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食客 were honoured guests living in the houses of kings and princes for free. They had neither property nor rank; and they scarcely ran any errands. They were not even officially employed. They nevertheless belonged to the leisured class. Unlike the Greek civilization which was created by property owners, the best of the Chinese civilization was actually created by these parasites.

Due to the unbelievable worship of busywork in western culture, I am unable to find a translation for 食客 that is also associated with honour and respect.

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I believe you are talking about 食客/门客 in the ancient Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Periods. Sponger maybe more accurate than parasite. But you have missunderstanding about them. They are not honoured guests, their relationship is more like master and indentured worker which means you provider me with what I want, and I will pay back for you when you need. Basicly level, you provider me with food, I will do basic work when you need as to do some basic work for you(though some masters don't need it and just provider free food for nothing). Second one, you provider me with good life and I just pay my life for you. Best one, you provider me with everything I want and I will do what I can to help you by intellectual or asassinate the rival when you are in great danger or oppotunities.

Some one translate to hanger-on, or retainer, but realy these words can't identify their property. 食客 has the meaning of pay back, they are not just only an attendant. There is no contract to limit them with masters.

  • They might receive state visitors on their master behalf; or occasionally acted as ambassador to negotiate peace; but most of the time they were just idlers. They were not even expected to maintain an air of being busy, but they were treated with the utmost respect. The level of disparagement connoted by "sponger", "hanger-on" in western culture is poles apart from the attitudes their masters had – George Chen Sep 24 '14 at 18:52
  • "Retainer" would definitely be an appropriate translation for a pre-modern "guest" who has some unspecified debt to be paid in the future. We still use it in modern English as a payment arrangement--to have a lawyer "on retainer" means I send them money regularly, and in return they'll practice law for me when I need them to. If you really want to stress a subordinate relationship you could say "bondsman" which is an archaic word for something like a slave or servant, but this conveys less respect--like in the post-medieval period it was a euphemism for enslaved African people in the USA. – Tiercelet Aug 19 at 21:49
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Quite like "courtier" in the medieval times. 食客 do not need to farm themselves, since their lieges provide them with "food"(remuneration). But in case anything happens, they have the responsibility to solve problems, provide strategic advices and even steal important items, like official stamps, or assassinate for their lieges.

It is somehow a source of Japanese Bushido.

  • Pretty close. It's like science academies in 18th century Europe. It was just a fashion. Those monarchs simply collected geniuses to decorate their courts. They did not really have anything for them to do. – George Chen Sep 24 '14 at 18:48

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