« Classes of Traditional China and India »
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Social class or the grouping of people base on births, occupations, religions, wealth and political status often exists in virtually all societies throughout the world and history. China and India are two very different countries in terms of their languages, traditions and culture. However, such differences did not affect the existence of social classes in both countries. In fact, the hierarchical nature of social classes had laid out the frameworks of social structures and provided social stability that lasted for centuries in those two countries.

Social classes are often shaped by teachings of religions and popular philosophies. Knowing the Chinese way of life is the product of the balance of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism while the Indian lives are profoundly influence by Hinduism, it is no surprise to see the social systems in both countries are different. Confucianism focused on ethics, morals and righteous conducts while Hinduism emphasized spirituality, duty, and karma, the “action and particularly action done in the past” (Kaminsky, 73). Confucius believed class advancements can only be achieved through individual academic attainment while Hindu scholars believed social status improvement can only be realized through the fulfillment of individual duty. Due to these fundamental differences, we have gentry, peasant, artisan and merchant class in china while we have Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishayas and Shudras for India.

The system of class and caste, in native terms, varna and jati have provided a social hierarchy in India for centuries. Some believes it has been an effective system to preserve social functions and maintain order, while other argues that such system only divide a nation further. No matter which stand you take, it is true that varna and jati have affected the lives and shaped the families of millions of Indians, down to details as who one can dine, mingle and marry with.

According to Class and Caste, an article by Federal Research Division in the Library of Congress on country studies, the idea of varna and jati was originated from the division among the Aryan conquerors and the darker skinned non Aryans in the early Indus time. Jati was first determined by physical differences, especially skin tones. Later, Jati was mostly based on one’s profession or occupation. However as time progress, as the continue influence of upanishadic philosophy grow, political, religious, tribal factors had been added into consideration. Scholars today maintain that the practical division of labor still plays the biggest role in the classification of varna.

According to our course packet, there are more than 3000 jati in India today, thus it would be impractical to mention and explore them all. However, of all these 3000 jati, each of them belongs to one of the four varna or classes, namely the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, the Vaisya, and the Sudras. Each of these four separate classes has their own specific role and duty. The Brahmins are to deal with spiritual and intellectual duties; the Kshatriyas are to wage wars and to run government; the Vaishayas are to pursuit commerce and agriculture; the Shudras are to serve the community. Historically, the Kshatriya, or the warriors are at the top of the hierarchy during conquest. However, as the conquerors settle and war diminished, the emphasis was turned to spiritual learning. As a result, Bramin or the priest class had moved up the ladder to the top. Brahmin, Kshatriya, then follows the Vaisya or the merchant class, then the Shudras or the servant class. At the bottom of the hierarchy, and which is not included in the four main classes are the untouchables. These are the huge groups of people who have the least or no social status, whose occupations are considered most degrading and unclean. Caring and touching the dead, sweeping, removing filth are usually what they do for a living.

The Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism is studied by many Indians. However, not everyone is allowed to study the Vedas. Only the Brahmin, the Kshatriya and the Vaisya are privileged to explore and learn the Vedas. They are the only twice born, one physical birth when they were born into this world; one spiritual birth, through the study of the Vedas. Since the Shudras are prohibited from the study of the Vedas, they are the once born along with the untouchables.

Varna is solely determined by “birth” (Wikipedia). If you were born a Shudra, you will be a Shudra for life. You are expected to fulfill all your duties as a Shudra. You are expected to follow a specific set of code of conduct for the Shudra. You will drink and dine with only members of your own caste. You will only marry within the caste. You will continue the family tradition by staying in an occupation that your father had. If you were to marry a member of an outside caste, you may face the punishment of expulsion from your own caste and stay as an outcast for eternity.

Though one can not elevate oneself through any mean to a higher varna in this present life, the varna system does offer some hopes for the Indian people. If one has lived a good life, has done all his duties, through reincarnation, one can be born into an upper class in the next life. This very upanishadic philosophy thus further reinforced the system of Varna and Jati because everyone wants to achieve higher status, which ultimately lead to the final liberations from their bodies and this material world.

Unlike India, where society was categorized into four main groups then further divided into thousand of subclasses, the Chinese system is more straight forward in a sense that it is without the complication of subdivisions. The order of the Chinese social hierarchy is as follow. Gentry reside at the top; Peasants follow; Artisans are the next; Merchants sink at the bottom. Soldiers and actors had the poorest social status in china. They were the untouchables in China in the sense that they sometimes were excluded from the social hierarchy.

