The Confucian social hierarchy was (theoretically) the social organization of China and occasionally Japan, Korea and Vietnam for the last two thousand years. It is not a caste system, since it does not lock people into an occupation based on birth (At least, not in China. In Japan, it was used as such at various points), but just as an idea of what occupations and activities are intrinsically important to society.
The list is similiar to other social orders, for example the one in Plato's Republic or the Vedic caste system. However, it has some key differences.
- Shi are at the top of the list. These people are often translated as scholars. Their job is to coordinate projects, lead people, keep records and transmit knowledge. More important then these functions is the fact that these people keep perform the highest function of human life: showing a respect for ritual, and respect for human nature and learning. This, theoretically and often in practice, was the glue that held society together, catastrophes and wars not being able to overcome it.
- Nong were the peasents, although not at all in a perjorative sense. Confucianism placed a great value on the production of food, both because this was believed to be the natural order, and because "mei you nongren, mei you chi de dongxi", "If you don't have farmers, you don't have anything to eat". Being a nongren also doesn't at all suggest that a person is indentured or bounded to the land, or even poor, although in practice the nong were often just that.
- Gong is translated as "work", although the meaning of it actually comes closer to "craft". The gongren, the workers, produced all the nonagricultural tools and implements that people needed to survive. Mencius pointed out that if everyone had to make their own tools, no one would have time to grow food. Therefore, since peasents needed spades and scholars needed brushes, craftspeople were neccesary. But since when it came down to it, a plate of rice was more important then a hammer, craftspeople were not as immediatly neccesary as farmers.
- Shang were the business people, the merchants. And since merchants didn't actually create anything, but just brought it into one place (while making a hefty skim off the top), merchants were considered to be only one step above parasites on society. Of course, in reality, it was often the merchants who were in charge of society, since they had the money, which both gave them power, and allowed their children to study to become scholars.
What is just as interesting is who is left off the list. While such categories as actors, prostitutes, criminals and the like would be expected to be left off, the exclusion of soldiers is different then most other social hierarchies. In India and Plato, the soldiers were the second class of citizens, in China they are classless, considered to be an unavoidable embarrassment. Of course, it was possible to be a member of the scholar class and lead a military contingent, but that was considered to be a scholar or administrator, not a soldier.