Wang Mang

Wang Mang
Emperor of the Xin Dynasty
Reign 9–23
Predecessor none, Ruzi Ying as Emperor of Western Han Dynasty
Successor dynasty abolished, Emperor Gengshi as Emperor of Xuan Han Dynasty
Born 45 BC
Died 6 October 23 (aged 68)
Spouse Empress Wang
Empress Shi
Zhenzhi, concubine
Huaineng, concubine
Kaiming, concubine
Issue Wang Yu (王宇)
Wang Hue (王獲)
Wang An, Prince of Xinqian (王安)
Wang Lin, Prince of Tongyiyang (王臨)
Wang Xing, Duke of Gongxiu (王興)
Wang Kuang, Duke of Gongjian (王匡)
Lady Wang, Empress Xiaoping of Han (孝平皇后)
Wang Jie, Lady of Mudai (王捷)
Lady Wang, Lady of Muxiu
Era dates
Shi-jian-guo 始建國 (9–13)
Tian-feng 天鳳 (14–19)
Di-huang 地皇 (20–23)
Posthumous name
Temple name
Dynasty Xin Dynasty
Father Wang Man (王曼)
Mother Qu (渠)
Wang Mang
Chinese 王莽
This is a Chinese name; the family name is Wang.

Wang Mang (Chinese: 王莽, c. 45 BC – 6 October 23 AD), courtesy name Jujun (巨君), was a Han Dynasty official who seized the throne from the Liu family and founded the Xin (or Hsin, meaning "renewed"[1]) Dynasty (新朝), ruling 9–23 AD. The Han dynasty was restored after his overthrow, and his rule marks the separation between the Western Han Dynasty (before Xin) and Eastern Han Dynasty (after Xin). Some historians have traditionally viewed Wang as a usurper, while others have portrayed him as a visionary and selfless social reformer. Though a learned Confucian scholar who sought to implement the harmonious society he saw in the classics, his efforts ended in chaos.

In October 23 AD, the capital Chang'an was attacked and the imperial palace ransacked. Wang Mang died in the battle.

The Han dynasty was reestablished in 25 AD when Liu Xiu (Emperor Guangwu) took the throne.

Early life and career

Further information: History of the Han Dynasty

Wang Mang was the son of Wang Man (王曼), the younger brother of Empress Wang Zhengjun, and his wife Qu (渠, family name unknown), born in 45 BC. Wang Man died early, while Wang Mang was young, before Emperor Cheng took the throne and his mother Empress Wang became empress dowager. Unlike most of his brothers, Wang Man did not have the opportunity to become a marquess. Empress Wang took pity on his family, and after she herself was widowed, had Qu moved to the imperial palace to live with her.

While Wang Mang was obviously well-connected to the imperial family, he did not have nearly the luxuries that his cousins enjoyed. Indeed, unlike his relatives who lived expensively and competed with each other on how they could spend more, Wang Mang was praised for his humility, thriftiness, and desire to study. He wore not the clothes of young nobles but those of a young Confucian scholar. He was also praised on how filial he was to his mother and how caring he was to his deceased brother Wang Yong (王永)'s wife and son Wang Guang (王光). Wang Mang befriended many capable people and served his uncles carefully.

When Wang Mang's powerful uncle Wang Feng (王鳳, commander of the armed forces 33 BC-22 BC) grew ill, Wang Mang cared for him near his sick bed day and night, and attended to his medical and personal needs. Wang Feng was greatly touched, and before his death, he asked Empress Dowager Wang and Emperor Cheng to take good care of Wang Mang. Wang Mang was therefore given the post of imperial attendant (黃門郎) and later promoted to be one of the subcommanders of the imperial guards (射聲校尉).

In 16 BC, another of Wang Mang's uncles, Wang Shang (王商) the Marquess of Chengdu, submitted a petition to divide part of his march and to create Wang Mang a marquess. Several well-regarded officials concurred in this request, and Emperor Cheng was impressed with Wang Mang's reputation. He therefore created Wang Mang the Marquess of Xindu and promoted him to the Chamberlain for Attendants (光祿大夫). It was described by historians that the greater the posts that Wang was promoted to, the more humble he grew. He did not accumulate wealth, but used the money to support scholars and to give gifts to colleagues, so he gained more and more praise.

