The word "gentry" is used to refer to a class of landowners (dizhu 地主, lingzhu 領主) in late imperial China, yet the Chinese class did not have a status of nobility as it was the case in Great Britain. The corresponding Chinese terms are shenshi 紳士, jinshen 縉紳, shishen 士紳, shenjin 紳衿, xiangshen 鄉紳, shenhu 紳戶, ruhu 儒戶 "educated households", guanhu 官戶 "state official households", dahu 大戶 "grand households" or chenghu 城戶 "urban households", in contrast to commoners (minhu 民戶, xiaohu 小戶 "small households", xianghu 鄉戶 "rural households").
Part of the Chinese gentry participated regularly and over generations in the state examinations, with the result that there is some overlapping between the "gentry" and the so-called scholar-officials or official-scholars (shiguan 仕官). Even if members of the gentry did not have the chance to study the Confucian Classics – which was a condition for the participation in the examinations – they might have enough money to purchase the vain title of a state official (guanxian 官銜, juannaguan 捐納官, see contributions), that of a student at the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監) or that of a graduate of one of the lower examinations.
Handbooks for magistrates, like Xu Dong's 徐棟 (1793-1865) Mulingshu 牧令書, explain that the local gentry must be seen as "the social equals of the local officials, who relied heavily on the assistance of the gentry in controlling the masses of commoners" (Chang 1955: 33). On the other hand, Xu's book also warns district magistrates that the gentry might also act as potential troublemakers stirring up the populace against the administration (i.e. the central state).
Chung-li Chang (1955: 7, 9) defines the gentry by examination grades, and discerns between the lower gentry (having obtained the jiansheng 監生 and shengyuan 生員 degrees) and the upper gentry (bearing the gongsheng 貢生 and jinshi 進士 degrees and occupying a position in the officialdom). The production of degree holders by gentry families is, nonetheless, not a required factor, but gentry families could rely on other parameters like wealth, land, social position or social benefactions (Miller 2009: 15). Chang (1962) also defines different types of gentry by income, namely by office, "gentry functions", secretarial services, teaching, landownership, and mercantile activities. He finds that about a fifth of the total income of the Chinese gentry in late imperial China was generated from offices, another fifth from "gentry services", and a third fifth from mercantile activities. The largest post in the calculation was income generated from landholding, making roughly out a third of the total income of the gentry (Chang 1962: 197).
As persons having received an education in the Confucian sense, benevolence towards the common people was the focus of the self-conception of the gentry. Welfare activities, disaster relief or other charitable tasks, arbitration in legal disputes, scholarships to students, the organisation and funding of public works (dams, canals, bridges, roads, temples, schools, academies, or the compilation of local gazetteers), and local self-defence (Kuhn 1970) were duties carried out by the gentry as a social class. The influence and activities of the upper gentry even surpassed that of the villages and districts where the gentry resided. Social contacts allowed influence on political decisions even on the provincial level by way of encouraging or giving advice to functionaries in the officialdom. The rule of avoidance (bihui 避回) which required that a district magistrate (zhixian 知縣) served anywhere else than in his home district, along with the custom to transfer office holders every three years to another place after evaluation (kaoji 考績), made close cooperation of district magistrates and prefects (zhifu 知府 and zhizhou 知州) with the local gentry indispensable. Another factor commanding cooperation is the thin layer of bureaucracy which made district magistrates administrators over huge district populations. The gentry thus had to serve as intermediaries between the district administration and the common folks.
The management of local affairs was at the "the very heart of the gentry's responsibilities toward Chinese society" (Chang 1962: 43). Statistically seen, only one third of gentry members did not participate in local activities (Chang 1962: 44). These duties also contributed to the income of the gentry, mainly in the forms of managerial income from local or from clan projects, and retainer fees. The latter referred to specialized services such as settling disputes or handling lawsuits. Educated members of the gentry saw themselves as promoters of peace and order and as protectors of local interests in case of conflicts with neighbouring localities. Local projects did not only contribute to the infrastructural and economic well-being of local societies, but also helped to exploit the usually widespread unemployment in slack seasons (Chang 1962: 47). By welfare or philanthropic projects like charity granaries and relief bureaus, the gentry helped to redistribute funds of the well-to-do to the needy. All these projects were financed by contributions and by levies organized and carried out by the gentry and incorporated into the tax scheme (Chang 1962: 60). Part of this was the notorious customary fee or retainer fee (lougui 陋規, baigui 白規, caogui, chenggui 成規, manggui 忙規, see pingyu surcharge 平餘) which constituted a permanent matter of conflict between the gentry and the government authorities.
