How did gender and class significantly influence one’s life opportunities in ancient China?

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larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Class distinction appeared early on in ancient China. Class distinction was a matter of birth, not wealth or accomplishment, but the nobility and royalty were typically more wealthy than anyone else. The wealthy lived in lavish mansions made of pounded earth and had meat at almost every meal, normally eaten with rice. They collected taxes from the lower classes, normally paid in kind with farm products, etc. Peasants lived in underground dwellings and their diet consisted almost entirely of gruel made from rice or millet. Bronze was a particular distinguishing point; only the nobility and/or royalty owned it; but they obsessed over it, with many tools, implements and trinkets made of it as an ostentatious display of wealth. There was no social ladder, social stratification was frozen.

Chinese society had long been strongly patriarchal, with the oldest male in the family acting as head of household and responsible for most major decisions; however it was also matrilineal, with heritage traced from the mother's side. Family bonds were extremely important to the ancient Chinese; as it was believed that ancestors looked after survivors if they were properly venerated. Men held all political and military authority, and ruled absolutely. During the early Shang dynasty, some women earned distinction; in fact two Shang Queens had temples erected to their memories. With the passage of time, however, a woman's only distinction was in relation to her husband. The former matrilineal society became patrilineal; and a woman could expect to be honored only in association with her husband.