Another thing that Wang Mang made himself known for was that he had only a single wife, Lady Wang, and no concubines. (Note that she had the same family name as Wang Mang—strong evidence that at this point the taboo against endogamy based on the same family name was not firmly in place in Chinese culture.) However, as later events would show, Wang was not completely faithful to his wife, even at this time.

Emperor Cheng appointed his uncles, one after another, to be commander of the armed forces (the most powerful court official) (see here for more information), and speculation grew as to who would succeed Wang Mang's youngest surviving uncle, Wang Gen (王根, commander 12 BC-8 BC). Wang Mang was considered one of the possibilities, while another was his cousin Chunyu Zhang (the son of Empress Dowager Wang's sister), who had a much closer personal relationship to Emperor Cheng than Wang Mang did. Chunyu also had friendly relations with both Emperor Cheng's wife Empress Zhao Feiyan and his deposed former wife Empress Xu.

To overcome Chunyu's presumptive hold on succeeding Wang Gen, Wang Mang took action. He collected evidence that Chunyu, a frivolous man in his words and deeds, had secretly received bribes from the deposed Empress Xu and had promised to help her become "left empress", and that he had promised his associates great posts once he succeeded Wang Gen. In 8 BC, he informed Wang Gen and Empress Dowager Wang of the evidence, and both Wang Gen and Empress Dowager Wang were greatly displeased. They exiled Chunyu back to his march. Chunyu, before he left the capital, gave his horses and luxurious carriages to his cousin Wang Rong (王融) – the son of his uncle Wang Li (王立), with whom he had a running feud. Wang Li, happy with Chunyu's gift, submitted a petition requesting that Chunyu be allowed to remain at the capital—which drew Emperor Cheng's suspicion, because he knew of the feud between Wang Li and Chunyu. He ordered Wang Rong to be arrested, and Wang Li, in his panic, ordered his son to commit suicide—which in turn caused Emperor Cheng to become even more suspicious. He therefore had Chunyu arrested and interrogated. Chunyu admitted to deceiving Empress Xu and receiving bribes from her, and he was executed.

Also in 8 BC, Wang Gen, by then seriously ill, submitted his resignation and requested that Wang Mang succeed him. In winter 8 BC, Emperor Cheng made Wang Mang the commander of the armed forces (大司馬), at the age of 37.

First tenure as the commander of the armed forces

After Wang Mang was promoted to this position—effectively the highest in the imperial government—he became even better known for his self-discipline and promotion of capable individuals than before. As a result, the people's perception of the Wang clan as arrogant, wasteful, and petty, began to be reversed.

In 7 BCE, Wang's cousin Emperor Cheng died suddenly, apparently from a stroke (although historians also report the possibility of an overdosage of aphrodisiacs given to him by his favorite, Consort Zhao Hede). Emperor Cheng's nephew Crown Prince Liu Xin (劉欣) (the son of his brother Prince Kang of Dingtao (劉康)) became emperor (as Emperor Ai). For the time being, Wang remained in his post and continued to be powerful, as his aunt became grand empress dowager and was influential.

However, that would soon change. Emperor Ai's grandmother, Princess Dowager Fu of Dingtao (concubine of Grand Empress Dowager Wang's husband Emperor Yuan) was a domineering woman who ruled her grandson. She greatly wanted the title of empress dowager as well. Initially, Grand Empress Dowager Wang decreed that Princess Dowager Fu and Emperor Ai's mother Consort Ding see him periodically, every 10 days. However, Princess Dowager Fu quickly began to visit her grandson every day, and she insisted that two things be done: that she receive an empress dowager title, and that her relatives be granted titles, like the Wangs. Grand Empress Dowager Wang, sympathetic of the bind that Emperor Ai was in, first granted Prince Kang the unusual title of "Emperor Gong of Dingtao" (定陶共皇) and then, under the rationale of that title, granted Princess Dowager Fu the title "Empress Dowager Gong of Dingtao" (定陶共皇太后) and Consort Ding the title "Empress Gong of Dingtao" (定陶共皇后). Several members of the Fu and Ding clans were created marquesses. Grand Empress Dowager Wang also ordered Wang Mang to resign and transfer power to the Fu and Ding relatives. Emperor Ai declined and begged Wang Mang to stay in his administration.

