As far back as the Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 BC), Chinese professional classes were divided into four major groups. These were shi, or scholars, nong, or farmers, gong, or artisans and shang, or merchants. This grouping represented a kind of hierarchical order, not unlike the European feudal system, where certain professions occupied a higher social status than others. The shi scholars were the most favorably regarded of the four, with farmers and artisans taking the middle, and merchants occupying the lowest rung of the social order.
The shi scholars were both a gentry class and a warrior class, not unlike the famous knights of British lore. These fighting intellectuals protected the interests of the locality, using their extra time to study the major writings and important works of the time. Earlier on in history, the shi were renowned mostly for their battle skills and their right to ride in chariots and wield swords. Later, though, as a philosophical awakening came to China, the shi shifted their focus from warfare to academic pursuits.
Though in most societies, farmers traditionally occupied the lower of the social classes (indeed, this is mostly the case within modern Chinese society, as well), in ancient China, farmers were the second most highly regarded of all classes. The nong were appreciated for their skills in cultivating the land and it was widely recognized that farmers provided an essential agricultural skill to Chinese society at large. Though they often did not own their land, they were many times family members of shi scholars and were highly valued.
Gong craftsmen also occupied an important middle class in ancient Chinese society, for they provided other necessary skills and basic labor to Chinese life. Artisans were known for their expertise in producing hard goods and crafts, and were often architects, artists, woodworkers and other craftsman. A skilled gong worker could eventually build up enough revenue to take on apprentices, expand his business and form trade guilds.
The lowest of the four professions were the shang merchants. These were typically traders, sellers, bankers and moneychangers who engaged in monetary exchanges of goods and services. The merchant class was considered too greedy and absent in ethical character to be higher up in the hierarchy. Though they performed an essential part of Chinese society, members of the shang class were generally mistrusted by the public at large.
These four professional classes are no longer in use today, as the hierarchy diminished with the formation of the New China. However, during the dynastic periods, this class system was extremely prevalent throughout China.