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Failure of the Confucianist Emperor Wang Mang

The Encylopedia Britannica tells us that the half-sister of Wang Mang's father had married Emperor Yuan (r. 49-33 BCE) and became the mother of his successor, Emperor Cheng. This enabled an appointment in court circles. Wikipedia describes him as having won "praise for his humility, thriftiness, and desire to study" and adds that he "He wore not the clothes of young nobles but those of a young Confucian scholar." By year 1 of the Common Era, the former wife of Emperor Yuan, as the Grand Dowager Empress Wang, appointed Wang Mang regent for the new nine-year-old emperor, Ping-di. Quickly, Wang Mang, now around 45 years-old, used his power to reduce his and the Dowager Empress's critics in court squabbles – while appearing faithful to the Han Dynasty.

In the year 3, Wang Mang's son Wang Yu, dissatisfied with his father's dictatorial rule, conspired with Emperor Ping's maternal uncles against Wang Mang. Wang Mang had the uncles put to death and, it is written, had his son commit suicide, with the claim that he had died of an illness. By year 4, Wang Mang had managed to make his daughter Emperor Ping's empress.

It is written that in the year 5, Wang Mang poisoned Emperor Ping after becoming concerned that Emperor Ping was going to take vengeance for Wang Mang's executing of his uncles. (The Encyclopedia Britannica writes of Wang's enemies as the source of the accusation.) The Dowager Empress felt obliged to grant Wang the title of acting emperor. Wang approved of her selection of another child as emperor, Emperor Ruzi. In the year 8, Wang Mang usurped the throne by having Ruzi isolated (he was to be dead by 25 CE) and by having Grand Empress Dowager Wang turn over the imperial seal. She initially refused, but relented. Want not being of the Lui family, the Han Dynasty had ended (temporarily).

Wang Mang is listed in today's encyclopedias as emperor from the years 9 to 23 – fourteen tumultuous years in which he tried to apply Confucian principals to his governance.

a learned Confucian scholar who sought to implement the harmonious society he saw in the classics, his efforts ended in chaos. Like the Hebrew priesthood of Jehovah worship the reign of king Josiah, Wang announced the discovery of important writings, books claimed to have been written by Confucius and discovered when Confucius' house had been torn down more than 200 years before. The books contained declarations that supported reforms that Wang said he wanted. He decreed a return to the golden times when every man had his measure of land to till. A family of fewer that eight persons with more than fifteen acres would be obligated to distribute the excess to the landless. He moved to reduce the tax burden on poor peasants, and he devised a plan to have state banks lend money to whoever needed it at an interest of ten percent per year, in contrast to the thirty percent that was the going rate by private lenders. To discourage the wealthy from hoarding grain and profiting from price fluctuations he made plans for a state granary. He delegated a body of officials to fix prices every three months, and he decreed that critics of his plan would be drafted into the military.

Wang claimed that he was doing the will of Confucius. He announced that his rule was a restoration of the rule of the early Zhou kings – an age that the Confucian scholar Mencius had claimed was supposed to return every 500 years. It was about one thousand years since the beginning of Zhou rule and 500 years since Confucius had been at the peak of his powers.

Wang believed that his subjects would obey his decrees, but gentry-bureaucrats gave less importance to their devotion to Wang's description of Confucianism than to they did to their own wealth. They and other owners of good-sized lands failed to cooperate in implementing Wang's reforms. Locally, peasants remained unaware of the reforms (no radio, or television). Wealthy merchants that Wang Mang's government hired to implement reforms succumbed to bribery. Wang needed to organize a broad base of support and a force willing to move against those violating his land reform laws, but it didn't happen.

In the year 11 the Yellow River broke its banks, creating floods from Shandong province north to where the river empties into the sea. The usual failure to store enough grain for hard times left people without food. By the year 14 CE, cannibalism. appeared. Believing that his reform program was a failure, Wang withdrew it. But already armed resistance to his rule had arisen. Rather than Wang having mobilized a peasant army to enforce his reforms, armies of peasants mobilized against him. There were disciplined bands of peasants called the Red Eyebrows led by a former brigand chief. Rebellion spread across China. In some places, rebel peasants were led by landlords. Some rebel groupings described Wang's rule as illegitimate. And one of the rebel groupings placed at its head a member of the "Han family," Liu Xiu.

Peasant armies murdered and plundered. They marched to the capital, killing officials as they went. The troops that Wang sent against the rebel armies joined the rebels or went on sprees of plundering, taking what little food they could find. The basic goodness of people that Confucianists had believed in appeared to have vanished. In the year 23 a rebel army invaded and burned China's great capital city, Chang'an. Its soldiers found Wang Mang in his throne-room reciting from his collection of Confucian writings. He was silenced by a soldier cutting off his head.

CONTINUE READING: Another integration-disintegration cycle: Rise and Fall of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.