Ancient China – Daily Life
In ancient China, a majority of the population lived as farmers. The rest of the population, which was a much smaller percentage, lived as merchants, nobles, and imperials.
At the top of it, all was the Emperor and his family. Each of these different groups lived many different lives.
Let’s take a detailed look at daily life in Ancient China.
The Life of a Farmer
Of all the ways to make a living in ancient China, the life of a farmer was one of the most difficult. They were relegated to small villages with even smaller homes.
These homes were actually huts that only consisted of two rooms.
Their roof was usually thatched, and the only furniture they had was usually crude articles made out of wood.
They had to work all day and sometimes even into the night. Even though they worked the land, they did not own it.
Instead, the property was usually owned by a nobleman or the imperial family. The farmer would also pay homage to whoever’s land they worked on, to keep them in good faith.
The reason that their work was so difficult was mostly due to the fact that most of it were done by hand.
While they had animals to pull plows, such as oxen, they still had to manually harvest whatever it was that they were growing.
Of course, this took a long time, which left little time for leisure or play. They did celebrate a Spring Festival each year. This was done to help assure a good harvest.
In the North of China, farmers were expected to grow wheat, while in the warmer South, they would grow rice. They might also grow tea, sugar, or cotton, depending on the needs of the landowner.
Farmers also had to work for the government throughout the year. This work would not usually be for farming, however.
Instead, they would be made to serve in the army or help to build roads, canals, or palaces.
Life in the City
While farmers had to toil furiously in the fields both day and night, life in the city was much different. People that lived in cities usually worked for themselves.
These jobs included merchants, artisans, scholars, or government officials.
While merchants were considered higher on the social ladder than farmers, they were often a neglected sector in city life. They did not have a ton of importance or social status.
In fact, during times of war, merchants would usually be exiled to outside of the city limits. They would be expected to protect themselves without any assistance from the government.
The food that was available to people in ancient China largely depended upon their occupation and social status. The rich ate very well.
Their diet usually included grains, such as rice, wheat, and millet. They also had plenty of different kinds of meat, like pork, chicken, goose, duck, and even dog.
Rich members of Chinese society would also have eaten plenty of fish and vegetables. Their favorite drinks included tea and wine derived from rice.
Poor people had a very boring diet by comparison. In the North, poor people would usually dumplings, pancakes, and noodles made from wheat.
In the South, they would eat rice, and perhaps some fish as well if they lived near a river.
The social class to which you belonged was completely determined by birth. If you were born to a peasant father, you would be a peasant.
If, however, you were lucky enough to be born into the ruling class, that would be your social status.
Once writing was invented, the social classes were more deeply divided by who was literate and who was illiterate.
As Chinese society became more established, there became opportunities for individuals to improve their social status.
This could be done by working for the government, performing your job well, and passing different Imperial exams.
These exams were extremely difficult, which made it less likely for lesser peoples to advance.
The clothing that the people of ancient China wore was largely dependent on their social station. Members of the nobility and imperial family were the only members of society that could wear clothing made of silk.
Everyone else wore clothing made of different fabrics, such as cotton, wool, or hemp.
During the Sui Dynasty, these differences were reinforced even more. The Emperor decreed that only members of the nobility and upper classes were allowed to wear lots of different colors.
Peasants, on the other hand, had to wear either blue or black clothing.
No matter what their occupation, families in ancient China were all structured in a similar fashion. It was a male-dominated society, with the father as the head of the household.
The male had much more power within the home than his wife or the children.
Marriage was usually a pre-arranged affair. The parents from the two different families would come to an agreement and decide whether or not they would have their children marry.
The children didn’t usually have a say in who they were to marry.
Depending on the wealth and importance of the family, the size of the home would increase. No matter how big the home would be, the people that lived there would need to make do.
The people that would live in a familial home would be made up of three different generations, which included grandparents, parents, and children.
Most homes also had a courtyard with a shrine for the family to pay respects to their ancestors.
Life for Boys
Life for boys was much easier than it was for girls. They were expected to grow up to be heads of the household, so they were allowed to go to school and learn an occupation.
Life for Girls
The life of a girl in the ancient Chinese world was a much tougher one. They were expected to assist in taking care of the home and raising children.
The structure of the society was male-dominated, which was used to reinforce the difference between men and women.
You can check our article on Social Structure of a Native American Tribe.
Women were expected to respect and obey their husband at all times.
Young girls were also forced to carry out the painful practice of foot binding. Girls were expected to have their feet wrapped tightly when they were young, to keep them from growing.
This was because small feet were considered attractive. This made walking difficult and painful and disfigured their feet for their whole life.
Life in the Home
The Chinese family was ruled by the father. His family had to respect and obey him all of the time. Women were expected to take care of the home and raise the family.
A big part of the family life was having a large amount of respect for your elders. Children of all ages, and grown-ups as well, had to respect their elders.
Only boys in wealthy or affluent families were allowed to attend school. They were taught the teachings of Confucius and calligraphy.
If they were not from an affluent family, they would instead go and work in the fields or their parents shop at a young age.