During the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), the kingdom of Qin 秦 created a thoroughly new system of twenty ranks (ershideng jue 二十等爵) the bestowal of which was based on merits achieved in war (therefore also known as ershideng jungong jue 二十等軍功爵). The ranks gave their bearers certain privileges, but only the highest of them can be seen as titles of nobility (see five ranks of nobility). The system was continued after the unficiation of the empire in 211 BCE and was retained after the foundation of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). It was created by the legalist reformer Shang Yang 商鞅 (390-338 BCE), who adopted parts of a rank system also used by the states of Han 韓, Zhao 趙, and Wei 魏 (Zang 1998). Yet as early as during the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE), similar attempts were carried out by the states Qi 齊, Jin 晉, and Chu 楚 (Liu 1997). These attempts challenged in fact the status of officials on hereditary posts, many of them related by kinship to the ruling houses (see grand masters and servicemen).
The system consisted of twenty ranks (ji 級), the 20th being the highest. Some names of ranks had their origin in the administrative system of the Zhou dynasty (like shi 士 "serviceman" or dafu 大夫 "grand master"), while others had a distinct military origin (shuzhang 庶長 "leader of a host", geng 更 "watchman", or titles concerning chariot units), and yet others came from the administration of workshops (zhangzao 上造 "producer for the ruler").
The two supreme ranks included the word hou 侯 which was originally used for the rulers of regional states. Because the latter adopted the title of king in the course of the early Warring States period, the king of Qin could freely use the word as a title of nobility in his own realm. Rank 19 was called "Marquesses within the Passes" (guanneihou 關內侯), meaning that their lands were located in the region of Guanzhong 關中/Guannei 關內 around the capital of Qin. The highest rank was called "All-Penetrating Marquis" (chehou 徹侯)— signifying that there was still a formal difference to the regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯). With the accession to the throne of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) of the Han dynasty who had the personal name Liu Che 劉徹, the word chehou became a taboo word and was replaced by the term liehou 列侯 "the many marquesses".
Information on the rank system can be found in Shangjunshu (ch. Jingnei 境內), Hanjiuyi 漢舊儀, fragments of Liu Shao's 劉劭 (c. 168/171/182-c. 245) Juezhi 爵制, and Yan Shigu's 顏師古 (581–645) commentary on the Hanshu 漢書.
Some authors attempted to compare the Qin ranks with the ancient ranks of the Zhou administration (right column of Table 1).
|20||徹侯 (列侯)||chehou (liehou)||"All-Penetrating Marquis"||zhuhou 諸侯 regional ruler|
|19||關內侯||guanneihou||Marquis Within the Passes (around the capital)||zi 子 "viscount", nan 男 "baron"|
|18||大庶長||dashuzhang||great chief of a host, i.e. great militia leader||qing 卿 minister|
|17||肆(駟)車庶長 (駟連庶長)||siche shuzhang (silian shuzhang)||militia general of quadrigas|
|16||大上造 (大良造)||da shangzao (daliangzao)||senior producer for the ruler (?)|
|15||少上造||shao shangzao||junior producer for the ruler (?)|
|14||右更||yougeng||member of the right (1st) watch|
|13||中更||zhonggeng||member of the middle (2nd) watch|
|12||左更||zuogeng||member of the left (3rd) watch|
|11||右庶長||you shuzhang||right chief of a host|
|10||左庶長||zuo shuzhang||left chief of a host|
|9||五大夫||wu dafu||grand master of five, i.e., of a squad||dafu 大夫 grand master|
|8||公乘||gongsheng||[Grandee] in charge of government chariots|
|7||公大夫 (列大夫)||gong dafu (lie dafu)||grand master of state|
|6||官大夫||guan dafu||official grand master|
|5||大夫||dafu||grand master, commander of a chariot and 36 men|
|4||不更||bugeng||"[Grandee] not taking a tour or shift of active service" (exempted from labor service), commander of a quadriga||shi 士 serviceman|
|3||簪褭 (謀人)||zanniao (mouren)||horse-girdler|
|2||上造||shangzao||producer for the ruler (?), charioteer|
|1||公士 (列士)||gongshi (lieshi)||state serviceman|
|步卒, 士卒, 校, 徒, 操, 士||buzu, shizu, xiao, tu, cao, shi||(no rank)|
Hucker (1985) terms these ranks "Grandee of the xth order".
The "military merit" based upon which a rank was bestowed consisted of the presentation of one head of an armoured enemy (jiashou yi 甲首一). The presenter of the booty was awarded one rank (shang jue yi ji 賞爵一級) and received 1 qing 頃 of arable land (see weights and measures) and 9 mu 畝 of land to build a homestead. He was also entitled to take over a state office with a salary of 50 shi 石 of grain. Holders of the rank 4 and higher were exempted from labour duty (see corvée). Holders of rank 9 and higher were given a district to live on (shiyi 食邑) and were granted the possibility of redemption from punishment by payment of money (see shuzui 贖罪).
