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Chinese Merchants

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Chinese Merchants

Merchants were one of the most important groups of people in Chinese society. They supported trade both within and outside of China, created stable markets in their communities, impacted public policy, influenced government officials, and supported infrastructure projects in their communities. Despite these accolades, Chinese merchants were not just disliked but judged for their economic activity. Keep reading to find out why this was the case.

Map of China Chinese Merchants StudySmarter.

Map of China. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Chinese Merchant: Definition

In ancient China, social class was based on occupation. There were four major groups of people:

  • gentry scholars,
  • peasant farmers,
  • artisans and artisans, and
  • merchants and traders.

These groups are often referred to as the four occupations. The occupations are neither hereditary nor rely on the amount of money an individual has. The merchant social class is the social level made up of merchants.

Merchant

A merchant is someone who buys and sells goods produced by other people to make a profit.

Merchants played a large role in bargaining and trading. They orchestrated the creation of more stable markets in their communities, where they could sell goods to others.

While many merchants were wealthy, they did not have a high social standing.

Ancient Chinese Mural Chinese Merchants StudySmarter.

Ancient Chinese Mural. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Merchants in Ancient China

Ancient China's social system had several levels of prestige. The emperor and the royal family were at the top of the social structure. They were the most powerful and the most wealthy.

The next level was made of civil servants. A civil servant is a government worker whose job is to serve the royal family. Civil servants were respected because they could read, write, and meddle in matters of state.

The next step below was the peasants and craftspeople. Believe it or not, peasants were respected in ancient China because they produced food for their communities. Craftspeople created goods for the members of the upper class.

Merchants were the next class. While they were rich, they were looked down upon by many in ancient Chinese society. They were disliked because they made money off of the work of other people by trading goods that others made.

The only social group below merchants was made up of servants, soldiers, and entertainers.

Merchant History

It is thought that merchants were highly regarded in Early Ancient China. Some believe that Emperor Shun had been a merchant before taking over the crown. A merchant named Guan Zhong was appointed Prime Minister. Some artifacts, like oracle bones, suggest that merchants enjoyed high social status.

Later, under imperial rule, society's view of merchants shifted. The elite ruling class saw merchants and traders as essential, establishing their societal value. However, merchants were seen as having the least value out of the four occupations. After all, some merchants had very high incomes, and others exploited farmers. Gentry scholars, peasant farmers, and artisans/craftsmen were all seen as bringing more societal value to China.

Did you know?

Some rules prohibited Chinese merchants from owning or even riding in chariots.

Although they were sometimes looked down upon, Chinese merchants were often wealthy and managed to wield influence upon other members of society. Merchants promoted Confucian ideas of integrity, frugality, and the importance of hard work.

The later part of the imperial period saw some scholars become merchants.

Writings from the Han dynasty describe a large amount of wealth many merchants held on to. Some owned large chunks of land, while others had large amounts of gold. Merchants who traveled between trade towns and other cities could make more money as they did not have to register as a merchant.

Did you know?

The Han Dynasty ruled China from approximately 206 BCE-220 CE.

By the Song Dynasty (approximately 960-1279 CE), Confucian ideals have evolved to support commercialization. The followers of Confucianism supported trade as a legitimate profession as long as merchants agreed to meet certain ethical ideals. This was helpful for the Chinese merchants. The Song dynasty is known for its rapid economic growth, due in part to the Chinese merchant trade.

During the late Ming Dynasty, merchants were so successful that they often supported the government's attempts to build new infrastructures, like roads or schools. Around this time, the stigma about being a merchant disappeared. Maritime trade grew during this period.

A Foo Dog at the Merchants Guild Hall at the Tianfei Temple  Chinese Merchants StudySmarter.

A Foo Dog at the Merchants Guild Hall at the Tianfei Temple, 1895. Source: John Thomson (Wikimedia Commons) CC-By-4.0

Chinese Merchants and the Silk Road

The Silk Road was a trade route network connecting China and other parts of the east with Europe and the Middle East.

The Silk Road:

The Silk Road, also described as the Silk Roads, was a strategic series of trade routes that connected China to Europe and the Middle East. It allowed for trading goods as well as ideas.

The Silk Road was born in the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE, although historians view 130 BCE as the year the Silk Road opened for trade. Horses were one of the first things traded along the Silk Road as the Chinese were desperate for ways to obtain more robust horses to aid in battle, and nearby nomads were willing to trade horses for silk.

Over time, the Silk Road grew to cover over 4,000 miles of trade routes, connecting Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Merchants, including Chinese merchants, traveled the Silk Road to buy and trade various goods, including the ever-popular Chinese silk.

Chinese merchants used the Silk Road to transport one of China's most famous exports-Chinese silk. The silk was typically transferred to Europe, where Chinese merchants would sell it to European merchants. Chinese merchants also used the Silk Road to transport jade, precious stones, tea, and spices.

