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Hierarchy in China and Chinese Culture

Hierarchy in China, as a thousand-year old Confucian-teaching, is in many cases confused with abused power and suppression. Within the Chinese social context, however, hierarchy is not about, or at least not only about authority and devaluation of an individual. The seemingly subordination within a hierarchy-structure in China neither lead to “humiliation” nor does it relate to worsened self-value. By subordinating himself, the individual is merely acknowledging his position inside a society and receiving his self-worth by fitting in. This way an individual becomes a part of something bigger than himself. It does not mean that you cannot realize your potential or move up in rank. The basic idea is that each individual is valuable as a part of a whole community. He is of less value as a separated single entity, that is not contributing to society. It is a community-oriented mindset.

大同 DàTóng Utopia

Chinese classic literature described an ideal society, they called “dàtóng”. It was first known since the Han-period in Confucian literature “Liji”. It is an ideal of a society in which everybody is equal. Equality does not mean equal rights, but equal chances of realizing ones own potential within a rank in society. This happens when the individual integrates himself in the given social order and respects the moral code.(Ruprecht 2001)

It is like a chain with many links. The worth of a person is dependent on being a part of the chain and contributing to the whole mechanism. Every single person should act with regard to the other. This idea is rooted in Daoism, where an individual is becoming a part of a cosmic order. He does not interrupt the natural order of life and flows with life as whole. He does not consider himself a separate and unique entity.

Social Classes Of Ancient China

The ancient Chinese social structure consists of four occupations and is a central part of the feudalism social structure. These four broad categories were vertical. The highest were the scholars, then the peasant farmers, the artisans and merchants. Many social groups of minor importance are not in this idealized hierarchy.

士 Shì : Scholars, or people of well-educated background, had the highest rank in the hierarchy and were entitled to high rank positions. Shi had various roles in society like advisors, clerks, overseers and certain other administrative functions like holding examinations.

农 Nóng : Food producers were always valuable members, especially to an agriculture country like China, because they produced something of high necessity for the society. Farmers were one of the driving force of society and the main source of revenue for governments due to their tax payments.

工 Gōng : Artisans created useful commodities. They had useful skills which they usually passed down over generations. Artisans were craftsmen with good reputation. Many things like potteries, textiles and other specific objects were products of skillful craftsmen, either through independent businesses or as hired employees.

商 Shāng :  Merchants had a very negative reputation as they ´were considered the symbol of  greediness and immorality, which lead to their bottom position in the respect-pyramid in asian societies. Since the value in Asian societies is dependent on the ability to contribute, merchants were considered ‘non-constructive’ as they did not ‘produce’ anything rather than ‘moving’ things around.

Superior and Subordinate

Let’s cut the poetic context and get more concrete. With each rank in a society the individual can only act within the boundaries of his rank. In other words, each position has its function, to preserve harmony in a meeting with Chinese means not to go beyond your competence . Subordinates cannot criticize proposals of a superior or question him just like superiors cannot accept leadership from subordinates. Subordinates should follow a command or play their role, even if the leader seems to be incompetent.

If you have read the article about “paternalism and personalism” as a form of structure in Chinese companies, you will understand that information inside a companies flows in a vertical line downward the hierarchy-structure. Unless approved by the top, the subordinates would not receive any information about the state of affairs. The head of the company has interest in maintaining power and avoiding disharmony by making sure that only the right person knows what it supposed to know.






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