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Ancient China: Society and Class Divisions

By Ancient History Encyclopedia

Ancient China: Society and Class Divisions

Ancient China changed a lot over the years. Still, one thing stayed the same. People believed in the gods and their ancestors. The Chinese began living in villages about 7,000 years ago in the Yellow River Valley. The Yellow River is a very long river in northern China. One of the earliest villages was named Banpo. Scientists think that women ruled Banpo. Women were also in charge of religion there.

Small villages like Banpo grew into cities. The Xia Dynasty was the first government that built large cities. A dynasty is a family of kings. The Xia family ruled China from 2070 to 1600 B.C.

After the Xia came the Shang Dynasty. It lasted from 1600 to 1046 B.C. The Chinese invented writing then.

Social class, clothing and adornments

Experts think the Chinese discovered silk almost 5,000 years ago. The early Chinese thought the goddess Leizu discovered silk. She was the wife of the supreme god Shangti. Leizu was having tea when a silk cocoon fell into her cup. Only nobles and royalty could wear silk. Most Chinese wore clothing made of hemp. Hemp is a plant.

The Chinese were divided into four classes. These were rulers, nobles, merchants and peasants. For the most part, people stayed in the class they were born in. If your father was a peasant, you would also be a peasant. The upper class could read. The peasants could not. Starting about 3,000 years ago the Chinese government gave its citizens a very hard test. It was called the Imperial Examinations. People could work for the government if they passed it. Then they could move up to a higher class. Their lives would improve.

Men and women of all classes wore their hair long. They thought their hair came from their ancestors, and it was wrong to cut it. They also thought the body was a gift from their ancestors. They had to treat their bodies well.


Only boys learned to read in early China. Girls had to stay home. They learned how to be mothers and take care of the house. Confucius was a teacher who lived 2,500 years ago. Everyone had to know the Five Virtues of Confucius by heart. The most important were kindness, loyalty, honesty, and the difference between right and wrong. In 105 B.C., paper was invented. About 1,100 years ago, the Chinese invented woodblock printing. It was very important because they could print many books at once. Before, they had to copy books by hand.