The gentry class in China are made up of government officials and scholars. It is at the top of the Chinese social hierarchy due to the fact that education and knowledge are valued the most by society. Government official are most likely to be selected from the gentry class even though civil service examinations are opened to everyone. Therefore, gentry is the most political powerful ruling class in China. To further unite the already powerful gentry, convenient marriages between influential families and government officials were often arranged, thus created endless webs of connections. Not only are they politically powerful, they are often financially prosperous because they own most of the land which they leased to the peasants for agricultural cultivation. With the backing of their political power, financial wealth and social status, the gentry were able to live an easy, often luxury life. Without the requirement of manual labor, the gentry have great leisure thus they are more involved in political process and the pursuit of art, poetry, essay, and painting.

“Throughout the centuries some 80 to 90 percent of the Chinese population has been farmers” (Federal Research Division). And those farmers made up the peasant class in China. Unlike the Shundras, the last of the main four Indian classes who also deal mainly with manual work, the peasants of China are placed at the top second position of its social hierarchy. This different categorization signifies the importance of peasantry viewed by the Chinese society because “Peasants were considered to be the economic base of the country and were valued as such” (Essortment). The main goal of a peasant family is to advance to the gentry. The way for a peasant to enter the gentry class is thru education. However, education alone will not guarantee the rise to gentry. One must pass the civil service examination which is mainly focused on the teachings and Classics of Confucianism.

Unlike the Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism, which only the twice-borns were privileged to learn, the civil service examinations were given to scholars from all classes in China. The reason behind this was because Confucius believed “The way to achieve the ideal society was to teach the entire people as much of the content of the Classics as possible. It was assumed that everyone was educable and that everyone needed educating” (Federal Research Division). Due to such philosophy, peasants were given the hope and opportunity to ascend at the social hierarchy. However, in reality their hopes and dreams may never materialize in their lifetime due to systematic prejudice, financial hardship. Therefore, their ultimate goals to gentry were passed down on generations.

Cultivation of crops requires intensive labor and care. The yields of a season of hard work on leased land could merely enable the peasants to pay rent and to feed their family. Since crops are the main source of income, there would be nothing less to pay for proper education of their children. Besides, they can not afford to lose the help of their children on the fields. Thus it is extremely difficult if not impossible for a peasant boy to first obtain a good education, then pass the examination, and rise to gentry thru the appointment of governmental post. Only a lucky few were able to make such advancements. These peasant boys were usually very bright, persistent, hard working and sponsored by their whole villages. Their success would bring fame and honor to their families and the entire villages and communities.

The classes that follow are the artisans and merchants. Since the peasantry make up most of the Chinese population, the artisan and merchant populations are at a very small percentage. Artisans are the people many of who are self employed and craft things by hands. They were placed at the third level of the social hierarchy because they were considered skilled workers. They have less social status than the peasants yet they were valued much more than the merchants. One would wonder why merchants have such low status in Chinese society. Aren’t they the guys with the money? Unlike today’s world where wealth can translate into power, in traditional China it was widely believed that merchants “were people who conned people into buying goods they did not need. They were considered to be like parasites as they made their living off other people. It was believed that it took no skill to be merchants so they had little value in society as they were easily replaces” (Essortment).

The different line ups of social classes in both systems are the pure reflection of differences in culture and tradition, religion and ideology. The interplay of all these elements resulted in the different appropriations of value into various classes. Even though the societies of China and India hold opposing views on most of the ranking, as in the cases of Peasants and Shudras, Soldiers and Warriors, one thing they can certainly agree on is the importance of education whether literary or spiritual as demonstrated by the classifications of Brahmins and Scholars on the apex of both social hierarchies.

In term of social mobility, the Chinese offered the civil service examinations while the Indians provided the cycle of Samsara. Not only these two mechanisms provided the hopes and opportunities to the masses, they also served to further reinforce the structures and orders of both societies. With these social classes, everyone in society knows their places, understands their duties, performs their functions, and finally finds their relief in the hopes of advancing to the higher place on the social hierarchy. With these classes, China and India were able to maintain and preserve a rather stable society.

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Federal Research Division (1987, July). "China" Library of Congress.
http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/cntoc.html [01 July. 2005]

Federal Research Division (1995, September). "India" Library of Congress.
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Kaminsky, A.P. Traditional Asia Course Packet 121. Long Beach, California: CopyPro, Summer 2005.
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