Ranks 1 to 8 could be achieved by everyone, but higher ones were reserved for state officials. The two highest were only bestowed on extraordinary merits of high officials or relatives to the ruling house (Xu 2000). The title hou 侯 "marquis" granted some privileges and secured the income of the holder, but did not confer political power. Most of the Qin marquesses lived in the capital, and not on their estates (Liu 1997).
The Han dynasty slightly changed the system. Districts were given from rank 7 on, and all holders of ranks were granted exemption from labour duty. Emperor Hui 漢惠帝 (r. 195-188 BCE) extended the system of military ranks to the civilian sphere by granting ranks also to persons of outstanding merits in the fields of agricultural production or official labour.
|五月丙寅，太子即皇帝位，尊皇后曰皇太后。賜民爵一級。中郎、郎中滿六歲爵三級，四歲二級。外郎滿六歲二級。中郎不滿一歲一級。外郎不滿二歲賜錢萬。宦官尚食比郎中。謁者、執楯、執戟、武士、騶比外郎。太子御驂乘賜爵五大夫，舍人滿五歲二級。||In the fifth month, on the day bingyin (see calendar), the Heir Apparent (Liu Ying 劉盈) took the imperial throne (as Emperor Hui 漢惠帝). He honoured Empress (Lü 呂后), entitling her Empress Dowager. He granted to the common people one step in noble rank. The Gentlemen of the Household (zhonglang 中郎) and Gentlemen of the Palace (langzhong 郎中) who had served six full years were granted three steps in noble rank; those who had served four years were granted two steps. The Gentlemen outside the Household (wailang 外郎) who had served six full years were granted two steps. Those who had not served a full year were granted one step. Gentlemen outside the Household who had not served two full years were granted ten thousand cash. Eunuchs (huanguan 宦官) and Masters of the Food (shangshi 尚食) were treated the same as Gentlemen of the Palace. Palace internuncios (yezhe 謁者), guards (zhidun 執楯), spear-bearers (zhiji 執戟), men of war (wushi 武士), and grooms (zou 騶) were treated the same as Gentlemen outside the Household. The Heir Apparent's chariot-driver (yu 御) and his chariot-companion (cansheng 驂乘) were granted the aristocratic rank of Fifth-Rank Grandee; the members of his suite (sheren 舍人) who had served five full years were given two steps.|
|元年冬十二月，趙隱王如意薨。民有罪，得買爵三十級以免死罪。賜民爵，戶一級。||In the first year, in the winter, the twelfth month, Prince Yin of Zhao 趙隱王, Liu Ruyi 劉如意, died. [The emperor ordered that] when the common people commit crime, they are to be allowed to purchase thirty steps in noble rank in order to avoid capital punishment. (Commentary by Ying Shao 應劭: Each step costs 2,000 cash [qian 錢], altogether 60,000 cash, like the present ransoming of crime by paying 30 bolts of fine close-woven silk [jian 縑].) He granted the common people noble ranks, in each household one step.|
|九月，長安城成。賜民爵，戶一級。 (Hanshu 漢書, 2 Huidi ji 惠帝紀)||In the ninth month, the city wall of Chang'an 長安 was completed. The Emperor granted aristocratic ranks to the people, to each household (family head) one step.|
|有司固請曰：「…子啟最長，敦厚慈仁，請建以為太子。」上乃許之。因賜天下民當為父後者爵一級。 (Hanshu 漢書, 4 Wendi ji 文帝紀)||The high officials insistently begged: "… Your son Liu Qi [劉]啟 is your eldest; he is sincere, liberal, kind, and benevolent. We beg that you appoint him as your Heir Apparent [i.e. Emperor Jing 漢景帝]." The emperor thereupon consented to do so and thereupon granted one step in noble rank to those people in the empire who would be the successors of their fathers.|
Translation according to Dubs 1938.
On the other hand, the number of ranks endowed with possession of a district was reduced to the two highest ones. The same is true for exemption from taxes, labour duties, and freedom from punishment. Yet Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157 BCE) lifted the privilege of exemption from labour duty again to rank 9 and higher. The wider the system spread, the lower was the actual status of the holders of "titles of nobility". The only persons of the Han period which can be considered part of a "nobility" were princes. They were given the title wang 王, which was the Warring-States period equivalent of "regional rulers" (zhuhou), and Han princes were therefore commonly called zhuhou wang 諸侯王. Their younger sons were made marquesses (hou) the multitude of which was called zhuhou. The Han dynasty bestowed the title of marquis also on non-relatives (yixing 異姓). This type of marquisate was called chehou 徹侯 (according to Tongdian 通典, ch. Zhiguan 職官). The titles of prince (wang) and marquis (hou) were hereditary and endowed with grants of land (princedoms, marquisates).
With the drastical reduction of privileges of the "lower nobility", the system became obsolete in the Later Han period. Meritocracy fell back on other means for recruitment, mainly the commandery quota system (chaju zhi 察舉制) and the internal recommendation system (zhengbi zhi 征辟制).