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:
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.
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.
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.