An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

wujue 五爵, the Five Ranks of Nobility

Sep 16, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

The wujue 五爵 "five titles of nobility" were used throughout history but were subject to change depending on the general constitution of the state administration.

Table 1. The Five Ranks of Nobility (wujue 五爵)
gong duke
hou marquis
bo earl
zi viscount
nan baron

In the pre-imperial age (before 221 BCE), the titles of nobility were interconnected with the family relationship of the holder towards the ruling house, but afterwards - and partially already before - became an expression of meritocracy. Each of the five titles then express a rank relative to the other titles. In most cases, the bearer of the title of nobility was also entitled to be given a fixed income paid by the state.

The title jun 君 "noble" is rather unspecific and is commonly translated as "lord". In pre-imperial China it is interchangeable with the title hou.

The order of the five titles appears in the book Mengzi 孟子 from the late Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). From inscriptions on bronze vessels it can be seen that the statement in the Mengzi is correct.

About the system of titles of nobility during the Shang period 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), not much is known, and the meaning and order of the titles remains unclear. The title of fangbo 方伯 seems to have been preferred for rulers not subject to the Shang, while those within Shang territory and submissive to the Shang were called bo or hou. It is still in discussion if tian 田 or dian 甸 were also titles of nobility during the Shang period.

The factual feudal system of the Zhou period (11th cent.-221 BCE)

The title of wang 王 was reserved for the Son of Heaven (tianzi 天子), the single powerful ruler of a dynasty, during the Shang as well as during the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE). Yet the rulers of Non-Chinese states also called themselves king, like the kings of Lü 呂, Xu 徐 and Feng 豐 in the east and Chu 楚, Wu 吳 and Yue 越 in the south and southeast. The last three survived as powerful states into the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE), Chu even longer.

The title of gong "duke" was reserved for relatives of the house of Zhou, as well as members of the central government, high ministers, or deserved persons. The dukes of Zhou 周公 and Shao 召公 were, although being given territories far away from the capital, members of the central government in the west. The dukes of Zhou were concurrently dukes of Lu 魯, and the dukes of Shao concurrently dukes of Yan 燕 (at that time written Yan 郾 or 匽). Other minister-dukes were the dukes of Bi 畢, Ming 明, Jing 井, Mao 毛 and Rui 芮. Their names are known from historiographical sources as well as from bronze inscriptions on vessels discovered as archaeological findings. After the conquest of the Shang, the kings of Zhou invested their supporters as rulers (hou) over territories in the Central Plain along the Yellow River. Some of them were kinsmen of the house of Zhou (family Ji 姬), but many others not (like the house of Jiang 姜 in Qi 齊 or the house of Gui 嬀 in Chen 陳). Such were Kang 康, Xing 邢, Teng 滕, Yu 虞, Xun 荀, Zeng 曾, Jin 晉, Zheng 鄭, Chen 陳, Wei 衛, Song 宋, Cao 曹, Cai 蔡, Qi 齊, and so on.

Not all of the names of the regional states are known, and not all of them played an important role in the history of the centuries to come. Interestingly enough, bronze inscriptions prove that the "dukes" of the regional states as mentioned in historiographical sources were originally ennobled as hou "marquis", not as gong "duke". The reason for this is that these states later adopted the title gong and retrospectively raised the title of their ancestors in the house chronicles. It might also have been that not each successor to a regional ruler (zhuhou 諸侯) was automatically reinstated with the title of his father. The rulers of Zheng and Cao, for example, are sometimes mentioned with the title bo "earl". Some of the regional rulers of the early Zhou period had already existed earlier, under the Shang, and were re-instated during the Zhou (like Chen 陳, Zhu 鑄 and Ji 紀).

The title of bo "earl" was mainly reserved for those given a smaller territory around the capital, like the earls of Rong 榮, Jing 井, Du 杜, Dan 單, San 散, Zheng 徵, Guo 過 or Yi 夷. The title of zi "viscount" appears very seldom in bronze inscriptions, and also not often in historiographical sources. Examples are the viscounts of Bei 北 and Shen 沈. There is only one example for a holder of the title of nan "barons", i.e. the baron of Xu 許 (also written 鄦).