The Silk Road Chinese Merchants Studysmarter.

The Silk Road. Source: The Silk Roadies (Wikimedia Commons) CC-BY-2.0

Importance of the Chinese Merchant

While Chinese merchants were not always looked at in a positive light, they wielded influence upon their communities and impacted the lives of many others. While they were generally more wealthy than many noble families, they received the least respect out of the four occupations. Many believed that merchants intentionally manipulated the market to increase their income.

Merchants in imperial China often owned land, which, when combined with the amount of money they had, resulted in the ability of merchants to impact public policy and influence government officials.

An example of this is infrastructure construction. Merchants were not uncommon to financially support the construction of schools, roads, and bridges.

Merchants were able to somewhat redeem themselves in the eye of the public by adopting Confucian beliefs. In imperial China, merchants promoted Confucian ideas of integrity, frugality, and the importance of hard work.

Chinese merchants were important outside of China, too. Merchants built exchange networks that allowed people to exchange ideas, beliefs, and other cultural aspects in addition to goods. Chinese merchants were a large part of the cultural and economic force behind the success of the Silk Road. Chinese merchants were important because they supported trade inside and outside the country.

Ancient Chinese trade town Chinese merchants Studysmarter.

Ancient Chinese trade town. Source: ValentinaLitvintseva (Wikimedia Commons)

Summary: Chinese Merchants

A merchant is someone who buys and sells goods produced by other people.

In ancient China, social class was based on occupation. There were four major groups: gentry scholars, peasant farmers, artisans and craftsmen, and merchants and traders. Merchants played a large role in bargaining and trading by orchestrating the creation of more stable markets in their communities, where they were able to sell goods to others.

Merchants were highly regarded in Ancient China. Later, under imperial rule, society's view of merchants shifted. The elite ruling class saw merchants and traders as essential, which established their societal value. Many outside the nobility disliked merchants, as they believed they took advantage of farmers and manipulated prices to make themselves wealthier.

Chinese merchants were often wealthy, and they managed to wield influence upon other members of society. While they were generally more wealthy than many noble families, they received the least respect out of the four occupations. Many believed that merchants intentionally manipulated the market to increase their income.

Many merchants were wealthy landowners. This resulted in the ability of merchants to impact public policy and influence government officials. Merchants were not uncommon to financially support the construction of schools, roads, and bridges.

Chinese merchants were important outside of China, too. They were significant in developing exchange networks like the Silk Road that allowed people to exchange ideas, beliefs, and other cultural aspects in addition to goods. Chinese merchants were a large part of the cultural and economic force behind the success of the Silk Road.

Chinese Merchants - Key Takeaways

  • In ancient China, social class was based on occupation.
  • Merchants were highly regarded in Ancient China. Later, under imperial rule, society's view of merchants shifted. The nobility saw value in merchants as they provided essential services, but the common people disliked merchants. They were concerned that they took advantage of farmers and raised prices to make themselves rich.
  • Merchants could impact public policy and influence government officials. Merchants were not uncommon to financially support the construction of schools, roads, and bridges.
  • They were significant in the development of exchange networks like the Silk Road that allowed people to exchange ideas, beliefs, and other cultural aspects in addition to goods.

Frequently Asked Questions about Chinese Merchants

Chinese merchants were people who bought and sold goods for profit. 

They were looked down upon by many in ancient Chinese society. They were disliked because they made money from the work of other people by trading goods that others made. Yet, some gained power and influence through money. 

Yes, ancient China had merchants. They were one of the four great occupations. 

They were disliked because they made money off of the work of other people by trading goods that others made. 

The Silk Road gave merchants the opportunity to transport and trade goods like silk or jade. In return, they would have access to goods like horses, textiles, and glass. 

Final Chinese Merchants Quiz

Question

A ______ is someone who buys and sells goods produced by other people. 

Show answer

Answer

merchant

Show question

Question

The _______ _________was a strategic series of trade routes that connected China to Europe and the Middle East


Show answer

Answer

Silk Road

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Question

Who had a higher social status than merchants?

Show answer

Answer

gentry scholars

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Question

True or false: Merchants were highly regarded by society in Imperial China. 


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Answer

True

Show question

Question

Why were merchants disliked in Imperial China? 

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Answer

people believed merchants took advantage of farmers

Show question

Question

True or False: Since wealthy merchants owned land, they were able to  impact public policy and influence government officials.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

It was not uncommon for merchants to financially support the construction of 


Show answer

Answer

schools 

Show question

Question

True or false: In ancient China, social class was based on occupation.



Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Chinese merchants used the silk road to transport 

Show answer

Answer

silk 

Show question

Question

How do we know merchants were highly regarded in Ancient China?

Show answer

Answer

 Some believe that Emperor Shun had been a merchant before taking over the crown.

Show question

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