The gentry had free access to the district officials and were free from gestures of submissive etiquette. They wore special garments and headgear (see hat buttons) distinguishing them from the commoners, and had the right to be addressed by the title laoye 老爺 "excellency", if not by their examination grade. Members of the gentry took over functions in ancestral clan rituals, in ceremonies in Confucius temples and in community festivals and ceremonies.
Judicial procedures against a member of the gentry were carried out not by district magistrates (as was the normal case), but by educational intendants (Chang 1955: 35). During the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), had the right to refuse testimony altogether (if of official rank 5 and higher) or to be separately interrogated by patrolling inspectors (xunyushi 巡御史) and surveillance commissioners (anchashi 按察使), with notification to higher authorities which had to express their consent (if of rank 6 and lower). Members of the gentry were also allowed to buy themselves free from punishment or to avoid punishment by accepting dismissal, degradation or relocation. Members of the gentry had the right not to attend personally in trials against themselves. If committing a crime, a gentry member was not subjected to humiliating procedures (like kneeling down or being tortured) or punishments by beating with the stick. Commoners insulting a member of the gentry were punished more severely than normal. They had, moreover, not the right to call in a member of the gentry as a witness in lawsuits.
The gentry was freed from labour service (yaoyi 徭役) or a respective commutation in money (as a kind of poll tax). In addition, members of the gentry were in some instances allowed to have reduced their share of the land tax. Even if being liable to pay the land tax, their social position allowed the gentry delayment of the annual tax payment and exemption from the wide range of extra surcharges. In the lower Yangtze area, the gentry escaped the obligatory delivery of tribute grain or paid just a reduced rate (Chang 1955: 43). In some regions the inequality of tax payment was so serious that even members of the gentry themselves, like Feng Guifen 馮桂芬 (1809-1874), urged to distribute the load on a more equal basis because this would save organizational cost and reduce the extent of extortion by the yamen clerks. Gentry members being government students or having completed a degree enjoyed certain allowances by the state.
In the second half of the 19th century, when the provinces lost their grip on local administration, members of the gentry gradually took over duties normally carried out by the state. Some resisted the state power altogether and refused cooperation with the tax collectors or collected the local taxes themselves, as happened after the introduction of the likin tax. During the First Opium War (1839-1842), the gentry of Guangzhou 廣州 (Canton) sided with the population against the appeasers in the prefectural leadership. Peasants were even willing to have their landed property registered as belonging to a gentry member and accepted the social downward move from a free to a tenant farmer just in order to escape taxation. In general, it was custom for wide parts of the gentry to appropriate new tracts of land, even such belonging to others or to institutions like temples. The gentry might also profit from the supervision of (illegal) gambling or the organization of local granaries.
The Chinese gentry was thus characterized by a "dynamic oscillation" between integration into the imperial system and autonomy from it. This structure in turn forced the state to adopt a laissez-faire policy (wuwei 無為) in times when the gentry cooperated, and a legalist stance, when it was obstreperous (Wakeman 1975: 4).
When collecting taxes in a "proxy remittance" system (Wakemen 1975: 14), the gentry obtained the taxes in copper cash and converted them – often to their advantage – into monetary silver which was handed over to the official collectors. This gentry service was rewarded by the baolan 包攬 charge which might be as much as 250 per cent of the tax quota (Wakeman 1975: 15).
The increasing emergence of bandits and rebellious "peasants" in the mid-19th century necessitated – on the backdrop of a weak and corrupt bureaucracy – the involvement of the local gentry as creators and leaders of a para-military system, the tuanlian militia 團練 (or gentry militia), who replaced both the formal military structure of the Green Standard garrisons and the formal local self-defence system (baojia 保甲). The gentry-led tuanlian militia were soon brought into the regular structure of local government. The gentry thus worked for their own interest and created a complement to the "rule by officials" (guanzhi 官治) by creation of a kind of integral self-government (zizhi 自治) (Kuhn 1970: 215-216). For the common populace, the replacement of the exploitative, "uncontrollable and dangerous" group of clerks and yamen runners by the "sympathetic and predictable" group of the gentry in the fields of taxation and police power (Kuhn 1970: 214) was more than welcome. Local administrators like Hu Linyi 胡林翼 (1812-1861) and Zhu Sunyi 朱孫詒 (d. 1878) therefore advocated the integration of the gentry into the operation of districts.