Chinese nobility

From Academic Kids


Wang (King) and Huangdi (Emperor)

Although formally The Son of Heaven, the power of the emperor varied between different emperors and different dynasties, with some emperors being absolute rulers and others being figureheads with actual power in the hands of court factions, eunuchs, the bureaucracy or noble families. In addition, royal or official titles from one dynasty generally were not carried over to the next dynasty.

The emperor title was transmitted from father to son. Usually the first-born of the queen inherited the office, but this rule was not universal and disputed succession was the cause of a number of civil wars. Unlike the Emperor of Japan, traditional Chinese political theory allowed for a change in dynasty, and an emperor could be replaced by a rebel leader. It was generally not possible for a female to succeed to the throne and in the history of China there has only been one reigning Empress, the Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty, although there are numerous cases in which a woman has held actual power.

Princehood and Peerage

Fengjian and Zongfa of the Zhou Dynasty

The social system of the Zhou Dynasty is sometimes referred to as the Chinese proto-feudalism and was the combination of Fengjian (Honours and Awards) and Zongfa (Clan Law). Male aristocracies were classified into, in decending order of rank:

Fengjian (Honours and Awards) divided the noble class further into (originally) five ranks. The sizes of troops and domains a male noble would command would be determined by his rank of peerage:

While before the Han Dynasty a peer with a place name in his title actually governed that place, it had only been nominally true since. Any male member of the nobility or gentry could be called a gongzi (公子 gong1 zi5) (or wangzi (王子 wang2 zi5) if he is a son of a king).

Zongfa (Clan Law), which applied to all social classes, governed the primogeniture of rank and succession of other siblings. The eldest son of the consort would inherit the title and retained the same rank within the system. Other sons from the consort, concubines and mistresses would be given titles one rank lower than their father.

As time went by, all terms had lost their original meanings nonetheless. Qing, Daifu and Shi became synonyms of court officials. Physicians were often called Daifu during the Late Imperial China. Referring to a male or self-reference of a male as Gongzi eventually became a way to raise one's mianzi (refer to Face (social custom)), and would indeed be considered flattery today.

Female Nobility

Titles of female members of the aristocracies varied in different dynasties and eras, each having unique classifications for the spouses of the emperor. Any female member excluding a spouse of an emperor can be called a princess or gongzhu (公主 gong1 zhu3), and incorporated her associated place into her title if she had one.

Nobility in Evolution

As pointed out already, during the Zhou Dynasty, Wang (king) was the title for the ruler of whole China. Under him were the Gong or dukes, who were the local warlords. They had the duty to support the Zhou king during emergency. In the Spring and Autumn Period, the Zhou kings had lost most of their powers, and the most powerful Gong became the de facto ruler of China. Finally in the Warring States Period, most Gong declared themselves Wang or kings, and regarded themselves equal to the Zhou king. After Zheng, king of the state of Qin, later known as Qin Shi Huang, defeated all the Wang and unified China, he took a new title Huangdi (emperor).

The founder of Han Dynasty, Liu Bang, continued to use the title Huangdi. In order to please his wartime allies, he gave each of them a piece of land as their own "kingdoms" (Wangguo) and titled each of them Wang. Since then Wang had become merely the highest hereditary title, which roughly corresponded to a prince, and was commonly given to relatives of the emperor. Gong was also reverted to purely a title of peerage, ranked below Wang. Both were under the auspice of the emperor, and had no ruling power of their own. The two characters combined, Wanggong, had since become synonymous with court officials .

Subsequent dynasties had expanded the hereditary titles further, however, not all titles of peerage are hereditary, and heredity of a very high title was seen as a very high honor; at the end of the Qing dynasty, there were five grades of princes, titles that were usually awarded to the relatives of the Emperor:

  • qinwang (親王, prince of the blood)
  • junwang (郡王, prince of a commandery)
  • beile (貝勒, 'lord' in Manchu)
  • shizi (世子)
  • beizi (貝子)

as well as:

  • guogong (國公 state duke - two sub-grades)
  • efu or fuma (阿附/駙馬 originally the spouse of a princess of the blood)

and nine grades of peerage awarded for valour, achievement, and distinction:

  • mingong (民公 'commoner' duke)
  • hou (侯 marquis)
  • bo (伯 count)
  • zi (子 viscount)
  • nan (男 baron)
  • qingche duwei (roughly equivalent to a grand cross of an Order (decoration))
  • qi duwei (roughly equivalent to a commander of an Order (decoration))
  • yunqiwei (roughly equivalent to an officer of an Order (decoration))
  • enqiwei (roughly equivalent to a knight of an Order (decoration))

All titles of nobility were officially abolished when China became a republic in 1912.

Other Historical Chinese Titles

Protector General (都護; Duhu) – See e.g. Ban Chao.

Styles for Foreign Monarchs

Traditional Chinese political theory held that "all lands under Heaven belong to the emperor" (普天之下,莫非王土). Thus, a foreign monarch would also be referred to as Wang, implying one was under the Chinese Emperor. This practice persisted until the latter half of the 19th Century, when China was overwhelmed by European powers.

In modern Chinese, a king would be referred to as Wang, while an emperor would be referred to as Huangdi. Therefore Victoria of the United Kingdom would be styled Nü-Wang (Queen) of Great Britain and Ireland, and Nü-Huang (Empress) of India.


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools