Four occupations

A painting of a gentry scholar with two courtesans, by Tang Yin, c. 1500

The four occupations (simplified Chinese: 士农工商; traditional Chinese: 士農工商) or "four categories of the people" (Chinese: 四民)[1][2] was an occupation classification used 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).[3] These were the shi (gentry scholars), the nong (peasant farmers), the gong (artisans and craftsmen), and the shang (merchants and traders).[3]The four occupations were not always arranged in this order.[4][5] The four categories were not socioeconomic classes; wealth and standing did not correspond to these categories, nor were they hereditary.[1][6]

The system did not factor in all 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 occupations. The definition of the identity of the shi class changed over time—from warriors, to aristocratic scholars, and finally to scholar-bureaucrats. There was also a gradual fusion of the wealthy merchant and landholding gentry classes, culminating in the late Ming Dynasty.

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), although in Japan it became a hereditary caste system.[7][8] 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).


Street scene in Bianjing (modern Kaifeng)

From existing literary evidence, commoner categories in China were employed for the first time during the Warring States period (403–221 BC).[9] 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.[9] However, it is now known that the classification of four occupations as Ban Gu understood it did not exist until the 2nd century BC.[9] 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).[10]

The Rites of Zhou described the four groups in a different order, with merchants before farmers.[11] The Han-era text Guliang Zhuan placed merchants second after scholars,[4] and the Warring States-era Xunzi placed farmers before scholars.[5] The Shuo Yuan mentioned a quotation which stressed the ideal of equality for the four occupations.[12]

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.[9] 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.[9]

The categorisation was sorted according to the principle of economic usefulness to state and society, that those who used mind rather than muscle (scholars) were placed first, with farmers, seen as the primary creators of wealth, placed next, followed by artisans, and finally merchants who were seen as a social disturbance for excessive accumulation of wealth or erratic fluctuation of prices.[13] Beneath the four occupations were the "mean people" (Chinese: 賤民), outcasts from "humilitating" occupations such as entertainers and prostitutes.[14]

The four occupations were not a hereditary system.[1][6] The four occupations system differed from those of European feudalism in that people were not born into the specific classes, such that, for example, a son born to a gong craftsman was able to become a part of the shang merchant class, and so on. Theoretically, any man could become an official through the Imperial examinations.[14]

From the fourth century BC, the shi and some wealthy merchants wore long flowing silken robes, while the working class wore trousers.[15]