A collective designation for the regional rulers is zhuhou 諸侯 "all the marquesses" which shows that the term hou could also be used generally, and not specifically for the rank of "marquis".

During the Warring States period the system of the five ranks was deeply changed. Fifteenth-generation rulers did not any more see themselves as servants or "officials" of the kings of Zhou but started calling themselves king and used the old system of nobility for internal purposes. It was common to grant deserved persons the title of jun "lord". In the state of Qin 秦, that had always stood somewhat outside the traditional system of the Zhou and was only accepted as a regional ruler in 770, a complicated system of 20 ranks of honour was introduced. The holder of each rank was allowed "to be fed" by a fixed number of households (shiyi 食邑).

The limited feudal system of the early imperial period (202 BCE-581 CE)

The abolishment of feudal titles was not completely executed during the Qin period 秦 (221-206 BCE), and the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) therefore developmed a new system. In the beginning, the founder of the Han dynasty ennobled deserved followers with the title of "king" (wang 王), while the title of emperor (huangdi 皇帝) was reserved for himself. When some of the kings rebelled, they were replaced by relatives to the imperial house. From then on, non-relatives could only be ennobled as hou "marquis". Relatives ennobled as wang were in most cases sons and brothers of emperors, and therefore, wang is from the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE) on commonly translated as "prince". A common designation for the princes was zhuhou wang 諸侯王, a term to be translated as "the feudal princes", and not (!) as "marquesses and kings". The non-relative kings of the first decade of the Former Han period are termed yixing zhuhou wang 異姓諸侯王 "feudal princes not relative to the imperial house", or "kings not relative to the imperial house" ("kings", just because they were not relatives).

The marquesses, either relatives or non-relatives, were commonly called liehou 列侯. Each wang "prince" and hou "marquis" had a lifelong right on this title, he disposed of a territory he could live of, and had the right to pass down the land and the title to his heir. Inheritability (shixi 世襲) is the most important feature allowing this system to be called "feudal". For the sake of the security of the imperial line, the territories of the princedoms were several times cut down in size in order to minimize the economical base of the princes of the second and third generations. Such a process even led to a large-scale rebellion in the mid-Former Han period, the rebellion of the seven princes.

In the 400-years long history of the Han dynasty, only Wang Mang 王莽 (45 BCE-23 CE) and Cao Cao 曹操 (155-220) managed to get the title of wang "king" as non-relatives.

Princesses were given so-called "bath towns" (tangmu shiyi 湯沐食邑).

In early imperial times, there were several grades of marquesses, given districts (xian 縣; as xianhou 縣侯 "district marquis"), townships (xiang 鄉; as xianghou 鄉侯 "township marquis") or neighbourhoods (ting 亭; as tinghou 亭侯 "neighbourhood marquis"). Princes were given a "state" (guo 國; as guowang 國王 "prince of a state") or a commandery (jun 郡; as junwang 郡王 "commandery prince"). During the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE), there were many kinsmen of empresses (waiqihou 外戚侯) and eunuchs (huanzhehou 宦者侯) made marquesses, as well as other persons, by grace (enzehou 恩澤侯). The three other ranks, bo, zi and nan, were practically not used during the Han period.

The rank of marquis was divided into 19 sub-ranks. The nine highest sub-ranks could only be bestowed to someone who had earned military laurels. The owners of these ranks were tax-exempt. The lower ranks were bestowed because of other merits, for example, during natural calamities or through exemplary behaviour. They could also be purchased under certain conditions by the delivering of grain to the army or to regions where drought or inundations made it necessary to supply the population with grain. During the end of the Later Han period, such ranks of nobility were only granted on paper, and not equipped with an estate.