Several months later, however, Wang Mang came into direct confrontation with now-Empress Dowager Fu. At a major imperial banquet, the official in charge of seating placed Empress Dowager Fu's seat next to Grand Empress Dowager Wang's. When Wang Mang saw this, he rebuked the official and ordered that Empress Dowager Fu's seat be moved to the side, which drew great ire from Empress Dowager Fu, who then refused to attend the banquet. To sooth her anger, Wang Mang resigned, and Emperor Ai approved his resignation. After this event, the Wangs gradually and inexorably began to lose their power.

Retirement during Emperor Ai's reign

After Wang Mang's resignation, he was initially requested by Emperor Ai to remain at the capital Chang'an and periodically meet him to give advice. However, in 5 BC, after Empress Dowager Fu was more successful in her quest for titles—Emperor Ai removed the qualification "of Dingtao" from his father's posthumous title (thus making him simply "Emperor Gong"), and then gave his grandmother a variation of the grand empress dowager title (ditaitaihou (帝太太后), compared to Grand Empress Dowager Wang's title taihuangtaihou (太皇太后)) and his mother a variation of the empress dowager title (ditaihou (帝太后), compared to Empress Dowager Zhao's title huangtaihou (皇太后)) – the prime minister Zhu Bo (朱博) and vice prime minister Zhao Xuan (趙玄), at her behest, submitted a petition to have Wang demoted to commoner status for having opposed Grand Empress Fu previously. Emperor Ai did not do so, but sent Wang back to his march Xindu (in modern Nanyang, Henan).

While in Xindu, Wang was careful not to associate with many people (to prevent false accusations that he was planning a rebellion). In 5 BC, when his son Wang Huo killed a household servant, Wang Mang ordered him to commit suicide. By 2 BC, there had been several hundred petitions by commoners and officials to request Wang Mang's return to the capital. Emperor Ai, who also respected Wang Mang, summoned him and his cousin Wang Ren (王仁), the son of Wang Gen, back to the capital to assist Grand Empress Dowager Wang. However, Wang Mang would have no official posts and would exert little influence on politics for the time being.

Regency and buildup of personality cult

Emperor Ai died suddenly in 1 BCE, without heir. Taking decisive action, Grand Empress Dowager Wang seized power back from Emperor Ai's male favorite and likely lover Dong Xian (who was the commander of the armed forces by this point) and summoned Wang Mang back to the imperial government. She put him in charge of the armed forces and the government. They summoned Prince Jizi of Zhongshan (the last surviving male issue of Grand Empress Dowager Wang's husband Emperor Yuan) to the capital to succeed Emperor Ai, and he ascended the throne as Emperor Ping. Wang Mang became his regent.

Also in 1 BCE, Wang, now in power, took drastic action to attack actual or perceived political enemies:

Wang, having thus consolidated his power, began to further build up his personality cult, encouraging others to submit false prophecies in which he was mentioned as the second coming of Ji Dan, the Duke of Zhou and the regent for King Cheng of Zhou, or other great mythical personalities. He also began a regime of modifying the governmental structure to recall the governments of the Zhou Dynasty and the even more ancient Shang Dynasty. This included numerous changes to officials' titles and even to geographical locations. To prevent Emperor Ping's maternal uncles of the Wei clan from becoming powerful, he ordered that they, along with Emperor Ping's mother Consort Wei, not be allowed to visit him in the capital.

In 1 CE, after bribing the distant Yueshang Tribes (probably in modern southern Vietnam) to submit offerings of an albino pheasant (considered a rare sign of divine favor), Wang was successful in having his followers persuade Grand Empress Dowager Wang to create him the Duke of Anhan (安漢公) – even though the Han nobility system did not include dukes and no duke had ever been created in Han history up to that point—to let his title parallel that of the Duke of Zhou. Believing her nephew to be truly faithful, Grand Empress Dowager Wang further transferred more of her authority to him.

