I would like to ask a question about ancient Chinese nobility. I was researching some background on Confucius, and I found a weird discrepancy on Wikipedia about his homeland, Lu. About its ruler, the article says "Marquess: Hereditary dukes of the House of Ji (姬)".

I thought Dukes and Marquess are different ranks. But this sounds like the Marquess of Lu is hereditary dukes? How come? Is it a translation error? Wikipedia problem?

2 Answers 2


Neither, really.

The Zhou Dynasty classed its vassals into five ranks, 公 侯 伯 子 男, which are usually translated into English as Duke, Marquis, Count, Viscount and Baron. The State of Lu held a rank of Marquis (侯). Accordingly, its rulers are properly referred to as Marquis of Lu (魯侯). For example, Marquis Xi of Lu (魯侯戲) whose given name was Xi.

However, within their own realms, all vassal lords may be addressed as "Duke" (公), as an honorific (because dukes are the highest of the five ranks). In addition, when a vassal lord died, he may be given a posthumous name. The title of Duke (公) was typically used for this in conjunction with one or two other words that are meant to summarise their reign.

For instance, Marquis Xi mentioned above is known as Duke Yi of Lu. The "Yi" part comes from it being a posthumous name. When Xi passed away, he was given a posthumous name to commemorate his reign: Yi (懿). Per convention, he then became Duke Yi of Lu (魯懿公).

In Chinese history, rulers who were given posthumous names are typically recorded via that name. Moreover, one of the main sources of historical knowledge on that era came from the Annals of Spring and Autumn, which was the national historical record of the State of Lu. Therefore, seeing their rulers referred to as Dukes (公) are more common than by their actual names.

This has led to them all being translated as dukes. Unfortunately, when the actual rank is lower that Duke, it became a confusing mismatch of "Marquis being hereditary dukes".


The five-fold correspondence between English and Chinese peerage ranks is merely coincidental. There is nothing special about the number five. The history of European noble ranks, both linguistic and chronological, is informative.

In England, all nobles are by definition Barons - that being the minimum dignity granted following the 1066 conquest granted to all tenants-in-chief of the English crown. In addition a few dozen of these Barons were granted the additional dignity of Earl. Only over time were the additional peerage dignities of Duke (both Royal, non-hereditary and restricted to the Royal family, and Noble), Marquess (Baron of a March), and Viscount, the full suite taking about 400 years to develop. The usage of Lord enters the language also at this time as the semiformal address shared by all Barons.

In Germany (or, if you prefer, the German-dialect-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire) the original titles are Graf (or Count, - equivalent to English Earl), Herzog (equivalent to English Duke) and Furst (equivalent to English Prince but a hereditary and not courtesy title). The very many additional German peerage titles largely spring from these, as witness Kurfurst for Prince Elector, Großherzog for Grand Duke, and finally all of Markgraf, Landgraf, Reichsgraf, Burggraf*, and Altgraf* in some sort of correspondence to English Marquess, Earl and Viscount. In German the form of address Graf (technically translated as Count, but in this usage better translated as Lord) is adopted as the semiformal address for many of these peerage ranks.

France, Spain, Poland and other Western European countries all have additional historical quirks in their peerage developments.

Note that in both England and the H.R.E. the peerage levels "built up" from the base of either Baron or Graf, so that the base semi-formal address remains the lower one. It appears that in China the additional peerage ranks "built down" instead, so that the base semi-formal address retained was the original, higher in this instance, one.

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