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Chinese nobility

Table of contents
1 Wang and Huangdi — the Chinese heads of state
2 Structure of Chinese nobility
3 Female nobles
4 Wang
5 Gong

Wang and Huangdi — the Chinese heads of state

The king or wang (王 wang2) was the Chinese head of state since Zhou dynasty until Qin dynasty. The title Wang is to be distinguished from the common surname which has no royal implications.

The characters huang (皇 huang2 "godking") and di (帝 "sage king") were used separately and never consecutively (See Three Huang and five Di), and reserved for the mythological rulers until the first emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huangdi). The emperor or huangdi (皇帝, pinyin: huang2 di4) of China then became the title of head of state of China from the Qin dynasty in 221 A.D. until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

Since the Han dynasty, huangdi began to be abbreviated to huang or di.

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 although there has only been one reigning Empress, the Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty.

Structure of Chinese nobility

Fengjian and Zongfa of the Zhou Dynasty

The social system of the Zhou Dynasty is sometimes referred to as the Chinese proto-feudalism and corresponds to the combination of Fengjian and Zongfa in Chinese language. Male aristocracies were classified into, in decending order of rank, the nobles - Zhuhou (諸侯 pinyin zhu1 hou2), the gentry - Qing (卿 qing1), Daifu (大夫 dai4 fu1) and Shi (士 shi4), and the commoners - Shumin (庶民 shu4 min2).

Zongfa governed the primogeniture of rank and succesion 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. Commoner descendants would start off their own families and should not retain any noble lineage.

Fengjian governed the peerage. Sizes of troops and domains, frequencies of tributes would classify five ranks within the male nobles - baron (nan, ch. 男 pinyin nan2), viscount (zi, ch. 子 zi3), earl (bo, ch. 伯 bo2), marquess (hou, ch. 侯 hou2), and duke (gong, ch. 公 gong1). While before the Han dynasty it was valid that a peer with a place name actually governed that place, it had not been marginally true since. Any male member of the noble 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.

All terms had lost their original pre-Qin 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 nowadays intends to raise one's mianzi (refer to Face (social custom)).

Female nobles

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.


During the Zhou Dynasty, Wang was the title for the ruler of whole China. During the Warring States Period, powerful nobles called themself Wang and regarded themself equal to Zhou royals. After King Zheng of the state of Qin defeated all the Wangs and unified China, he took a new title Huang Di, which is now translated to "Emperor".

The founder of Han Dynasty, Liu Bang, in order to please his wartime allies, gave each of them a piece of land as their own "kingdoms" and titled each of them Wang. Liu Bang was himself titled Huangdi, the ruler of all lands. Wang had since became just the highest hereditary title and was commonly given to relatives of the emperor. Since all lands were supposed to be under the emperor according to traditional Chinese political theory, a foreign monarchy is also called Wang, meaning one is under the Chinese Emperor.


During Zhou Dynasty, the gongs are in fact 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, the most powerful gong became the de facto ruler of China. Finally in the Warring States Period, most gongs declared themselves to be the kings and they were equal to the Zhou king.

Starting from Han Dynasty, gong became a noble title ranked below wang. Gongs were mostly powerless, except those who also held a position in the imperial service.