In 2 CE, Wang Mang issued a list of regulations to the ally-vassal Xiongnu, which the Xiongnu chanyu Nangzhiyasi (囊知牙斯—later shortened to Zhi in response to Wang Mang's request) obeyed, but Wang Mang's tone of treating Xiongnu as a subordinate state rather than an ally offended Nangzhiyasi, which would foreshadow the eventual breakdown of relationships with the Xiongnu.

Also in 2 CE, Wang Mang decided to have his daughter married to Emperor Ping to further affirm his position. Initially, he started a selection process of eligible noble young ladies (after declaring, in accordance with ancient customs, that Emperor Ping would have one wife and 11 concubines). However, in an act of false modesty intended to create the opposite result, he then petitioned Grand Empress Dowager Wang that his daughter not be considered—and then started a petition drive by the people to have his daughter selected as empress. The petitioners stormed the outside of the palace, and Grand Empress Dowager Wang, overwhelmed by the display of affection for Wang Mang, ordered that Wang Mang's daughter be made empress. In 4 CE, Emperor Ping officially married her and made her empress.

Wang Mang's son Wang Yu (王宇) disagreed with his father's dictatorial regime and program to build up his personality cult, afraid that in the future the Wangs would receive a backlash when Emperor Ping was grown. He therefore formed friendships with Emperor Ping's Wei uncles, and told Consort Wei to offer assurances to Wang Mang that she would not act as Emperor Ai's mother and grandmother did, trying to become an empress dowager. Wang Mang still refused to let her visit the capital.

In 3 CE, Wang Yu formed a conspiracy with his teacher Wu Zhang (吳章), his brother-in-law Lü Kuan (呂寬), and the Weis, to try to see what they could do to break Wang Mang's dictatorial hold. They decided that they would create what appeared to be supernatural incidents to make Wang Mang concerned, and then have Wu try to persuade Wang Mang to transfer power to the Weis. Wang Yu told Lü to toss a bottle of blood onto Wang Mang's mansion door to create that effect—but Lü was discovered by Wang Mang's guards. Wang Mang then arrested Wang Yu, who committed suicide, and his wife (Lü Kuan's sister) Lü Yan (呂焉) was executed. Wang Mang subsequently executed the entire Wei clan, except for Consort Wei. Wu was cut in half and then drawn and quartered. (It is not known what happened to Lü, but it would appear that there would be no way for him to escape death.)

Wang Mang took this opportunity to further wipe out potential enemies—by torturing Wang Yu and Lü's co-conspirators, arresting anyone that they mentioned, and having them either executed or forced to commit suicide. The victims of this purge included Emperor Yuan's sister Princess Jingwu (敬武長公主), Wang Mang's own uncle Wang Li, and his own cousin Wang Ren. He falsely told Grand Empress Dowager Wang, however, that they had died of illnesses. Many other officials who were not willing to follow Wang Mang were also victimized in this purge. After this, Wang Mang's hold on power became absolute. In 5 CE, Wang Mang revived an ancient ceremony intended for those who have made great contributions to the state, and had himself given the nine bestowments (九錫). (The "nine bestowments" would, after Wang Mang, thereafter become a customary step for usurpers to receive before they usurped the throne.)

Circa 5 CE, Emperor Ping, having grown older, appeared to grow out of a heart condition from which he suffered as a child, and it became fairly plain that he resented Wang for slaughtering his uncles and not allowing his mother to visit him in Chang'an. Wang therefore resolved to murder the emperor. In the winter of 5 CE, Wang submitted pepper wine (considered in those days to be capable of chasing away evil spirits) to the 13-year-old emperor, but had the wine spiked with poison. As the emperor was suffering the effects of the poison, Wang wrote a secret petition to the gods, in which he offered to substitute his life for Emperor Ping's, and then had the petition locked away. (Historians generally believed that Wang had two motives in doing this—one was, in case Emperor Ping recovered from the poisoning, to use this to try to absolve himself of involvement in the poisoning, and the second was to leave for posterity evidence of his faithfulness.) After a few days of suffering, Emperor Ping died.