In case of misdoings, the emperor could take back title and land. If no heir was living, estate and title fell back to the empire and could be transferred to a new person. Sometimes the son of a prince or marquis was given a new title and transferred to another territory, a process called shaofeng 紹封 "joint ennoblement".

After the Han period, there were three layers of nobility. The highest were the wang "princes", the second nobles of five different ranks, and the lowest were the hou "marquesses". The Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386~581) made no use of the rank of hou. During the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 (300~600), there were still guowang "princes of a state", junwang "commandery princes", and also xianwang 縣王 "district princes".

Only few non-relatives were ennobled as princes, a phenomenon much more common during the Northern Dynasties, where a lot of persons not related to the ruling house were made "prince", or, rather "king". Yet their sons were in most cases only allowed to bear the title of gong "duke". For a short time, only princes could be ennobled as junwang, categorized into three groups, determined by the proximity of their relationship to the ruling line (yi fan wang 一藩王, er fan wang 二藩王, san fan wang 三藩王 "regional prince 1st, 2nd and 3rd class"). Only sons of the ruling emperor could be made guowang.

The Western Jin dynasty 西晉 (265-316) allowed the princes to sustain an own army and an own state administration. That a princely state or "princedom" (wangguo 王國) was governed by a counsellor (xiang 相), was nothing entirely new but was a relict from the Han period. Yet armies of princely states were a modern invention. Such conditions presented an ideal ground for virtual autonomy of princely states, and rebellions of princes against the central government frequently occurred during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period. Below the rank of prince, there were the five ranks of nobility known from the Zhou period. Each of these five ranks was divided into upper and lower, or 1st and 2nd class (daji 大級, ciji 次紀).

Dukes and marquesses were also allowed to sustain an army. It was regulated how many households were necessary to supply a dukedom, a marquisate, and on so on, but only during the Western Jin period. For each rank, a fixed percentage of the tax income of the estate was allowed to be consumed by the holder of the title.

During the Eastern Jin period 東晉 (317-420), there were no such regulations, and the five ranks were not any more divided into sub-ranks. Their estates were either commanderies or districts. Kings were rated as first grade official ranks (yipinguan 一品官) in the system of the nine grades of state officials, the five other ranks of nobility as second rank officials. From the Eastern Jin period on, they were downgraded to the third to fifth official rank. Under the Northern Zhou dynasty 北周 (557-581), there were also "dukes of the state" (guogong 國公), positions occupied by important members of the central government or high generals. There were guogong "dukes of a state", jungong "commandery dukes", xiangong 縣公 "district dukes", xianhou 縣侯 "district marquesses", xianbo 縣伯 "district earls", xianzi 縣子 "district viscounts" and xiannan 縣男 "district barons".

Below the five ranks were the "common nobles" (liehou 列侯), namely xianhou 縣侯 "district marquesses" (only during the Western Jin), xianghou 鄉侯 "township marquesses" and tinghou 亭侯 "neighbourhood marquesses". The Northern Wei dynasty 北魏 (386-534) abolished the ranks of the "common nobles". The lowest ranks of nobility were guanneihou 關内侯 "marquis within the passes" (referring to the mountain passes around the ancient metropolitan region of Chang'an 長安, Shaanxi), guanzhonghou 關中侯 "marquis of the passes", and guanwaihou 關外侯 "marquis outside the passes".

Under the Northern Dynasties, there were also vain titles without an estate designated by the prefix san 散 "inactive".

The nominal feudal system of the middle and late imperial period (581-1911)

During the Sui 隋 (581-618) and Tang 唐 (618-907) periods there were princes of the state (qinwang 親王, official rank 1A), a position exclusively occupied by sons of an emperor, and commandery princes (junwang, official rank 1B), normally occupied by relatives to the imperial house, but from the mid-Tang period on also by non-relatives. Below the princes, there were nine ranks of dukes and marquesses, similar to that mentioned in the prevous paragraphs, but all with the prefix kaiguo 開國 "dynasty-founding". They were given a title of nobility and an official rank but disposed neither of an estate nor of an official post. Compared with the nobles of the Han and Jin dynasties, their political significance had substantially decreased. Their income was derived from a fixed amount of land, decreasing from 100 qing 頃 (see weights and measures) of land for a prince of the state to 5 qing for a xiannan "discrict baron". The land was, furthermore, not inheritable (no so-called yongyetian 永業田).

The Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) took over the system of titles of nobility from the Tang dynasty, with only minor changes. There were twelve ranks of nobility: qinwang 親王, siwang 嗣王 "prince presumptive", junwang 郡王, guogong 國公, jungong 郡公, kaiguo gong 開國公, kaiguo jungong 開國郡公, kaiguo xiangong 開國縣公, kaiguo hou 開國侯, kaiguo bo 開國伯, kaiguo zi 開國子, and kaiguo nan 開國男. The titles of kaiguo jungong and lower were only bestowed to non-relatives to the ruling house, those above jungong exclusively to relative of the imperial house. Each persons possessing a title of nobility was fed by a fix number of households. The most part of the highest state officials was bestowed a title of nobility.

The Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368) had a system of eight ranks of nobility, with 12 sub-ranks. The ranks were wang (official rank 1A), junwang (rank 1B), guogong (rank 2A), jungong (rank 2B), junhou (ranks 3A and 3B), junbo (ranks 4A and 4B), xianzi (rank 5A) and xiannan (rank 5B). The first rank was reserved for sons of an emperor, ranks 2 and 3 were granted to members of the imperial house and deserved persons, and the others were bestowed upon persons of high merits.

A more stringent and formal system was established under the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644). Sons of an emperor were made qinwang 親王 "princes", the sons of princes became junwang 郡王 "commandery princes" (in spite of the fact that long before, the system of commanderies had been replaced by prefectures). The sons of commandery princes became zhenguo jiangjun 鎮國將軍 "defender-general of the state", the sons of the latter fuguo jiangjun 輔國將軍 "bulwark-general of the state", their grandsons fengguo jiangjun 奉國將軍 "supporter-general of the state", the next generation zhenguo zhongwei 鎮國中尉 "defender-commandant of the state", the next generation fuguo zhongwei 輔國中尉 "bulwark-commandant of the state", and the lowest title was fengguo zhongwei 奉國中尉 "supporter-commandant of the state". The last title was inheritable in eternity.

Compared to earlier times, the imperial family and its sidelines was extremely supported. The bearer of each title was not granted a fixed amount of households, as before, but was given a fixed salary in the shape of grain (lumi 祿米). Another gratification by the state was the right to dispose of an own palace, an own tomb, and an appropriate retinue. The military importance of the princes can be seen in the names of their titles. In fact, the founder of the Ming dynasty bestowed them estates at the northern border with the order to repell any attempts at invasion by Mongolian tribes. The princes entrusted with this task were granted the title of fanwang 藩王 *"prince of the border" or saiwang 塞王 *"prince of the border passes". One of the border princes, Zhu Di 朱棣 (the Yongle Emperor 永樂帝, r. 1403-1424), even was able to usurp the throne of his nephew. Based on his own experience, Zhu Di abolished the border princedoms. From the mid-Ming period on central government tried to get rid of the immense burden to the state coffers required by the appanages to the many princes and their descendants. Princes bearing the title of "commandant" were forbidden to acquire any more tracts of land and were allowed to take part in the state examinations, which meant that they were practically degraded to commoners.

For the non-relatives of the imperial house, there were also the three ranks of gong, hou and bo, with four sub-ranks for each. These ranks were also inheritable, and the owners were entitled to a fixed salary in grain.

The complicated ethnic composition of the Qing empire 清 (1644-1911) made further changes necessary for the inheritable ranks (shijue 世爵). There were 14 ranks and 20 sub-ranks for members of the imperial house and the Manchu family of the Gioro (Ch. Jueluo 覺儸).

