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Hierarchy in China is a thousand of years old Confucian teaching and highly misunderstood by westerners. It might sound paradox but hierarchy in China is not about power and subordination of an individual in the first place. Unlike in the west, subordination within a hierarchy-structure in China does not mean “humiliation”, it is also not related to your self-worth as an individual. By subordinating himself, the individual is acknowledging his position inside a society and receiving his self-worth by fitting in. The worth of an individual is obtained by accepting the given rank or place inside a circle and becoming a part of the whole. 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 but rather valueless as a separated single entity that is not contributing to society. It is a community-oriented mindset.
大同 DàTóng Utopia
The ideal society known as dàtóng is often cited in Chinese literature and developed during the Han-period out of Confucian literature “Liji”. It is an ideal of a society in which everybody is equal not by having equal rights, but has equal chances of realizing his own potential within his rank in a 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 is acting with regard to the other. This idea stems from Daoism, where an individual is becoming a part of a cosmic order without interrupting the natural process of things, in other words it means giving in to the natural flow of life.
Social Classes Of Ancient China
The ancient Chinese social structure was divided in four occupations and was 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 were excluded from this idealized hierarchy.
士 Shì : Scholars with the highest rank in the hierarchy, were respected for their knowledge which they mostly acquired to occupy high rank positions. Shi had various roles in society like advisors, clerks, overseers and certain other administrative functions like holding examinations.
农 Nóng : As food producers, were considered valuable members because they produced something important 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, because they had useful skills which had to be passed over generations, artisans were respected craftsmen. Many things like potteries, textiles and other specific objects were produced by skilled craftsmen either through independent businesses or as hired employees.
商 Shāng : Merchants were sometimes considered greedy and immoral, hence they were the least respected class in society. Since the value in Asian societies is dependent on the ability to contribute, merchants were not considered very valuable because they did not produce anything.
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 are expected to do what they are told, 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.