Social Structure During the Renaissance: Italy vs. China

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Social Structure During the Renaissance: Italy vs. China

In contemporary western societies, social classes are based upon a middle, lower, and upper class. Today social mobility[1] between these classes is likely if not common; however this has not always been the case. In the time period of the Italian Renaissance[2], the roots of social mobility can be found. Social structure[3] in Italy was based upon Humanism.[4] The power structure[5] of the Medici[6] further supported Humanism and in turn supported social mobility. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, social mobility was much more stagnate. The social structure in China was based upon Confucianism.[7] Accordingly, the power structure of the Ming Dynasty[8] upheld these traditional ideals. Thus, in comparison, one can see that the social structure in Italy, based upon Humanism, was much more of a progressive step towards the social structure we have today, while China[9], some would say, still maintains a ridged and conservative social structure today. 14th century Italy saw the development of an unprecedented type of social structure, one based on ones’ wealth and economic status[10] instead of ones’ relationship to the church. Previously the church had control over much of the common mans’ daily life, including their class, which meant that a persons’ class was unlikely to change unless they were able to give large ‘donations’ to the church; however, the invention of the printing press[11] and the distribution of the translated bible[12] caused a dip in the church’s power. And thus the new system of social status was created. Social mobility was increased ten-fold seeing as ones‘ income and wealth is never constant and as ones‘ economic status ebbed and flowed their social status increased and decreased along with it.

The Italian Renaissance was a time of exceptional new thinkers paving the way for future generations. One such thinker was Thomas Aquinas, who set the movement of Humanism into motion which marked the beginning of the Renaissance. Humanism brought back old ideas and philosophies from ancient Rome and Greece, mainly their focus on the glorification of the human body. The idea that life was meant to be enjoyed instead of a trial and time of sufferance in order to reach heaven was new and exciting and was quickly adopted by the people of Italy. The integration of Humanism into the Italian culture also caused a decrease in the church’s power over the daily life of the people, which in turn supported the newly developed social structure.

The now possible flow between the social classes in Italy allowed for one family to rise to power and stay in power for most of the renaissance. The Medici started as a modest banking family but because of their their successful business and rapidly growing wealth they soon became the most influential family in Florence, Italy. They bought their power and through connections with other powerful figures, particularly with the Popes, many of them being from their own family[13]. The Medici used artwork to flaunt their wealth, they commissioned many great works of art including: the statue of david, Brunelleschi’s dome, the Mona Lisa, and many other famous works of art. Many of the artists[14] that the Medici were the patrons of created humanistic artwork, artwork that depicted realistic human figures and that wasn’t focused on depicting a religious scene. The Medici’s power further supported the growth of humanism and in turn the social status system, which was the very thing that had allowed for them to come into power.

The renaissance stretched for miles and miles, practically covering all of Europe, but many parts of Asia were practically untouched by this ‘rebirth‘. The social structure of China during this time is a prime example of this because of the radical contrast between their society and Italy’s. In China ones‘ social...
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