Ranking system for the overall society
The upper class of ancient China is first royalty centred around the family (including siblings and spouses) of the Emperor and then the nobles which could be from the extended family of the Emperor (cousins and such) or government officials who have acceded to such a rank through grand achievements (saving the Emperor’s life, by winning a major war etc.). By nobles, I’m referring to those given claims on land and thus effectively a feudal lord.
In the next tier comes the government officials ( Guan in Mandarin) who earn fixed wages from the Imperial Treasury. They can further be broken down into Wen Guan (administrators) and Wu Guan (Generals).
In terms of the populace, there are three different stratas that an individual could fall in: “good citizenry”, “practitioners of cheap occupations” and finally “cheap citizenry”.
Ranked according to prestige (even though the one to which the term was attributed to never meant for the four classes to be compared and ranked, he was commenting more in general on the four classes that made up the pillars of a society), the good citizenry were composed of:
- “Shi” (originally referring to generals and soldiers but later misinterpreted as/become a term referring to scholars and particularly government officials with administration duties as the Chinese society becomes biased towards learning over martial prowess)
- “Nong” (farmers)
- “Gong” (craftsmen)
- “Shang” (merchants): in some dynasties, merchants were frowned upon and listed outside the ranks of ‘good citizens’.
I’m not sure whether medical practitioners fell within Gong or Shang or have a class of their own but I’m fairly sure that they were respected on average. Then again, there are medicine peddlers in those days in some small villages and I don’t think they were that respected.
There were four (five) “cheap occupations” that were not allowed to marry those of “good citizenry” and become officials. These occupations had a high chance of becoming ‘hereditary’ but is not a certainty. Also, individual born to poor farmers might be forced to take up one of these ‘cheap occupations’ sometimes. They include:
- “Chang” (prostitutes)
- “You” (actors of Chinese opera and all its various local variations, all male in ancient times)
- “Li” (underlings to the Mayor of a small Town that encompass those that have policemen duties as well as others with administrative duties. Either way, they do not have official titles like the Mayor)
- “Zu” (prison guards)
- “Bin” (undertakers)- it’s mainly the fact that people think of undertakers as ill-luck. I think it varies by dynasty whether they are listed under the ‘cheap occupations’.
Finally, the “cheap citizenry” are composed of slaves (“Nu”) and certain types of convicts (for example, those who committed treason against the Emperor) whose brand actually carries over to all subsequent generations.
Ranking among the Emperor’s Huo Gong (or literally “Back Palace”)
This actually fluctuates from dynasty to dynasty. Sometimes, even within the same dynasty, particular Emperors have the whims to add in new ranks for particular favoured concubines. For example, in the Tang dynasty, Xuan Zhong (state name of one of the Emperors) gave the rank of Kui Fei (Kui here refers having high status whereas Fei is the usually the highest title for a Royal Concubine), which existed at the start of the dynasty but was abolished, to his most favoured concubine, who also happened to be one of the Four Beauties renowned in history.
In general, the hierarchy is as follows:
- 1 Queen
- 3, up to 12, Fu Ren (or Fei). Depending on the dynasty, they might be given the titled of Kui (high status) Fei, Shuo Fei, De Fei and Xian Fei that all translate to the Virtuous Royal Concubine, Hui (kind) Fei, Li (beautiful) Fei, Hua (flowery) Fei, Rou (gentle) Fei, Wen (literature) Fei, Yuan (first) Fei, Zhen (true) Fei or Chen (Imperial) Fei. By far, the most common combination is a three or four Fei being made up of Kui Fei, Shuo Fei, De Fei and Xian Fei. In addition, the 3 Fu Ren setup mirrors the rank of 3 Gong for government officials
- 9 Pins, with two-character titles made up from the 3 prefixes of Zhao (bright), Xiu (cultivate) and Chong (fill) and the 3 suffixes of Yi (manners), Rong (looks) and Yuan (beauty). This 9 Pin setup mirrors the rank of 9 Qing for government officials
- 27 Shi (generational) Fu (married women) separated into three strates: nine Jie Yu, nine Mei Ren (Beauties) and nine Cai Ren (person of talent)
- 81 Yu Qi (Imperial Wife), again forming 3 equal sub-stratas including Bao (Treasure) Lin (Forest), Nu Yu (Maiden under Control? Yu can also mean Imperial but here probably referring to control in the context of riding a horse) and Huan Nu (Leisurely or Slow Maiden).
