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While the concepts of hereditary sovereign and peerage titles and noble families were featured as early as the semi-mythical, early historical period, a settled system of nobility was established from the Zhou dynasty. In the subsequent millennia, this system was largely maintained in form, with some changes and additions, although the content constantly evolved. The last, well-developed system of noble titles was established under the Qing dynasty. The CE 1911 republican Xinhai Revolution saw the dissolution of the nobility along with the totality of the official imperial system. Though some noble families maintained their titles and dignity for a time, new political and economic circumstances forced their decline. The fact that at that time most existing nobles were of the Manchu ethnicity, a ruling elite under the Qing dynasty, but an ethnic minority like any other under the new Republic, resulted in minimal popular recognition of their nobility. Today, the nobility as a class is almost entirely dissipated in China, and only a very few maintain any pretense or claim to noble titles, which are almost universally unrecognized.
Elevation and degradation of rank might occur posthumously, and posthumous elevation was sometimes a consideration; Guan Yu, was styled, during his lifetime, Marquis of Han Shou (漢壽亭侯) in the Han dynasty then posthumously in the later Song dynasty elevated to Duke Zhonghui (忠惠公) then in the Yuan dynasty Prince of Xianling Yiyong Wu'an Yingji (顯靈義勇武安英濟王) then in the Ming dynasty both beatified and royalized as Saintly Emperor Guan the Great God Who Subdues Demons of the Three Worlds and Whose Awe Spreads Far and Moves Heaven (三界伏魔大神威遠震天尊關聖帝君) and in popular culture deified as a God of Prosperity, Commerce, War, and Police.
The apex of the nobility is the sovereign. The title of the sovereign has changed over time, together with the connotations of the respective titles. In Chinese history are generally 3 levels of supreme and fully independent sovereignty or high, significantly autonomous sovereignty above the next lower category of ranks, the aristocracy who usually recognized the overlordship of a higher sovereign or ruled a semi-independent, tributary, or independent realm of self-recognized insufficient importance in size, power, or influence to claim a sovereign title, such as a Duchy which in Western terms would be called a Duchy, Principality, or some level of Chiefdom.
As a title of nobility, Ba Wang, hegemon, recognized overlordship of several subordinate kings while refraining from claiming the title of emperor within the imperium of the Chinese subcontinent, such as its borders were considered from era to era. Sovereigns holding the title of king of an individual state within and without the shifting borders of the Chinese imperium might be fully independent heads of foreign nations, such as the King of Korea who might, in some cases, be subordinate to foreign emperors just as territorial or tribal sovereign Mongol khans might be subject to one of several Khagans or Great khans. Confusingly, some Chinese emperors styled many or all close male relatives of certain kinds such as brothers, uncles, or nephews as wang, a term for king, using it as a courtesy title. However, Chinese histories since ancient works such as Shiji were also fairly liberal in terming local tribal chiefs as "king" of a particular territory ranging from vast to tiny, using convenient terms of the form "(locality)" + "(king)" such as Changshawang, "King of Changsha" which was briefly recognized as a kingdom but was usually a smaller part of Chu state or just a county of the Sui dynasty state, or phrases such as Yiwang, "Yi (Eastern) Foreign ('barbarian') king(s)," while in other cases or by other authors other terms such as [tusi], "native chief" might be used for the same office. The downward extensibility of terms for "king" in more casual usage also influences other allusive uses of these terms. In modern colloquial Chinese the term "king" is sometimes also used, roughly as loosely as in English, for such non-literal terms as mien da wang, "great king of noodles" for a pasta-lover, where an English-speaker might use such terms as [King of the Road].
Family members of individual sovereigns were also born to titles or granted specific titles by the sovereign, largely according to family tree proximity, including blood relatives and in-laws and adoptees of predecessors and older generations of the sovereign. Frequently, the parents of a new dynasty-founding sovereign would become elevated with sovereign or ruling family ranks, even if this was already a posthumous act at the time of the dynasty-founding sovereign's accession.