As acting emperor

Because the young Emperor Ping had not had any children by his wife Empress Wang or any of his concubines, there was no heir. Further, by that point, Emperor Ping's grandfather, Emperor Yuan had no surviving male issue. The progeny of Emperor Ping's great-grandfather Emperor Xuan were therefore examined as possible successors.

There were 53 great-grandsons of Emperor Xuan then still living by this stage, but they were all adults, and Wang Mang disliked that fact—he wanted a child whom he could control. Therefore, he declared that it was inappropriate for members of the same generation to succeed each other (even though Emperor Ping had succeeded his cousin Emperor Ai several years earlier). He then examined the 23 great-great-grandsons of Emperor Xuan—all of whom were infants or toddlers.

While the examination process was proceeding, the mayor of South Chang'an submitted a rock with a mysterious red writing on it – "Wang Mang, the Duke of Anhan, should be emperor." In May, Wang had his political allies force Grand Empress Dowager Wang to issue an edict granting him the title of "Acting Emperor" (假皇帝),[2] with the commission to rule as emperor until a great-great-grandson of Emperor Xuan could be selected and raised. To further bolster his claims, Wang also faked his genealogy, declaring himself a descendant of the Yellow Emperor, a legendary emperor revered in Chinese culture.[3]

In the spring of 6, Acting Emperor Wang selected the child Ying—then just one year old—as the designated successor to Emperor Ping, claiming that soothsayers told him that Ying was the candidate most favored by the gods. He gave Ying the epithet Ruzi – the same epithet that King Cheng of Zhou had when he was in his minority and under the regency of the Duke of Zhou – to claim that he was as faithful as the Duke of Zhou. However, Emperor Ruzi did not ascend the throne, but was given the title of crown prince. Empress Wang was given the title empress dowager.

As acting emperor, Wang reinstituted the Zhou system of five grades of nobility—duke (公, gong), marquess (侯, hou), earl (伯, bo), viscount (子, zi), and baron (男, nan).

Several members of the imperial Liu clan were naturally suspicious of Acting Emperor Wang's intentions. They started or assisted in several failed rebellions against Wang:

After Zhai and Liu Xin were defeated, Wang became even more convinced that the empire was entirely under his control, and decided to finally seize the throne and start a new dynasty. In the winter of 8, after receiving a false prophecy written by the hoodlum Ai Zhang (哀章) which pretended to be a divine decree from Emperor Gaozu (Liu Bang) stating that the throne should be given to Wang, and that Grand Empress Dowager Wang should follow this divine will, Wang issued a decree accepting the position of emperor, establishing the Xin Dynasty.

Early reign: mistakes

Early in his reign, now-Emperor Wang Mang was self-confident and believed that he now had the power to implement his ideals of restoring the legendary golden age of the early Zhou Dynasty. To those ends, he modified the governmental structure in many ways to conform with Zhou standards. He also continued the regime of modifying geographical names to fit with ancient names (or more euphemistic names, as he saw fit) – so much so that even imperial edicts discussing the locations by their new names were forced to include notes on the old names so that the recipients of the edicts could tell what locations he was referring to. As part of this regime, the capital Chang'an's name was changed as well, involving the change of a now-homophonous character—長安 (eternal peace) to 常安 (constant peace).

In 9, Wang Mang made his wife, Lady Wang, empress. By this point, only two of her four sons were still alive. The older, Wang An (王安) was described as lacking in talent, so Wang made the younger, Wang Lin (王臨), crown prince, and made Wang An the Lord of Xinjia (新嘉辟). He selected many Confucian scholars to serve as advisors for Crown Prince Lin.

Wang, grateful to his aunt Grand Empress Dowager Wang (who, however, resented him for deceiving her and usurping the throne), continued to honor her as empress dowager, but also gave her an additional title of Wangmu (王母), the same title carried by the mother of King Wen of Zhou, implying that she was also his mother and had helped establish a new dynasty. She died in 13.

