The Chaotic Reign of Wang Mang In Ancient China

Wang Mang (c. 45 BCE-23 CE) was a prominent Confucian Scholar with an ascetic lifestyle who thrived during the transition between the Former Han Dynasty (Eastern Han) and the Latter Han Dynasty (Western Han). He had ties to the imperial Liu family—his aunt was Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun, the widow of the late Emperor Yuan, also known as Yuandi, who ruled from around 48-33 BCE. Despite his connections, Wang Mang’s career as an official in the Han Empire had a slow start. Nevertheless, he built for himself a reputation of being a staunch, diligent and respectful bureaucrat. By the time Wang Mang was in his late thirties, his work ethic and resolve had paid off; when Emperor Cheng (or Chengdi) died in 7 BCE, Wang Mang was at the head of the bureaucracy and momentarily became regent in charge of the empire.

When Emperor Ai (or Aidi, r. 7-1 BCE) ascended to the throne, Wang Mang fell quickly out of favor and was forced out of government. Upon Emperor Ai’s death in 1 BCE, the Emperor Ping became the new emperor, but he was still a child. Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun successfully pressured for Wang Mang to be brought back as regent until the boy grew to adulthood. When Wang’s power began to fade as Emperor Ping grew into his teenage years, he retained his influence by arranging a marriage between his own daughter and the boy-Emperor. The marriage, however, did not last long, for Emperor Ping died an early death in 6 CE, at only 14 years of age. The death of Emperor Ping was controversial when it occurred, and remains a controversial subject today—some historians think the emperor’s death was natural, while others are convinced Wang Mang had the boy poisoned.

Whatever the case, Wang Mang quickly made the most of the situation. He placed a 1-year-old boy named Liu Yang on the throne and retained for himself the title of regent. The suspicious Liu clan understandably began to grumble and eventually started raising a resistance against Wang. These early uprisings, however, backfired. Wang Mang crushed the resistance, and began to spread propaganda which proclaimed that the Liu family’s Han Dynasty had lost its mandate from Heaven. With the Liu clan momentarily pacified and his propaganda actively spreading doubts about the Han Dynasty, Wang Mang declared himself emperor in 9 CE, proclaiming that it was the start of the new Xin Dynasty.

Even though Wang Mang had a slow start to his early bureaucratic career, he showed himself to be a relentlessly ambitious man while he was emperor. Historians seem to either love or hate the reign of Wang Mang—on the one hand, he was a revolutionary reformer, but on the other hand, he went to brutal and unforgiving lengths to enforce the changes he wanted. As a result, Wang Mang was often portrayed either as a social visionary or a power-hungry tyrant. Like most disputes, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle; Wang Mang was an authoritarian ruler who wanted to institute changes he thought would be beneficial to his people, but was more than willing to carry out his programs through tyrannical means.

Wang Mang’s reforms influenced all aspects of government. He redistributed land in favor of the peasants, and amended the laws on buying and selling real estate. He reformed and cut taxes, while also attempting to mint a new set of currency. He also set up measures in order to stabilize and standardize commodity prices in his empire. Interestingly, Wang Mang placed a crippling tax on people who owned slaves. This has been interpreted in several ways: One suggestion is that it was a tax against a perceived vice or immorality, similar to how modern governments sometimes place taxes on tobacco or alcohol. The more cynical interpretation claims that Wang Mang simply taxed slaveholders for the sole purpose of pilfering their ample supplies of money.

Despite whatever motives Wang Mang may have had for his social and economic programs, the Chinese people quickly rejected his reforms. He tried to change too much in too little time. Starting around 10 CE, the peasantry and supporters of the Liu clan began to form resistance groups, hoping to bring the empire back to the old status quo. After years of quick, strict reforms, much of the empire’s frontier land and countryside were in open rebellion. Adding to the growing troubles, the Yellow River (Huang He) changed its course twice during Wang Mang’s reign, displacing countless angry Chinese from their homes. Many of these disgruntled peasants formed into huge militias, the most prominent of which was known as the Red Eyebrows.

By 23 CE, the rebels and militias had overwhelmed the imperial army and laid siege to the city of Chang’an, where Wang Mang was residing. When the besiegers broke into the city, Wang Mang faced them from a defensible position in the interior of the city, with what remained of his supporters. He even supposedly tried to use magic to help even the odds against the enemy militias. Nevertheless, the rebels charged the cornered emperor, defeated the defenders and killed Wang Mang. Eventually a prominent member of the Liu family named Liu Xiu brought order back to China by restoring the Han Dynasty to power and assumed the name Emperor Guangwu (or Guangwudi, r.25-57 CE).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (7th century depiction of Emperor Guangwu from the Thirteen Emperors Scroll, on top of an image of the Boxer Rebellion, c. 1900, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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