The traditional culture of China, as elsewhere in Asia, consisted of a military and bureaucratic hierarchy superimposed on a great mass of hardworking peasantry. It is customary, in studying this subject, to divide this hierarchy into three levels. Politically, these three levels consisted of the imperial authority at the top, an enormous hierarchy of imperial and provincial officials in the middle, and the myriad of semi-patriarchal, semi-democratic local villages at the bottom.
Socially, this hierarchy was similarly divided into the ruling class, the gentry, and the peasants. And, economically, there was a parallel division, the uppermost group deriving its incomes as tribute and taxes from its possession of military and political power, while the middle group derived its incomes from economic sources, as interest on loans, rents from lands, and the profits of commercial enterprise, as well as from the salaries, graft, and other emoluments arising from his middle group's control of the bureaucracy. At the bottom the peasantry, which was the only really productive group in the society, derived its incomes from the sweat of its collective brows, and had to survive on what was left to it after a substantial fraction of its product had gone to the two higher groups in the form of rents, taxes, interest, customary bribes (called "squeeze"), and excessive profits on such purchased "necessities" of life as salt, iron, or opium.