So despite the folklore saying that there are 3000+ within an Emperor’s Back Palace, there should really be 121 in total. This is also the standard specified in the book titled Courtesy of the Zhou dynasty (basically a book that sets the standard for various cultural practices, customs for interactions with different social status to oneself etc.). In terms of the maximum number of concubines to be taken in, it actually specifies that for an Emperor, the standard setup is 121 whereas for Feudal Lords, he can only be married to 9 women (so one wife and eight concubines). For high ranking Officials, the standard is one wife and two concubines whereas other officials can only have one wife and a concubine. Common citizenry can only have one wife and this is where the term for a single man/woman Pi Fu come from (Pi is usually a counter for cloths/horses). Of course, this standard only applied to the Zhou dynasty which was before the Qin dynasty that was the first one that united all of the China under a single banner.
Starting from the Ming dynasty (the dynasty after Kublai Khan’s reign in China), the mid-top ranks in the Back Palace are as follows:
- Huang Kui Fei (Royal high status concubine)
- Kui Fei (high status concubine)
- Fei (concubine)
The ranks lower than Pin are very ad hoc in the Ming dynasty. In the Qing dynasty (the dynasty started by Manchurians, the ones who started the practice of men wearing a plait), the ranking system is similar to the Ming dynasty but with the lower ranks fixed. In particular, below the rank of Fei, there are four more lower ranks in order of are respectively:
- Kui Ren (high status person)
- Chang Zai (always present)
- Da Ying (agree) and finally
- Guan Nu Zi (Official Females) who are little different from Imperial Maids.
In addition, in the Qing and some other dynasties, sometimes there are restricted numbers for the high ranking concubines (say up to and above Feis) but the Emperor can grant as many of the lower titles to he wishes rather than having to a set number for his entire Back Palace.
Ranking among Government Officials in Ancient China
Wen Guan (administrators):
There are two power hierarchies within the administrators: the ones that work as Central Administrators and the ones that work as Administrators of particular regions (much like the modern distinction of Federal Government and State/Local Government).
In the Qin dynasty, the Central Administrators were just composed of Cheng Xiang (akin to First Advisor to the King who is mainly in charge of all administration) Tai Wei (in charge of all military aspects) and Yu Shi Da Fu (in charge of monitoring and secretarial duties). From the Han dynasty, the three Gong system arose that were really just the successor of the Qin ranking system. In addition, it was then that 9 Qingswas introduced as a direct tier below the 3 Gongs as a rank.
The 3 Gongs, basically three First Advisors, were:
- Tai Shi (where Tai means big or very and I would say is the equivalent of the word Grand being put into titles and Shi means teacher)
- Tai Fu (where Fu means tutor)
- Tai Bao (where Bao means protect)
The 9 Qings were:
- Tai Chang (where Chang means common): in charge of “courtesy” aspects in relation to the continual operation of the Emperor’s ancestral temple (ancient Chinese do not really engage in ancestor worship but for large and prosperous/high status families, they do keep name plates of all ancestors together in one house for descendants for visit annually and give offering of incense and other things)
- Guang Lu Xun: In charge of Imperial guards and servants, changed to being responsible for food and accommodation at the Palace in a short dynasty ( Bei Qi or Northern Qi) formed within the slightly less than 200 years period between the Jin and the Sui dynasties when the North and South part of China were divided between different rulers (hence this period was known as Nan Bei Chao or the period of Southern & Northern dynasties), finally changed to just being responsible for food in the Tang dynasty
- Wei Wei (literally Protection Officer): responsible for Imperial guards and army maintenance (in terms of numbers), changed to being responsible for military equipment and tents in the Sui dynasty, abolished in the Ming dynasty and revived under a different name in the Qing dynasty
- Tai Pu: in charge of carriages, horses and other matters related to managing herds of animals
- Ting Wei (Court Officer): in charge of making judgements over criminal cases
- Da Hong Lu: originally in charge of diplomatic matters but then changed to become responsible for music and courtesy aspects for festivals
- Zong Zheng (Zong means lineage while Zheng means being right or proper): in charge of matters related to the clan or lineage of the Emperor. In ancient China, status is very important especially in terms of being punished. Being related to the Emperor usually means that a normal Court Official has no right to pass punishment on a noble who had committed wrong so I presume this is where the Zong Zheng comes in
- Da Si Nong (Da means big, Si just means in charge, Nong refers to agriculture): in charge of staples that were taxed from common citizenry, coins, gold and cloths all of which were currencies or were found in the Imperial Treasury at one point or other in ancient China (probably closer to Federal Treasurer nowadays)
- Shao Fu: originally responsible for overseeing income from the renting of mountains and water bodies and the management of craftsmen, then gradually shifting to being responsible for clothing and luxury items stored in the Palace, abolished in the Ming dynasty
As time passes, this system of 3 Gongs and 9 Qings was replaced by the system of 3 Sheng (or province) and 6 Bu (or division).
