Content created: 050316
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Aside from the term huángdì 皇帝, "emperor" (sometimes occurring as either syllable by itself), six ranked terms have been used throughout Chinese history to refer to the nobility. There are conventionalized translations of them as follows:
The exact use of these terms has varied from context to context and time to time, so the English equivalents (with their own histories) are only sometimes helpful. Further, most of the Chinese terms, in addition to having other, unrelated meanings, have also entered into compound expressions that don't necessarily preserve the "original" meaning very rigidly. For example hóumén 侯门 , literally "marquis gate," could be a polite euphemism referring to pretty much any aristocratic family.
In general, the expression wánggōng 王公, "kings and dukes," referred to the whole hereditary nobility or aristocracy in contrast to dàchén 大臣, "great officials," which generally referred to high officials who had achieved their status by merit (or anyway not by heredity). This produced the four-character expression wánggōng-dàchén 王公大臣, referring vaguely to the imperial court as a whole. (For more on uses of the title gōng, see the page on personal names linked at the top of this page.)
Members of the imperial family had titles more or less automatically granted by the emperor. In general, the son of a person of one of these ranks received the next lower rank, so that the system returned descendants to commoner status in a few generations.
In the Qīng 清 dynasty (period 21) there were three hierarchically ranked noble titles, blocked into three great categories each with four internal ranks, producing a twelve-tier system:
Exceptions could be made by imperial whim, of course, and non-expiring, inheritable titles were sometimes granted by the emperor, usually the titles qīnwáng 亲王 or jùnwáng 郡王 (levels 1 and 2 of category A, above).
Also inheritable during the Qīng period were the titles of descendants of the eight Manchurian "iron-capped princes" (tiěmàozi wáng 铁帽子王), who helped establish the dynasty.
Obviously traditional China had a host of names for the wives and daughters of the bearers of noble male titles. If you watch films set in dynastic times, the most commonly encountered female noble titles are huánghòu 皇后, "empress," and two homonymous words pronounced gōngzhǔ: 公主 "princess" and 宫主 "imperial concubine" or "emperor’s secondary wife."
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