Titles translated in English as "prince" and "princess" were generally immediate or recent descendants of sovereigns, with increasing distance at birth from an ancestral sovereign in succeeding generations resulting in degradations of the particular grade of prince or princess and finally degradation of posterity's ranks as a whole below that of prince and princess. Sovereigns of smaller states are typically styled with lesser titles of aristocracy such as Duke of a Duchy or Marquis rather than as hereditary sovereign Princes who do not ascend to kingship as in the European case of the Principality of Monaco, and dynasties which gained or lost significant territory might change the titles of successive rulers from sovereign to aristocratic titles or vice versa, either by self-designation of the ruler or through imposed entitlement from a conquering state. For example, when Shu (state)'s kings were conquered by Qin (state), its Kaiming rulers became Marquises such as Marquis Hui of Shu who attempted a rebellion against Qin overlords in BCE 301.
Although formally Tianzi, "The Son of Heaven," the power of the Chinese 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.
The title of emperor was usually transmitted from father to son. Most often, the first-born son of the empress inherited the office, failing which the post was taken up by the first-born son of a concubine or consort of lower rank, but this rule was not universal and disputed succession was the cause of a number of civil wars. Unlike the case of the Japan, the emperor's regime in traditional Chinese political theory allowed for a change in dynasty, and an emperor could be replaced by a rebel leader. This was because a successful rebel leader was believed to enjoy the Mandate of Heaven, while the deposed or defeated emperor had lost favour with the gods, and his mandate was over, a fact made apparent to all by his defeat.
It was generally not accepted for a female to succeed to the throne as a sovereign regnant in her own right, rather than playing the role of a sovereign's consort or regent for a sovereign who was still a minor in age, so that in history of China there has only been one reigning empress, the Empress Wu, whose reign punctuated the Tang dynasty. However, there have been numerous cases in Chinese history where a woman was the actual power behind the imperial throne (see éminence grise).
Hou, Empress, actually Empress Consort in English terms, was a title granted to an official primary spouse of the polygamous male Chinese Emperor, and for the mother of the Emperor, typically elevated to this rank of Empress Dowager, bearing a senior title such as Tai Hou, Grand Empress, regardless of which spousal ranking she bore prior to the emperor's accession. In practice, many Chinese Empress Dowagers, either as official regent for a sovereign who was still a minor in age or from the influence of position within family social ranks, wielded great power or is historically considered to have been the effective wielder of supreme power in China, as in the case of Empress Dowager Cixi, Regent of China considered de facto sovereign of China for 47 years during CE 1861-1908.
Imperial Madams, ranking below Empress, aren't often distinguished in English from imperial Concubines, the next lower rank, but these were also titles of significance within the imperial household, and Imperial Madams might be translated as Consorts with the intention of distinguishing them from Empresses though all Empresses except the sole case of one Empress Regnant in Chinese history are technically Empress Consorts in English terms, primacy spouses of the Emperor Regnant who is actually invested with governmental rule.
Zhou li, the Rites of Zhou, states that Emperors are entitled to the following simultaneous spouses:
Sovereigns styled Ba Wang, hegemon, asserted official overlordship of several subordinate kings while refraining from claiming the title of emperor within the imperium of the Chinese subcontinent, such as its borders were considered from era to era, as in the case of Xiang Yu who styled himself Xīchǔ Bàwáng, Western Chu Hegemon, appointing subordinate generals from his campaigns of conquest, including defeated ones, as Wang, kings of states within his hegemony.
As noted above in the section discussing Emperors, the sovereigns during the Xia dynasty and Shang dynasty who called themselves Di (Chinese: 帝 dì)and during the Zhou dynasty who called themselves Wang (Chinese: 王 or 國王; wáng), was the title of the Chinese head of state until the Qin dynasty. The title "Wang" should not be confused with the common surname, which, at least by middle and later Chinese historical usage, has no definite royal implications. Rulers of these dynasties are conventionally translated with the title "king" and sometimes "emperor" in English.
