There were motives behind the aristocratic officials and later scholar-officials' classifying of certain groups in the hierarchy and leaving others out. The scholar-officials placed farmers as the second most prestigious group because the aristocratic officials and scholar-officials were landholders themselves, much like farmers (the ones who weren't tenant farmers or serfs). Both farmers and artisans were placed on a higher tier than merchants because the two former groups produced crops and manufactured goods, essential things needed by the whole of society. The merchants were seen as merely talented at business and trading, and were often seen as greedy and even parasitic to the needs of all other groups.
The social category of the soldier was left out of the social hierarchy due to the gentry scholars' embracing of intellectual cultivation (wen) and detest for violence (wu). The scholars did not want to legitimize those whose professions centered chiefly around violence, so to leave them out of the social hierarchy altogether was a means to keep them in an unrecognized and undistinguished social tier.
Entertainers and courtiers were often dependents upon the wealthy or were associated with the often-perceived immoral pleasure grounds of urban entertainment districts. To give them official recognition would have given them more prestige. Although shamans and diviners in Bronze Age China had some authority as religious leaders in society, the scholars did not want religious leaders amassing too much power and influence like military strongmen (one example of this would be Zhang Jiao, who led a Taoist sect into open rebellion against the Han government's authority). There were also multiple persecutions of Buddhism in China, a lot of the contention being over Buddhist monasteries' exemption from government taxation, but also because later Neo-Confucian scholars saw Buddhism as an alien ideology and threat to the moral order of society.
The court eunuchs were also viewed with some suspicion by the scholar-officials, since there were several instances in Chinese history where influential eunuchs came to dominate the emperor, his imperial court, and the whole of the central government. In an extreme example, the eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627) had his critics from the orthodox Confucian 'Donglin Society' tortured and killed while dominating the court of the Tianqi Emperor—Wei was dismissed by the next ruler and committed suicide.