Table 2. Imperial hereditary nobility of the Qing period
Chinese and transcription Manchurian English (downgrading for each generation until...)
和碩親王 "heshuo" qinwang hošoi cin wang prince with territory (down to feng'en zhenguo gong)
世子 shizi (son of a qinwang, three sub-ranks) sidza heir of an imperial prince
多羅郡王 "duoluo" junwang doro-i giyūn wang noble commandery prince (down to feng'en fuguo gong)
長子 zhangzi (son of a junwang, three sub-ranks) jangdza heir of a commandery prince
多羅貝勒 "duoluo beile" doro-i beile noble lord (down to buru bafen zhenguo gong)
固山貝子 "gushan beizi" gūsa-i beise banner lord (down to buru bafen fuguo gong)
奉恩鎮國公 feng'en zhenguo gong kesi be tuwakiyara gurun be dalire gung defender duke by grace (down to 1st class zhenguo jiangjun)
奉恩輔國公 feng'en fuguo gong kesi be tuwakiyara gurun de aisilara gung bulwark duke by grade (down to 1st class fuguo jiangjun)
不入八分鎮國公 buru bafen zhenguo gong jakūn ubu de dosimbuhakū gurun be dalire gung lesser ("not encroaching on the Eight Privileges") defender duke (down to feng'en jiangjun)
不入八分輔國公 buru bafen fuguo gong jakūn ubu de dosimbuhakū gurun de aisilara gung lesser bulwark duke (down to feng'en jiangjun)
鎮國將軍 zhenguo jiangjun (three sub-ranks) gurun de dalire janggin defender-general of the state (down to feng'en jiangjun)
輔國將軍 fuguo jiangjun (three sub-ranks) gurun de aisilara janggin bulwark-general of the state (down to feng'en jiangjun)
奉國將軍 fengguo jiangjun (three sub-ranks) gurun be tuwakiyara janggin supporter-general of the state (down to feng'en jiangjun)
奉恩將軍 feng'en jiangjun (three sub-ranks) kesi be tuwakiyara janggin general by grace

Differently to the Ming system, a prince was not automatically granted such a title but had to deserve it, either through military merits (gongfeng 功封), imperial grace (enfeng 恩封), by inheritance of post (xifeng 襲封) or by way of examination (kaofeng 考封). The last possibility was open for the younger sons of a noble that were not entitled to inherit the post of their father, but only to an age of 20 sui. The inheritability was different for each rank.

Posts granted because of merits were inheritable "in eternity" (wuti 罔替). Posts bestowed because of imperial grace and because of successful examintion were only transferrable for a fixed number of generations, and for each generation the rank was diminished one level. The son of a heshuo qinwang automatically obtained the post of a duoluo junwang, the next generation that of doro-i beile, and the fifth-generation descendant obtained the post of a feng'en zhenguo gong. The heirs of him were allowd to bear this title "in eternity". Sidelines, or descendants of younger sons of the first person ennobled were allowed to bear the title of feng'en jiangjun for six generations (xi wu ci zhi 襲五次止), if the ennoblement was granted because of military merits, and for four generations in case of imperial grace or examination. Each generation received a posthumous title (yi 諡), the first generation with one word or character, and the next generations with two characters (fuyi 複諡).

Nobles given such titles were granted a salary by the state in money (fengyin 俸銀) and in kind (fengmi 俸米), estates and arable land (zhuangtian 莊田), pastures (muchang 牧場), adorned chariots (zhuxuan 珠軒), residence (fudi 府第), a guard (guanwei 官衛), special robes (fuwu 服物), and much more.

The administration of the princes was in the hands of the zongrenfu 宗人府 "Court of the Imperial Clan" (Manchurian: uksun be kadalara yamun).

