Teaching Module

Ancient China

The Child in Early Chinese Social Hierarchy: The Biography of Li Shan [Literary Excerpt]


The society of early China was organized into a hierarchy where elders were generally deemed superior to and expected deference from their juniors, principles that also guided the relationship between men and women, parents and children, and nobles and commoners. This biography demonstrates the way in which a child's social status can sometimes carry more weight than his or her age in determining who holds the position of superior or inferior in social interactions. In this case, the infant Xu stood for his deceased father, taking on the role as male head of the family since there was no older male to take on that responsibility. It should also be noted that Li Shan's heroic act was also meant to keep Xu's family line in tact. In early China, there is no greater horror than to leave a family with no living male representative, since only men could carry on the sacrifices to ancestors, giving them sustenance in the other world and maintaining their memory among the living.


Hou Han shu 81, pp. 2679–80. Translated by Anne Kinney. For illustrations of this story see reproductions of stone reliefs in Wu Hung, The Wu Liang Shrine: The Ideology of Early Chinese Pictorial Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 295. Annotated by Anne Kinney.

Primary Source Text

Li Shan, whose courtesy name was Cisun, came from Yuyang in Nanyang. He had once worked as a servant for Li Yuan, who came from the same county. In the Jianwu era (25-55 CE), there was a plague to which the members of Li Yuan's family, one after another, all fell victim. The only one to survive was an infant named Xu, who had been born several weeks earlier. The family fortune amounted to one million cash. The servants therefore plotted to murder Xu and divide the property among themselves. But Li Shan was deeply grieved by the situation and since he did not have the power to take charge, he secretly fled carrying Xu on his back. He hid in the Xiaqu area of Shanyang and fed the child with cows milk. He gave the child a dry place to lay and while he had only damp ground to lay upon. In all of his ministrations to the child, he was diligent and long suffering. Though Xu was but a babe in arms, Li Shan served him no differently than his elder master. When there was business at hand, Li kneeled for a long while before the infant reporting on the matter and only then would he act. The entire village was moved by his conduct so that all of them were inspired to cultivate virtuous behavior. When Xu was ten years old, Shan returned with him to their native village, where they rebuilt the household. They reported the servants to the magistrate and all of them were arrested and put to death. Later, when Zhongli Yi was in charge of Xiaqiu, he recommended Li Shan to the emperor as worthy of recognition for his extraordinary strength of character. Emperor Guangwu thereupon honored both Li Shan and Xu with the position of members of the Heir Apparent's suite.1

1Translated by Anne Kinney. For illustrations of this story see Wu Hung, The Wu Liang Shrine: The Ideology of Early Chinese Pictorial Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), p. 295.

How to Cite This Source

Anne Kinney, "Ancient China," in Children and Youth in History, Item #187, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/187 (accessed August 10, 2021).