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Tang Dynasty: The Society

Tang Dynasty: The Society

In ancient China, like today, the government regulated most everything in the society. This included the access, gathering and allocation of resources. Business, bureaucratic positions, education were all areas of government control. At the top of this highly stratified society was, of course, the emperor and his family. And yes, virtually all of the rulers of China were men. His family included nuclear and extended family, as well as his hundreds, if not thousands, of concubines.

The government was highly dependent on the efficiency of the bureaucracy, which had nine levels. The first level was closest to the emperor, and therefore wielded the most power. These two positions could be called Prime Ministers in today’s vocabulary. Posts were filled mostly from the aristocracy, with some exceptions from those coming in through the imperial examinations. This aristocracy, like that in England, had princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, earls, barons, and so on. They were supported by the taxes from a number of households. The higher the rank, the more household taxes they received. Taxes were received primarily from the collection of grain (rice, wheat, millet) and cloth (bolts of silk). Over the centuries this tax burden on the workers ranged from nothing to 15%, but usually was around 8%. The aristocracy in turn supplied most of the senior military officers.

The bureaucrats were either on the ladder, or off the ladder. That is, they were either on their way up the levels of the bureaucracy or not. Those on the ladder, the mandarins, were the managers and supervisors of others. They held positions in the capital, or held the upper level positions of power out in the provinces. They obtained these positions either through imperial appointments (with the necessary social connections), imperial examinations, or by heredity. Sons of officials could be appointed to the level just below their father’s. These government positions all had fixed salaries, which were also tax exempt.

The palace eunuchs were mostly castrated boys taken from the southeast coastal regions and sold by their parents. One of their primary roles was to be the guardians and servants of the imperial harem. Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712-756) at one time had about forty thousand palace ladies, so the eunuchs were kept very busy. Mostly illiterate, they were well trained for their individual assignments. Some did have formal educations. Although there were fewer than five thousand eunuchs in and around the capital, they wielded tremendous power and influence. Some were appointed as military leaders when loyalty was of the utmost importance. They had unique and frequent access to the emperor, often sleeping and having living quarters nearby. Later in the dynasty they controlled the flow of imperial edicts and documents. The eunuchs eventually became the supervisors inside not only the palace, but also inside the treasury, post office, and other government offices.

By the year 845 there were some 360,000 Daoist and Buddhist monks and nuns inside China. One of the privileges they enjoyed was to be exempt from both taxes and government manual labor. Buddhist temples were especially powerful by controlling large tracts of land, as well as possessing money and industry. Donations poured in from those wishing to secure a good afterlife. A lot of wealth was also obtained through wills and endowments. Many temples had slaves and tenant farmers work their lands. Industries included the construction and maintenance of irrigation systems, oil presses, grain mills, pawn shops, and banking activities. Several of the more famous Tang Dynasty poets spent varying periods of time visiting, and even living, inside these temple grounds.

The vast majority of the Chinese people worked in the fields. Farming was a fundamental and widespread economic activity. About 80% to 90% of the economy came from the farmers. Their payments of taxes ran the government. Every three years the government census registered households, so that these taxes could be collected. For a while biennial taxes were received during the harvest seasons of summer and fall, and had rates based upon the value of coppers (copper coins) that year. Other times, each farm family gave three and one half bushels of grain, plus the men had to donate two or three months of labor in the building of local infrastructure projects. Some had to serve longer periods of time in the military. The men worked the fields, and also hunted and fished. The women most often weaved textiles, usually silk. These bolts of silk were used as both money, and in the payment of the government taxes.

In general the merchants and artisans were not well thought of during the Tang Dynasty. They were discriminated against, and thought of as parasites and leeches. Many had wandering lifestyles. They were not eligible to take the imperial examinations, most had little to no land, and  therefore lacked connections to both the land and other groups of society.

At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the slaves. Many of them were foreigners, some as war booty or tribute. Most fell into this group through poverty and misfortune. Tenant farmers sold themselves and their sons into slavery for fixed periods, or for life. Some served the emperor, some the aristocracy, and some the clergy. Like most, or all slaves, they were treated and lived like animals and chattel.

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