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The phrase scholar-farmer-artisan-merchant (士農工商, shi-nong-gong-shang) is well-known in China and other Confucian countries. These were the four broad classes of people in ancient/medieval China.

The ordering of the phrase is popularly taken to mean that the four classes were ranked in the following order:

  1. Scholars/gentry
  2. Farmers
  3. Artisans/craftsmen
  4. Merchants/traders

One book asserts:

In ancient times, traders and bankers—indeed, all who avowed the profit motive—were universally despised. In ancient China merchants were hardly recognized as men, living at the very bottom of the social hierarchy.

Another:

The official social hierarchy of China from ancient times placed merchants on the very bottom rung, and at the top of the pyramid the Confucian scholar-officials scorned them as materialistic, unconcerned with ethics, and a destabilizing social element.

Another:

Kept at the bottom and suppressed by deliberate government policy, the merchants and artisans found it very difficult to accumulate wealth. The majority of the merchants, like the craftsmen, were people who lived at the very margin of subsistence.

Are the above assertions correct? Were merchants "hardly men" and "on the very bottom rung" of the social hierarchy? Were they "kept at the bottom and suppressed by deliberate government policy"? Did they live "at the very margin of subsistence"?

How was the scholar-farmer-artisan-merchant ordering manifested economically, socially, and politically? For example, were merchants generally much poorer, much more ostracized, and much more politically repressed than farmers? How so?


In contrast, English Wikipedia claims

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 [no citation] ... the classification of "four occupations" can be viewed as a mere rhetorical device that had no effect on government policy [cites one Barbieri-Low (2007)].

Chinese Wikipedia writes that different authors gave different orderings. (Examples: scholar-merchant-farmer-artisan in 春秋穀梁傳·成公元年 and farmer-scholar-artisan-merchant in 荀子·王制篇.) It then claims without citation that

some writers believe the ordering means nothing with regard to social hierarchy.

  • 4
    Yes, the order (in your question) is correct. However, "... to suggest that the ordering is probably meaningless" in your question, is something I do not see in Wiki. Second, I don't know what is your question. – J Asia Oct 22 '17 at 6:27
  • @JAsia he probably refers to this phrase in the english wiki article: "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." – Danila Smirnov Oct 22 '17 at 6:42
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    @JAsia: It's hard to see if you do not bother reading. In addition to Danila Smirnov's quote, the English Wikipedia writes: "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." The Chinese Wikipedia writes: "其次序歷代有所不同 ... 有論者認為這個次序並無隱含社會高低之義。《荀子·王制篇》亦有「農士工商」的排列" – Kenny LJ Oct 22 '17 at 6:47
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    @KennyLJ - Is this your question, if it was meaningless? You might want to ask, why adopt a rhetorical device if the ranking was, in fact, meaningless. Let's not get into debate, I was trying to understand the basis in asserting that it was/is meaningless. You are entitled to your opinion, of course. – J Asia Oct 22 '17 at 7:02
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    This question would benefit by clarifying why you question the existing narrative. What do you really want to know? – Mark C. Wallace Oct 22 '17 at 13:05
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This kind of attitude can be traced back to Shang Yang's reforms. Shang Yang was a statesman in the State of Qin, who is best known for introducing sweeping reforms between about 359 to 350 BCE, which laid the foundation for transforming Qin from a backwater state into the most powerful, eventually unifying China and ushering in its imperial era.

An important part of his reforms was the promotion of agriculture and the farmer class (垦草令, An Order to cultivate Waste Lands), at the cost of other industries and classes, merchants in particular. This suited Qin at the time, which lacked manpower and had lots of undeveloped land. Even after Qin, and after many of Shang Yang's policies were reversed, the negative attitude towards merchants persisted.

Among the policies goals (from The Book of Lord Shang (translation)):

  • Outlawing the free trade of food (thus one had to grow their own food)

    Do not allow merchants to buy grain nor farmers to sell grain. If farmers may not sell their grain, then the lazy and inactive ones will exert themselves and be energetic; and, if merchants may not buy grain, then they have no particular joy over abundant years. Having no particular joy over abundant years, they do not make copious profit in years of famine, and making no copious profit, merchants are fearful, and being fearful, they desire to turn farmers. If lazy and inactive farmers exert themselves and become energetic, and if merchants desire to turn farmers, then it is certain waste lands will be brought under cultivation.

  • Increased taxes for luxuries like alcohol and meat

    If the prices of wine and meat are made high, and the taxes on them so heavy that they amount to ten times the cost of production, then merchants and retailers will be few, farmers will not be able to enjoy drinking-bouts, and officials will not overeat. If merchants and retailers are few, the ruler does not waste his grain; if the people are unable to enjoy drinking bouts, agriculture will not be neglected; if officials do not overeat, the affairs of the state will not be delayed and the prince will not err in his promotions. If the ruler does not waste the grain and if the people do not neglect agriculture, then it is certain waste lands will be brought under cultivation.

  • Increasing tolls and taxes on trade, which led to ill will towards merchants

    If the tolls at the barriers and on the market are made heavy, then the farmers will hate the merchants, and the merchants will be full of doubt and be unenterprising. If the farmers hate the merchants and the merchants are full of doubt and unenterprising, then it is certain waste lands will be brought under cultivation.

  • Conscripting servants of merchants, suppressing their wealth

    If merchants are made to serve according to their full complement, and if their multitudes of servants and crowds of followers are obliged to be registered, then farmers will have leisure and merchants will be harassed; farmers having leisure, fertile land will not lie fallow; merchants being harassed, the custom of sending presents backwards and forwards will not pervade the various districts. (If fertile land does not lie fallow) farmers will not suffer from famines, (and if the custom of sending presents backwards and forwards does not pervade the various districts), there will be no ostentatious conduct. If farmers do not suffer from famines and there is no ostentatious conduct, then public activities will be pursued with energy, and in the sphere of private activities there will be no fallow fields. (This being so), then agricultural affairs will certainly excel, and this being the case, it is certain waste lands will be brought under cultivation.

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Three groups were placed in the social hierarchy in descending order based on their relation to the basic needs of life.

  1. Farmers (nong), produce food. Obvious.
  2. Artisans (gong), produce goods through craftsmanship, supports above group.
  3. Merchants (shang), the "middlemen," not seen as essential as the two above.

The shi were placed above the other three groups because they were the "glue" that held the rest of society together.

These were landed gentry who could arrive there in one of two ways.

1) They were successful farmers (nong) who amassed large amounts of land, and became landlords. One example in modern times was Mao Ze Dong's father (who was then able to give Mao a good education).

2) Being a bright boy that was the son of, or at least sponsored by, another shi, getting an education, and passing the national examinations in philsophy and ethics. Successful candidates were given land grants by the emperor to support them, because they had qualified to fulfill roles in the bureaucracy, judiciary, etc. In time, the second kind of shi were seen as more "legitimate" than the first kind, because they had the education as well as the land.

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