The reform policy of Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086) - today called Wang Anshi bianfa 王安石變法, by Chinese historians also known as Xining bianfa 熙寧變法 because the project took place during the Xining reign-period (1068-1077) - was a package of various laws aimed at cutting government expenditure and relieving the state of the Northern Song dynasty 北宋 (960-1126) of some of its organizational duties. Wang's reform agenda was not the first attempt at reducing the cost of the prodigious number of superfluous state agencies, but like earlier projects, it was doomed to fail because too many interest groups resisted reforms.
The founder of the Song dynasty, Zhao Kuangyin 趙匡胤 (Emperor Taizu 宋太祖, r. 960-975) had attempted to downscale the influence of military commanders, and therefore emphasized the civilian aspect of government. Some factors led to an inflation of offices in the imperial administration, both the civilian and the military realm, and consequently also to tremendous expenditure for the salaries of all these offials: the state was being "impoverished" and "weakened" (ji pin ji ruo 積貧積弱). In contrast to the early tenth century, the size of the officialdom had doubled, and the number of soldiers increased six times – also because the northern part of China was occupied by the strong Liao empire 遼 (907-1125) and the northwest by the Western Xia empire 西夏 (1038-1227). First attempts at remedying the situation were carried out by Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹 (989-1052) during the Qingli reign-period 慶曆 (1041-1048), known as "new policy" (Qingli xinzheng 慶歷新政). They met fierce resistance of those profiting from the then-current situation.
In 1042 Wang Anshi was appointed district magistrate of Yinxian 鄞縣 and implemented a set of reforms in the local administration, mainly a reorganization of hydrological projects for irrigation and granting credits to the peasantry. His successes inspired him to submit in 1058 a memorial to the throne, the famous ten-thousand words letter (Wanyanshu 萬言書, actual title Shang Renzong Huangdi yanshi shu 上仁宗皇帝言事書), in which he analysed the political, financial and social problems of the time and suggested remedies. For almost a decade, the court did not react, but in 1067 the freshly enthroned Emperor Shenzong 宋神宗 (r. 1067-1085) was inclined to Wang's ideas and appointed him Vice Grand Counsellor (can zhizheng shi 參知政事) and then Counsellor-in-chief.
Wang first created the Finance Planning Commission (sansi tiaoli si 三司條例司) which controlled the finances of the state and initiated a series of new laws to check the revenue and expenditure of the state treasury. These new laws were:
The balanced-delivery law (junshufa 均輸法) regulated the way commodities were purchased by the imperial household and governmental institutions. Transport commissioners (fayunshi 發運使) organized the distribution of wares and contributed to downscaling the expenditure for items and transport.
The hydraulic works law (shuilifa 水利法) regulated the organization of local irrigation works and thus raised the acreage of cultivated fields. Credits made possible a higher input of workforce.
The green-sprouts law (qingmiaofa 青苗法) allowed local government to grant credits to peasants at an interest rate of twenty per cent p.a. This measure made them independent from richer peasants and exploitative landowners, and at the same time secured better harvests and thus also higher tax revenue.
The labour recruitment law (muyifa 募役法) disburdened the peasantry from the traditional corvée for official projects and allowed the local government to hire workers for public duties or infrastructural projects. The corvée was replaced by a substitutional payment to be delivered by all households, even those free from the duty to labour for the public.
The market exchange law (shiyifa 市易法) made an end to the monopolies of merchant guilds on the markets of the capital Kaifeng and other large cities. Merchant companies had to cooperate with market exchange bureaus (shiyiwu 市易務) to regulate the prices of important commodities. Small and mid-size merchant houses were also allowed to purchase articles on credit, at a rate of twenty per cent p.a.
The equal-tax law (fangtian junshui fa 方田均税法) initiated a new cadastral survey to discover and to tax unregistered fields. It was, at least in theory, the most exact registration of land until that date, and helped to curb tax evasion. A systematic taxation of mining products (kuangshui difen zhi 礦稅抽分制) added to the increase of state revenues.
Apart from these laws, the communal self-administration was strengthened which took some pressure from the military personnel by the application of the village defence law (baojiafa 保甲法, see baojia 保甲). Ten households constituted one security group (bao 保), fifty one large security group (dabao 大保), and five hundred one superior security group (dubao 都保). Wealthy and influential families commanded these units and saw to it that able-bodied male members (baoding 保丁) of the community served in defence units against bandits. In the military command structure, it was necessary to promote officiers with experience and competence by the law on the creation of army commands (zhijiangfa 置將法). These high officers were to intensify training and readiness for combat of the troops, and had to form closer relationships with the troops under their command. A special law on the selection of troops (caibingfa 裁兵法) regulated the dismissal of elderly and unhealthy persons from the active troops. The weapons-and-equipment law (junqi jianfa 軍器監法) controlled the quality of items needed by the military.
The cavalry units were supported by a milita horse law (baomafa 保馬法). Horses were costly and rare items, and the government therefore entrusted households around the capital with raising horses. As a compensation, these horse households were exempt from taxes.
There were also some reforms on the top-level of the educational system. The book Sanjing xinyi 三經新義 offered new interpretations of the Confucian Classics Shijing 詩, Shangshu 書 and Zhouli 周禮. In the National University (taixue 太學) three colleges (sanshe 三舍) were created by the Three-Colleges Law (sanshefa 三舍法) where students were directly enrolled and educated, making them fit for direct appointment without having to pass the state examinations. At the same time, the recruitment law (gongjufa 貢舉法) regulated the quota of students applying for being enrolled and taking part in the examinations.
The reforms on the one hand enormously profited the state treasury, and thus achieved its main aim. At the same time, the rural economy was given new inputs by the credit system and organizational changes. On the other hand, the privileges and benefits of landowners and state officials were trimmed, and therefore caused their harsh resistance to the new laws. Persons formerly exempted from certain taxes had to pay more. Unregistered fields were discovered and taxed. Funds were put under the tight control of new institutions and embezzlement made more difficult. Monopolies were broken and profits critically reduced. There were thus harsh disputes carried out between Wang Anshi and his supporters on the one hand, and the traditionalists under Sima Guang 司馬光 (1019-1086) and Wen Yanbo 文彥博 (1006-1097) on the other. In 1075, Wang Anshi was forced to step back and lost the support of the emperor. Yet the new laws were still in force and were only abolished in 1085, with the death of Emperor Shenzong. Empress Dowager Gao 高太后 (1032-1093) appointed Sima Guang Counsellor-in-chief.