The Zhou dynasty not only preceded the full unification of early China under the Qin dynasty, the first empire whose realm would subsequently be considered to extend broadly enough to be national in the context of the territorial concept of China, the Zhouli, Rites of Zhou were subsequently canonized by Confucius among his Confucian Chinese classics as a model precedent in principles of government, so ranks of nobility in later regimes both in periods of unified sovereignty and of competing smaller states would typically draw from its catalog of peerage. From Zhouli, later Confucian political philosophy and government publications, and from the surrounding historical literature of particular individuals, localities and events, the following social classifications have been attested.
The social system of the Zhou dynasty is sometimes referred to as the Chinese proto-feudalism and was the combination of Fengjian (honors and awards) and Zongfa (clan law). Male subjects were classified into, in descending order of rank:
Zongfa (宗法, 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 (卿), Daifu (大夫) and Shi (士) 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 concept)), and would indeed be considered flattery today.
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 gōngzhǔ (公主), and incorporated her associated place into her title if she had one.
Besides the systematized ranks listed above, there were also other familial appellations used as titles, e.g. Shu (叔, paternal younger uncle) or Jiu (舅, maternal uncle).
Sons of kings who did not receive other titles were generically called Wangzi (王子, king's son), and their children Wangsun (王孫, king's grandson). Similarly, sons and grandsons of dukes and lords are called Gongzi (公子, duke's son) and Gongsun (公孫, duke's grandson).
These honorifics occasionally became heritable titles, no longer indicating relation with the reigning king. And some clans even took them as family names. Gongzi eventually evolved into the generic honorific for all young gentry. Today it is either used as a flattering way to address an interlocutor's son, or an pejorative term for a wealthy man. Wangzi, on the other hand, is used today as the generic translation for foreign princes (in the sense of a monarch's son, as opposed to a sui generis title).
The southern state of Chu had a notably distinct culture from the central plain states, including the nobility system. The royal Xiong clan and its collateral branches of Qu, Jing and Zhao formed the main aristocracy of Chu. Besides the royal clans, Chu did not have a system of nobility early on. Chu's formal system of rank only appeared around late Spring and Autumn period, with such titles as Tonghou (通侯, lit. marquis-peer), Zhigui (執圭, lit. jade tablet bearer), Zhibo (執帛, lit. silk bearer). Noble ranks come with a state stipend, and holders of the highest ranks also received fiefs and the honorific title Jun (君, lord), e.g. Lord Chunshen.
Noble titles in Chu were bestowed primarily as reward for military and civil service, and were not heritable in principle.
Prior to the Qin dynasty, Wang (sovereign) was the title for the ruler of whole China. Under him were the vassals or Zhuhou (諸侯), who held territories granted by a succession of Zhou dynasty kings. They had the duty to support the Zhou king during an emergency and were ranked according to the Five Orders of Nobility. In the Spring and Autumn Period, the Zhou kings had lost most of their powers, and the most powerful vassals became the de facto ruler of China. Finally, in the Warring States period, most vassals declared themselves Wang or kings, and regarded themselves as equal to the Zhou king. After Zheng, king of the state of Qin, later known as Qin Shi Huang, defeated all the other vassals and unified China, he adopted the new title of Huangdi (emperor). Qin Shi Huang eliminated noble titles, as he sponsored legalism which believed in merit, not birth. He forced all nobles to the capital, seized their lands and turned them into administrative districts with the officials ruling them selected on merit. After the demise of Qin Er Shi, the last Qin ruler to used the title Huangdi (his successor Ziying used the title King of Qin rather than Emperor), Xiang Yu styled himself Hegemon King of Western Chu (Xichu Bàwáng 西楚霸王) rather than Emperor. Xiang Yu gave King Huai II of Chu the title of Emperor of Chu (楚義帝) or The Righteous Emperor of Southern Chu (南楚義帝) and awarded the rest of his allies, including Liu Bang, titles and a place to administer. Xiang Yu gave Liu Bang the Principality of Han, and he would soon replace him as the ruler of China.