The 3 Shengs were:
- Zhong Shu Sheng (the province of central writings): responsible for policy formulation
- Men Xia Sheng (the province under the door): responsible for making evaluations and discussions
- Shang Shu Sheng : responsible for policy implementation
The respective heads of the 3 Shengs were considered the First Advisors. In the Song dynasty, however, the power of the Zhong Shu Sheng has been expanded immensely and the other two provinces along with the associated ranks had been abolished. Instead, a new provision was put in- Shu Mi Sheng (the province of central secrets). Together, Zhong Shu Sheng and Shu Mi Sheng govern over the Wen Guan and Wu Guan respectively. In the Ming dynasty, the system of the Internal Panel was introduced (it does have a head advisor though). In the Qing dynasty, this panel system had also been in use but was normally reserved for military matters.
The 6 Bus were:
- Li Bu (the division of government officials): in charge of the performance evaluation, promotion/demotion of government officials
- Hu Bu (Hu means door or family): in charge of information concerning land registrations and person tracking as well as taxation and budgetary issues (sort of Stat department, Department of Land and Federal Treasury rolled into one)
- Li Bu (the division of diplomats): in charge of celebrations, education and science as well as foreign affairs
- Bing Bu (the division of soldiers): in charge of military matters
- Xing Bu (the division of punishments): in charge of criminal matters
- Gong Bu (the division of crafts): in charge of construction in general as well as those built for flood mediation purposes
The 6 Bus were each headed by a Shang Shu (yes, same words asthe central department responsible for policy implementation), the vice position after him was called Shi Lang (the Official who serves/attends). In the next tier is the position of Lang Zhong (the Official in the Middle),whose vice had the title ofYuan Wei Lang (Official who is Outside Member). Still lower in ranking are Zhu Shi (Chief of Affairs) who presumably are heads of various small teams within a given division.
In terms of local government officials, I’m only aware of administrators of states or counties being local. They are respectively titled Zhi Fu (or Zhi Zhou where Zhou is the Chinese term for state) and Xian Ling (or Zhi Xian where Xian is the Chinese term for county). Occasionally they might go by some other names in some dynasties but these two sets of titles seems more prevalent across the board.
Wu Guan (military officers):
Unlike the administrators, the positions for military officers are a little ad hoc in that they vary across dynasties. It has even been the case that in some dynasties some titles are temporary and only effective for the duration of wars. Below is a list of titles given to generals roughly ordered by ranking:
- Tai Wei (Grand Officer): the highest ranking military officer that existed before the Yuan dynasty (aka the Mongolian reign in China), went by the alternative name of Da Si Ma (Great Minister of Horses/War) in the Han dynasty.
- Da Jiang Jun (Great General): the highest title given to generals including and before West Han, after the Jin dynasty this becomes an honorary position i.e. the one holding it has no official powers to muster the army. In the Ming and Qin dynasties, it is a position only created during wars and disbanded afterwards.
- Jie Du Shi (Jie here refers to section, Du might refer to manner here while Shi indicates ambassador/diplomat to foreign countries): in the Tang dynasty, this title was the overseer for the military affairs of several states but usually limited to states that are close to the border
- Jiang Jun : Chinese term for General
- Si Ma (Minister of War): apparently different depending on dynasty but specifically referring to a vice position in charge of administration and supplies in the period of the Warring States.
- Du Wei /Jiao Wei (Du means capital city or metropolis, Jiao means school, Wei means officer): a tier below the title of General, the latter alternative title is only used during the Han dynasty
- Jiao Tou (Jiao means to teach while Tou means head, Head Teacher in other words): an official responsible for teaching martial arts and technique within the army
- Ti Xia (Ti means to lift in hand while Xia means control): a title for military officer at the State or Province level, who’s responsible for army training as well as the arresting of bandits and thieves and other affairs.
- Can Jun (short for Can Mou Jun Wu or military advisor): originally the military advisor to the First Advisor but gradually becoming less influential after the Jing dynasty such that it refers to the military advisors of Feudal Lords and Generals. After the Sui dynasty, it became the title for local officials
Author's Notes: all of the above information comes from the Chinese version of Wiki and has been manually translated into English by the author.