What were social inequalities in Classical China?
There were at least two forms of social inequality in Classical China. One of these was between the sexes. Women in classical China had very few rights. They were basically under the authority of their husbands. A second form of inequality was based on class and occupation. At the top of the society was a very small group of land owners and government officials. Under them were peasants and urban artisans. Finally, at the very bottom, were those who performed unskilled labor of various types. The gaps between these classes in terms of economics and status were very large. These were the two major forms of social inequality in this time period.
In pre-Confucian China, the feudal system divided the population into six classes. Four noble classes with the King (王, wáng) at the top, followed by the Dukes (诸侯, zhūhóu), then the Great Men (大夫, dàifu) and finally the Scholars (士, shì). Below the noble classes were the Commoners (庶民, shùmín) and Slaves (奴隶, núlì).
See main article of below description for Confucian classes: Four occupations
Confucian doctrine later minimized the importance of the nobles (except the emperor), abolished great men and scholars as noble classes, and further divided commoner workers based on the perceived usefulness of their work. Scholars (now not exclusively nobles) ranked the highest because the opportunity to conceive clear ideas in a state of leisure would lead them to wise laws (an idea that has much in common with Plato's ideal of a philosopher king). The scholars were mainly from the gentry, who owned land, and may be educated and wealthy but had no aristocratic titles. Under them were the farmers, who produced necessary food, and the artisans who produced useful objects. Merchants ranked at the bottom because they did not actually produce anything, while soldiers were sometimes ranked even lower because of their perceived expendability. The Confucian model is notably different from the modern European view of social class, since merchants could attain great wealth without reaching the social status accorded to a poor farmer. In practice, a rich merchant might purchase land to reach farmer status, or even buy a good education for his heirs in the hopes that they would attain scholar status and go into the imperial civil service. The Chinese model was widely disseminated throughout east Asia.