The founder of the Han dynasty, Liu Bang, continued to use the title Huangdi. In order to appease his wartime allies, he gave each of them a piece of land as their own "kingdom" (Wangguo) along with a title of Wang. He eventually killed all of them and replaced them with members of his family. These kingdoms remained effectively independent until the Rebellion of the Seven States. Since then, Wang became merely the highest hereditary title, which roughly corresponded to the title of prince, and, as such, was commonly given to relatives of the emperor. The title Gong also reverted purely to a peerage title, ranking below Wang. Those who bore such titles were entirely under the auspices of the emperor, and had no ruling power of their own. The two characters combined to form the rank, Wanggong, grew to become synonymous with all higher court officials.
Subsequent dynasties expanded the hereditary titles further. Not all titles of peerage are hereditary, and the right to continue the heredity passage of a very high title was seen as a very high honour; at the end of the Qing dynasty, there were five grades of princes, amongst a myriad of other titles. For details, see Qing dynasty nobility.
A few Chinese families enjoyed hereditary titles in the full sense, the chief among them being the Holy Duke of Yen (the descendant of Confucius); others, such as the lineal descendants of Wen Tianxiang, ennobled the Duke of Xingguo, not choosing to use their hereditary title. The Imperial Clansmen consisted of those who trace their descent direct from the founder of the Qing dynasty, and were distinguished by the privilege of wearing a yellow girdle; collateral relatives of the imperial house wore a red girdle. Twelve degrees of nobility (in a descending scale as one generation succeeds another) were conferred on the descendants of every emperor; in the thirteenth generation the descendants of emperors were merged in the general population, save that they retain the yellow girdle. The heads of eight houses, the Iron-capped (or helmeted) princes, maintained their titles in perpetuity by rule of primogeniture in virtue of having helped the Manchu conquest of China.
The oldest held continuous noble title in Chinese history was that held by the descendants of Confucius, as Duke Yansheng, which was renamed as the Sacrificial Official to Confucius in 1935 by the Republic of China. The title is held by Kung Tsui-chang.
Most titles of nobility were officially abolished when China became a republic in 1912, with the Republic maintaining some titles like Duke Yansheng. They were briefly expanded under Yuan Shikai's empire and after Zhang Xun's coup. The last emperor was allowed to keep his title but was treated as a foreign monarch until the 1924 coup. Manchukuo also had titles of nobility.
The bestowal of titles was abolished upon the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
After the fall of the Qing dynasty and its "Last Emperor" Puyi in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, Chinese President Yuan Shikai attempted to resurrect the imperial system, proclaiming himself emperor in his brief Empire of China (1915-1916) which ended with his death 83 days after its inauguration. During this period, Yuan Shikai as sovereign declared the ennoblement of several people, in this case not so much his family and clan as allies and those he sought as supporters for the new Empire. Some declined the honors.
Traditional Chinese political theory held that "All lands under Heaven belong to the emperor, all people under Heaven belong, are subjects of the emperor." (普天之下，莫非王土;率土之濱,莫非王臣). Thus, a foreign monarch would also be referred to as Wang, implying that one was inferior in rank and thus subject to the Chinese Emperor.
In modern Chinese, a king is referred to as a Wang, while an emperor would be referred to as Huangdi. The king in those times were referred to as the mandate of heaven. Therefore Victoria of the United Kingdom was styled Nü-Wang (Queen) of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Nü-Huang (Empress) of India.
Other titles might be tailored down to a single individual being officially honored for a particular achievement, with or without executive portfolio following the granting of the title, and might truly be titles outside the executive government structure, even when words used in their phrasing would otherwise imply executive office.
Protector General (都護; Duhu) – see e.g., Ban Chao.
On the other hand, victorious generals were often granted official praise-names or names implying particular old and new duties or some combination of these, which would be quasi-executive or fully executive titles honored as much like peerage as like actual military rank, as in the case of Liu Bei promoting Guan Yu to a rank phrased as General Who Exterminates Rebels (蕩寇將軍) during the active course of Guan Yu's military career.