Friday, November 18, 2011


In traditional China there were three main social classes. At the head of the hierarchy were the nobles and scholars (shì); lower, was the peasant class (nong), and the lowest – the artisan class (gōng). Even lower than the latter, a sort of sub-class, were the merchants (shāng).

The noble class was comprised of six families whose titles had been inherited from ancient times. These were the kings who had ruled in the different regions of China before their unification into one kingdom. Alongside the kings' families, the families of the philosophers Confucius and Mencius were part of the nobility. Nobility could be acquired through success in the Imperial examinations, with the degree of nobility being defined by the level of the examinations passed and by the position held in the government. The father of a son who excelled in his studies could be elevated to a noble rank, as a reward for educating his son well. The degree of nobility of a scholar inherited by the next generation was gradually reduced from generation to generation, until there was no title left.

When the Communist party came to power in 1949 the differences between the classes were abolished. This is expressed in the design of the Chinese flag, which shows five yellow stars on a red background – one big star and four small ones. According to one of the theories explaining the flag's symbolism, the big star represents the Communist party, and the four small stars represent the four social classes united by the Communist party – the workers, peasants, petit-bourgeois and patriotic capitalists.

Up until the end of the 1970s, people would address one another as "comrade" (tóng)(zhì). Following the economic reforms of Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping (dèng)(xiǎo)(píng)  , this has been considered old-fashioned. Instead, bourgeois titles such as Mister (xiān)(shēng), Miss (xiǎo)(jiě) and Madam (tài)(tài) , which were customary in traditional China, have returned. These titles are added after the full name or after the family name. Likewise, titles indicating a profession or a social class, such as Doctor, Mister, Professor, etc., appear after the name. Thus, Doctor Wang is (wáng)()(shēng), Mister Wang is (wáng)(xiān)(shēng)  and Mrs. Wang is (wáng)(tài)(tài).



Chicken's feather flies lightly into the sky

This saying was used by Mao Zedong in 1958, to express the self-fulfillment of peasants, as opposed to the old saying, according to which a chicken's feather cannot fly into the sky.
Addresses a high government official as "uncle" (mother's brother)
This is said of one who befriends members of a social class above that of his own, or of one who climbs the social ladder.
Literally: A carp (fish) leaping over the Dragon's Gate – climbs high
This was said in traditional China of a person who passed the Imperial examinations and became a government official. Today it is said of one who achieves a high position and is used to encourage someone to persevere in their endeavors.
It is based on a legend, according to which a carp that swims up the Yellow River upstream to spawn, and that can leap over the waterfall at the Dragon’s Gate (on the Yang Zi river), will become a dragon.
Climbs the staircase – each step is above the previous one
Said of one who receives a series of promotions.


Literally: Washes his face in the bowl for washing legs – there is no [distinction between] upper and lower.  
There is no differentiation among social classes, between employer and employee, young and old, etc.


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