Another series of titles was bestowed on the nobility of the Mongols, Uighurs and Tanguts (i.e. Tibetans). Their administration was in the hands of the Court of Colonial Affairs (lifanyuan 理藩院). The "inner regents" ǰasaɣ of the Mongols could be granted the titles of qinwang (Mong. čin wang), junwang (Mong. giyün wang), beile (Mong. beile), beizi (Mong. beis), zhenguogong (Mong. tushiye gong) and fuguogong (Mong. tusalagči gong). Below these five ranks were that of tayiǰi 台吉 (four sub-ranks) and tabunang (Ch. 塔布囊). Sons of Mongolian nobles were also commonly ennobled as shizi and zhangzi. The salary granted to the Mongolian nobles was less than that for the imperial house. A Mongolian crown prince was called ǰinong (Ch. jinong 濟農), a descendant of Činggis Qaɣan qong tayiǰi (from Ch. huang taizi 皇太子).

Persons neither relative to the imperial house nor of the allied Mongol tribes were ennobled according to a different system of nine ranks of nobility. The owners of such ranks were administered by the Ministry of Personnel (libu 吏部). Among those preferrably ennobled were deserved state officials or officers and soldiers (called chouyong 酬庸 "rewarding services" or jiangzhong 獎忠 "prizing loyalty"), relatives of empresses (called tui'en 推恩 "extending benevolence") and descendants of Confucius (called jiarong 加榮 "enhancing glory") and the Ming dynasty (called beike 備恪 "completing respect"). The nine ranks and 27 sub-ranks were

Table 3. Non-imperial hereditary nobility of the Qing period
Chinese and transcription Manchurian English
gong (three sub-ranks) gung duke
hou (four sub-ranks) ho marquis
bo (four sub-ranks) be earl
zi (four sub-ranks) jinkini hafan viscount
nan (four sub-ranks) ashan i hafan baron
輕車都尉 qingche duwei (four sub-ranks) adaha hafan commandant of light chariots
騎都尉 jiduwei (two sub-ranks) baitalabura hafan commandant of cavalry
雲騎尉 yunjiwei tuwašara hafan commandant of fleet-as-clouds cavalry
恩騎尉 enjiwei kesingge hafan commandant of cavalry by grace

There was a special rule for the calculation of the income or the indication of the relative height of the title. The "accounting unit" was the rank of yunjiwei. The emperor thus only bestowed one or two ranks of yunjiwei. Somebody bestowed two ranks of yunjiwei was thus a 2nd-class jiduwei. If granted another rank of yunjiwei, he became a jiduwei with an additional rank of yunjiwei (or 1st-class jiduwei). The rules for the inheritability of these titles were very complicated. A 1st-class gong was inheritable 26 times, a 1st-class hou plus an yunjiwei was interitable 23 times (for 23 generations), a 1st-class bo plus an yunjiwei was inheritable 19 times, a 1st-class zi plus an yunjiwei 15 times, and a 1st-class nan plus an yunjiwei 11 times. After the fixed number of generations had passed by, the heir was ennobled as an enjiwei. All other titles could be inherited "in eternity". There was also the possibilty to pass on two accumulated ranks (bingxi 并襲) or to pass on only one of two accumulated ranks (fenxi 分襲). In case of a crime a rank could be taken back (gejue 革爵) by the emperor. A heir could nevertheless inherit the original rank of his father. After being punished and having accumulated new merits, a person fallen from grace might be bestowed with a minor rank again. Instead of taking back a rank of nobility, the emperor might also diminish a rank (jiangjue 降爵).

All ennoblements and inheritances were at the end of the year recorded in an imperial register (huangce 皇冊) that was revised every ten years. Ended lines were written in black, living lines in red.

Wang Shimin 王世民, Yang Guanghui 楊光輝, Gu Cheng 顧誠, Li Guanglian 李廣廉, Chen Qiangyi 陳鏘儀 (1992). "Juezhi 爵制", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 502-505.
Translation of Chinese terms according to Charles O. Hucker (1985), A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China. (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press).
Manchurian terms according to Wuti qingwen jian 五體清文鑑/ Sunja hacin-i hergen kamciha manju gisun-i buleku bithe (Beijing: Minzu chubanshe, 1987).