Economic policies

A knife coin issued by Wang Mang

In 9, Wang Mang instituted a revolutionary land redistribution system, ordering that all land in the empire become legally the property of the empire, to be known as wangtian (王田), in a system similar to the Zhou well-field system. All further land transactions were banned, although property owners were allowed to continue to possess the property. However, if a family had less than eight members but had one "well" or larger property (about 0.6 km2), it was required to distribute the excess to fellow clan members, neighbors, or other members of the same village. Criticism of the wangtian system was punishable by exile. Wang also abolished slavery.[4] Eventually, faced with resistance to both of these policies, Wang was forced to repeal both of them in 12.

In 10, Wang set up a state economic adjustment agency, seeking to control fluctuations in the prices of food and textiles by purchasing excess goods and then selling them when the price went up. The same agency also became responsible for loaning money to entrepreneurs, at the rate of three percent per month. Six offices were set up: in Chang'an, Luoyang, Handan, Linzi (modern Zibo, Shandong), Wancheng (modern Nanyang, Henan), and Chengdu.

In the same year, Wang Mang instituted a "sloth tax": if landowners left land uncultivated, city dwellers left their houses without trees, or citizens refused to work, there would be penalties to be paid, with textile tributes. For those unable to pay those penalties, they would be required to labor for the state.

In addition, in 10, Wang also instituted an unprecedented tax—the income tax – at the rate of 10 percent of profits, for professionals and skilled labor. (Previously, all Chinese taxes were either head taxes or property tax.) He also instituted a state monopoly on liquor and weapons.

Another economic change instituted by Wang—a fairly disastrous one—was to issue 28 types of coins, made of gold, silver, tortoise shells, sea shells, and copper. Because there were so many kinds of coins (versus the one kind that Han used), people became unable to recognize the kinds of coins as genuine or as counterfeit, and the money-based economy came to a halt. Eventually, Wang was forced to abolish all but two kinds of coins—the small coin that had the same value of a Han coin, and the large coin that had the value of 50 small coins. However, the people, despite fairly severe penalties, lost faith in the Xin coins, and continued to use Han coins in an underground trade economy.

In 17, in an attempt to refill the depleted imperial coffers, Wang instituted six monopolies on liquor, salt, iron, coinage, forestry, and fishing. However, because of rampant corruption, the imperial treasury received only limited benefit, while the people were greatly burdened.

Deterioration of the relationship with Xiongnu and other vassals

Problems with Xiongnu

Further information: Han–Xiongnu War

The first sign of irritation came sometime before 10; the Xin director of Wuhuan affairs had informed the Wuhuan tribes not to pay further tribute to Xiongnu. (Wuhuan had become somewhat of a dual vassal of both Han and Xiongnu during the late Han Dynasty, and was supposed to pay Xiongnu tributes in textile and leather; if Wuhuan failed to pay the tributes, Xiongnu forces would kidnap Wuhuan women as hostages.) In response, Xiongnu made a punitive military action against Wuhuan, capturing about 1,000 women and children to serve as hostages. Later, at Wang Mang's orders, Xiongnu was forced to return the Wuhuan hostages.

In 10, Wang sent his ambassadors to Xiongnu to inform Chanyu Zhi that he had become emperor and that Xin had replaced Han, and requested that the great seal of the chanyu, which Han had issued, be exchanged for a new seal issued by Xin. The old seal read, "the Great Seal of the Chanyu of Xiongnu" (匈奴單于璽, Xiongnu Chanyu Xi), while the new seal read, "the Seal of the Shanyu of Gongnu of Xin" (新恭奴善于章, Xin Gong-nu Shan-yu Zhang), changing the meanings "ferocious slave" 匈奴 to "respectful slave" 恭奴, "Chanyu" 單于 to "Shanyu" 善于, and "seal" 璽 to "badge" 章,[5] implying that Xiongnu, which Han had treated with some ambiguity about whether it was a vassal, was clearly a vassal of Xin. Without examining the new seal, Chanyu Zhi agreed to the exchange. The ambassadors, apprehensive that the Chanyu, once he realized what had happened, would demand the old seal back, destroyed the old seal. Indeed, the next day, the Chanyu realized that the seal text had changed, and requested that the old seal be returned, but upon being informed that the old seal had been destroyed (which the ambassadors claimed falsely to be an act of the gods), acquiesced. Chanyu Zhi, however, began to prepare for confrontation with Xin. He built defensive bulwarks some distance from the Xin outpost of Shuofang (朔方, roughly modern Ordos, Inner Mongolia). He also began to accept Xiyu ("Western Regions", in modern Xinjiang and former Soviet central Asia) kingdoms' pledges of allegiance, which were banned previously by Wang.

