An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Wang Mang 王莽 and the Xin Dynasty 新 (8-23 CE)

Mar 8, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Wang Mang 王莽 (45 BCE-23 CE) was a high minister and nephew of Empress Dowager Wang 王太后 (Wang Zhengjun 王政君, 71 BCE-13 CE) of the late Former Han period 漢 (206 BCE-8 AD). He managed to control the succession to the throne and in 8 CE usurped the throne, proclaiming his own Xin dynasty 新 (8-23 CE). After unsuccessful attempts at reform he met resistance by large parts of the officialdom and the population and was killed in the course of a vast rebellion.

Wang Mang's father Wang Man 王曼 was a younger brother of Wang Zhengjun, primary consort of Emperor Yuan 漢元帝 (r. 49-33 BCE). It was custom at that time that the relatives of an empress were bestowed titles of nobility and sometimes also were given important positions in the central government.

The early death of Wang Man deprived his son Wang Mang of an economically and politically decisive position. Instead, he dedicated himself to the study of the Confucian Classics and tried to get an income to support his mother and brothers and sisters. He also cared for his sick uncle, general Wang Feng 王風 (d. 22 BCE). Wang Feng therefore recommended his nephew to Emperor Cheng 漢成帝 (r. 33-7 BCE) and his mother, the Empress Dowager Wang. Wang Mang was thereupon appointed Gentleman of the Palace Gate (huangmenlang 黃門郎) and shortly after Commandant of the bowman shooters by sound (shesheng xiaowei 射聲校尉).

In 16 BCE, he was given the title of Marquis of Xindu 信都侯. He also gradually climbed up the ladder of the palace offices, became commandant of cavalry (jiduwei 騎都尉), Grand Master of Splendid Happiness (guanglu dafu 光祿大夫) and finally palace attendant (shizhong 侍中) and thus a highly confidential advisor of the emperor. In this position his income was high enough that Wang Mang could afford hiring numerous retainers and counsellors of high abilites. His uncovering of the intrigues of Chunyu Zhang 淳于長, Marquis of Dingling 定陵侯, brought him the name of a high-standing moral minister. In 8 BCE, Wang Mang was appointed Minister of War (大司馬 dasima), a position corresponding to a regent.

With the accession of Emperor Ai 漢哀帝 (r. 7-1 BCE) to the throne his fate changed and he was dismissed in favour of members of the families Ding 丁 and Fu 傅, relatives to the new empress. In retirement, he was still supported by a large number of courtiers.

On Emperor Ai's death the minor-aged Emperor Ping 漢平帝 (r. 1 BCE-5 AD) came to the throne. The Grand Empress Dowager acted as regent for the young emperor and reappointed Wang Mang in the position of Commander-in-chief. After his experience of the former reign, Wang Mang now ruthlessly arrested his opponents and forced they to commit suicide or executed them. In 1 CE, he was appointed Grand Mentor (taifu 太傅, see Three Dukes), was made Duke of Anhan 安漢公 and bestowed the title of Steward-regulator of the state (zaiheng 宰衡).

In order to gain the support of all state officials in the provinces and the population he distributed part of the state income to the peasants. He planned to establish new ceremonial buildings, like a Mingtang Hall 明堂, a Biyong Palace 辟雍 and a Lingtai Terrace 靈臺. Wang Mang, who had formerly studied the Confucian Classics, raised the number of erudites (boshi 博士) and enhanced the study of the books of the different Confucian schools in order to establish one single and orthodox teaching. He furthermore suggested that his daughter become the empress of Emperor Ping.

When Emperor Ping died, Wang Mang enthroned a two-years old child, Ruzi Ying 孺子嬰 (r. 6-8 CE) as the new ruler. Following the historic example of the Duke of Zhou 周公, Wang Mang saw himself as the regent for the child. When he dared to change the reign motto to Jushe 居攝 "Occupying a state of regency" a member of the imperial house, Liu Chong 劉崇, and Zhai Yixian 翟義先, Zhao Ming 趙明, Huo Hong 霍鴻 rebelled against the powerful regent who dared to adopt the title of "Temporary Emperor" (jia huangdi 假皇帝) or "Regent Emperor" (she huangdi 攝皇帝). Wang Mang was able to put down all these rebellions. Courtiers like Liu Jing 劉京 (also a member of the imperial house) and Ai Zhang 哀章 thereupon suggested that the Han dynasty come to an end and be replaced by a new one. Wang Mang accepted their suggestion, dethroned the Infant Emperor and proclaimed his own dynasty, the "new" Xin, with the first reign motto Shijianguo 始建國 "Founding of the Dynasty".

