12. Merchants in ancient China were held in contempt at the bottom of society
In ancient and early dynastic China the social classes were clearly defined. Despite peasants being the largest social class in terms of population, they were held in regard by the other four distinct classes as they were mostly farmers or laborers which produced items of use for the remainder of the people. Merchants did not produce anything, they merely acted as middlemen for a profit, and occupied the bottom of the societal pyramid. Because occupations were for the most part hereditary, the son of a merchant was likely to be doomed to a life at the bottom of the pile, unless he was fortunate enough to obtain a civil service position. Merchants included those who sold goods and services, loaned money, or were breeders of animals.
Because of their low social status, merchants were not allowed to ride in carriages when they moved about the streets, nor were they allowed to wear silk. Although it was possible to attain wealth through trading and money lending, the government ensured that the wealth accrued did not equate to power through heavy taxation of merchants. Taxes were levied by the emperor on a sliding scale. Merchants were also subject to conscription into the army at the whim of the emperor. Members of the merchant class were not allowed to marry out of their class, though the daughters of merchants could become concubines of the upper classes. Traders outside of the cities were able to avoid some of the restrictions on their class, their wealth buying influence with corrupt officials.