Wang, irritated, declared war against Xiongnu. The strategy that he set out was to divide the Xin forces into 12 armies to divide and conquer Xiongnu. Under this scenario, Chanyu Zhi would be attacked and forced to retreat to the Dingling tribes (around Lake Baikal), and Xiongnu would be divided into 15 small kingdoms to be ruled by 15 descendants of Chanyu Huhanye, who had first established friendly relations with Han. Under this plan, 300,000 men would be gathered (and would attack at the same time) – Wang did not follow his generals' recommendations to start the campaign as soon as a critical mass of men were gathered, but wanted to attack with overwhelming force. This caused the border regions to become strained with accommodating the men who already arrived for years, while fruitlessly waiting for the full support of 300,000 to be gathered.

In the first stage of this plan, one of the local commanders kidnapped one of Chanyu Zhi's brothers, Xian (咸), the Prince of Zuoliwu (左犁汙王), and his sons Deng (登) and Zhu (助), by trickery. Xian and Zhu were made Chanyus—to be two of the 15. Chanyu Zhi became enraged and started massive attacks against Xin border regions, causing the border regions much distress and loss in economic and human terms. Eventually, Xian escaped back to Xiongnu, but his sons were kept as hostages. After Zhu died, Deng succeeded him. However, in 12, after hearing reports that Xian's other son Jiao (角) had been a successful Xiongnu strategist in military actions, Wang, in anger, executed Deng and his attendants.

Later, in 13, Chanyu Zhi died. The powerful official Xubu Dang (須卜當) and his wife Yun, the Princess Yimuo (the daughter of Chanyu Huhanye and Wang Zhaojun), who advocated peaceful relations with Xin and who were also friendly with Xian, supported Xian as the new Chanyu, but even though Xian was unaware that Wang Mang had executed his son Deng, their friendly relationship did not return. There was a temporary détente in 14, when Xian returned Xin defectors Chen Liang (陳良) and Zhong Dai (終帶), who, as junior army officers in Xiyu, had killed their superiors and surrendered to Xiongnu (perhaps seeking to have Xiongnu help them reestablish Han) so that Wang could execute them. In response, Wang recalled the forces to the northern regions which were intended to attack Xiongnu (but were never given the full support that Wang envisioned). However, after Chanyu Xian found out late in 14 that Deng had been executed, he resumed raids against the border regions but maintained a façade of peace.

Problems with southwestern tribes

Similarly, when Wang Mang first became emperor, his ambassadors visited the southwestern tribes (in modern Guizhou, Yunnan, and southwestern Sichuan), whose chieftains Han had largely granted the titles of princes. Wang's new seals demoted them to the titles of marquesses. One of the more powerful ones, Han (邯), the Prince of Juting (句町王), became so angry that he cut off relations with Xin. Wang instructed the local commandery governor Zhou Xin (周歆) to use trickery to kill Han. In response, Han's brother Cheng (承) started a rebellion, killing Zhou, and starting a campaign of harassment against Xin borders. By 16, the Commandery of Yizhou (modern northeastern Yunnan) had become corrupt, and yet Juting remained powerful. In 16, Wang commissioned two generals, Lian Dan (廉丹) and Shi Xiong (史熊), who were initially successful against Juting, but soon became caught in problems with food supply and plagues. However, Wang continued to refuse to reinstitute the Han system of using awards to buy the submission of southwestern tribes.

Problems with Korean tribes

When Wang started his campaign against Xiongnu, he requisitioned the forces of Korean tribes within Xin borders. The Korean tribes refused, and marched out of Xin borders, and the army that Wang sent against them were defeated by them. The general Wang sent, Yan You (嚴尤), used humble words to trick their leader, Zou (騶), who carried the title the Marquess of Gaojuli (高句驪, Korean Hangul: 고구려 (Goguryeo) (but appeared to have no direct connection with the Kingdom of Goguryeo, existing at the same time), into a meeting with him, and then killing Zou by surprise. Wang then changed Gaojuli to the derogatory term "Xiajuli" (gao means "high", while xia means "low"), which further enraged the Koreans, causing them to attack the Xin northeastern regions with greater ferocity.