Wang Mang attempted to follow the example of the ancient Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) and revived the administrative system described in the Classic Zhouli 周禮. He tried to introduce the so-called well-field (jingtian 井田) or "royal field" (wangtian 王田) system that it said to have been in use during the early Zhou period. He also prohibited the vending and purchase of slaves. By these measures he met the serious resistance of the magnates that did not want to have their land confiscated by the state to see it redistributed to the landless tenant farmers. After a few years, Wang Mang had to give up the reform of land ownership.

Another reform project of Wang Mang was the state monopoly on the production and merchandise on salt, iron, ferments, coins and ores and other "products of mountains and swamps" (wujun liuguan 五均六筦 "the five [markets, apart from Chang'an] to be [balanced] justly and the six [goods] to be controlled"). Instead of vending the monopoly of the production and sales of salt and iron to private entrepreneurs that, as tax farmers, took over the collection of levies on these products, the state should better directly control the merchandise of such products. The markets of Chang'an 長安 (today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi), Luoyang 洛陽 (Henan), Handan 邯鄲 (Hebei), Linzi 臨淄 (Shandong), Wan 宛 (today's Nanyang 南陽, Henan), and Chengdu 成都 (Sichuan) were to be tightly controlled by the government so that merchants would not be able to establish monopolies and extort customers or farmers by exorbitant prices or usurious credits. The resistance of the merchant associations and of many local officials also led to the abortion of this reform.

Wang Mang also tried to introduce new currencies (cowry-shaped coins instead of the 5-zhu coin 五銖錢), new weights and measures, to restructure the central government (with many new terms for many offices) and the administration of the empire (replacing the commanderies by provinces). The neighbouring states and polities were well aware of the administrative chaos caused by the reforms Wang Mang tried to pursue and finished sending tributes to Chang'an. The same was true for many peasants that did not experience a relaxation of their exploitation by the landowners but, quite contrary, were even more oppressed by the local gentry as Wang Mang tried to bring the peasants under the direct control of the central government.

Peasants gathered and formed rebel societies, of which the "Red Eyebrows" 赤眉 and the rebels from Lulin 綠林 were the most important. In 22 CE, Wang Mang dispatched an army under Wang Kuang 王匡 and Lian Dan 廉丹 (d. 23 CE) to put down the rebellions, but the imperial army was defeated at Chengchang 成昌 by the Red Eyebrows. A year later, another army commanded by Wang Xun 王尋 (d. 23 CE) and Wang Yi 王邑 (d. 23 CE) was defeated by the Lulin rebels. The rebels thereupon attacked the two capitals Chang'an and Luoyang.

Liu Xin 劉歆 (d. 23 CE), a Confucian scholar and formerly an ardent supporter of the "sage-king" Wang Mang, as well as Wang She 王涉 (d. 23 CE) and Dong Zhong 董忠 (d. 23 CE) tried to persuade Wang Mang to renounce his claim to the throne, yet Wang Mang refused, had Dong Zhong executed and forced Liu Xin and Wang She to commit suicide.

When the forces of the Lulin rebels approached Chang'an, they burnt down Wang Mang's ancestral altar, the Mingtang Hall and the Biyong Palace and entered the capital. Wang Mang, with no further support at the court and among the population, was killed by a merchant called Du Wu 杜吳. Thus was the short end of the Xin dynasty that had tried to institutionalize the ideal government of the glorious Western Zhou dynasty. After some months of internal war, the Han dynasty was reestablished in Luoyang.

Huang Yunwu 黃運武, ed. (1992). Xinbian caizheng da cidian 新編財政大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 1048.
Lin Ganquan 林甘泉 (1992), "Wang Mang 王莽", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1194-1195.
Ning Ke 寧可 (1992), "Wujun liuguan 五均六筦", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1251.