Fifth, along with creating a tax base of smallholders, reforms changed the social hierarchy. Since at least the time of Confucius, around 500 BC, the feudal ranking system had been challenged, as ministerial families took over dukedoms and high-official families took over ministerial slots. People claimed ranks and privileges to which they were not entitled. But now Shang Yang in Qin systematically eliminated aristocracy altogether (except for the royal family). Each man in the whole population was assigned to one of 17 ranks, based on military service. Footsoldiers began at the bottom rank. Cutting off one enemy head in battle earned a one-step rank promotion and five acres of land. A soldier who surrendered to the enemy, if recaptured, would be executed. All his property would be confiscated. Each earned rank came with privileges – the right to wear certain clothes, additional land and houses, the right to hold a number of convict slaves to work the land.
But unlike feudal rank, these social ranks came with no political authority, nor were they permanent. The central government could demote a person, or someone convicted of a crime one could trade in a level of rank to avoid punishment. Sons inherited rank at least one degree lower, and inherited rank was more steeply reduced for higher ranks. The only exception was that if a man died heroically in battle, his eldest son would inherit not only his rank but his promotion for that battle. In peacetime, a higher rank could be earned based on how much grain and cloth one produced for the state. Rank still formed a part of people’s conception of state and society, but social rank and political rank were severed, and family and individual rank were almost severed. Meritocracy was challenging the aristocratic idea that some families were just better than others.