Problems with Xiyu kingdoms

The troubles with Xiyu kingdoms also started in 10. In that year, Xuzhili (須置離), the King of Rear Cheshi (後車師, now part of Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture) became concerned of the great cost of hosting Xin ambassadors, and he became so distressed that he considered abandoning his kingdom and fleeing to Xiongnu. Xin's Xiyu commissioner Dan Qin (但欽) summoned Xuzhili and executed him. Xuzhili's brother Hulanzhi (狐蘭之) fled to Xiongnu and attacked Dan, inflicting severe casualties, before withdrawing.

In 13, the dual kingdom Wusun (which, under a system set up by Han, had two kings—the greater king was a descendant of a Han princess and her husband the king of Wusun, while the lesser king was a descendant of her brother-in-law) sent ambassadors to Chang'an to offer tributes. Because Wang Mang knew that the people of Wusun actually had greater affinity for the lesser king, he placed the ambassador of the lesser king in a higher position than the ambassador of the greater king, which greatly insulted the greater king.

Also in 13, perhaps related to this, the Xiyu kingdoms joined forces and attacked the Xiyu commissioner Dan, and successfully killed him. The Xiyu kingdoms, by that point, no longer pledged allegiance to Xin. In 16, Wang made another attempt to intimidate the Xiyu kingdoms back into submission, but the armies were divided and cut off from each other. One army was entirely wiped out. The other was forced to withdraw to Qiuzi (龜茲, in modern Aksu Prefecture, Xinjiang) with its way back to Xin proper cut off, and the army settled there and was unable to return for the rest of Xin Dynasty's duration.

Paralysis and corruption of the government

In addition to these wars, a major problem plaguing Wang Mang's administration was that he was so committed in determining the ancient governmental structure, believing that once things were restored to Zhou Dynasty standards, the government would be efficient. He and his officials spent inordinate amounts of time carrying out research of legends, leaving important affairs of the state undecided. A large number of counties lacked magistrates for years. The local officials, without supervision, became highly corrupt and oppressive of the populace.

Because of the way Wang came to power, he also became suspicious of allowing his subordinates to have too much power. Therefore, he made all important decisions by himself and did not delegate. This left him highly fatigued and many decisions unmade. Further, he entrusted eunuchs to screen the reports from local governments for him, but those eunuchs would decide to relay or not relay those reports based on their own personal likes and dislikes, and many important petitions went unanswered.

An even more serious problem was that the officials lacked salaries. Han had a well-defined system of official salaries, but when Wang became emperor, he ordered that the salary system be overhauled and recalibrated; however because a new system could not be created for years, the officials went without salary in the meantime. In response, they became corrupt in demanding bribes from the people, causing the people much distress. In 16, Wang finally issued the new salary system, which were to depend on how prosperous the state was to determine what the salaries were. However, because whether the state was in a prosperous year was a highly subjective matter, the officials continued to go without salary for the rest of the Xin Dynasty's existence.

Middle reign: agrarian rebellions

For a while, despite the failures of Wang's policies, the people were generally obedient, and all indications were that he should have survived. However, in 11, the Yellow River overflowed its riverbanks, flooding much of the surrounding land in the process. The ensuing famine led to prophecies that Wang had lost the Mandate of Heaven and that the Han dynasty would be restored.

About 17, as the burdens from the wars and the corruption continued to increase, several agrarian rebellions started and took hold, partly also because of a major famine in Jing Prefecture (modern Hubei, Hunan, and southern Henan). The more significant ones include:

Wang sent messengers issuing pardons in hope of causing these rebels to disband. Once the messengers returned to Chang'an, some honestly reported that the rebels had gathered because the harsh laws made it impossible for them to make a living and therefore they were forced to rebel. Some, in order to flatter Wang Mang, told him that these were simply evil resisters who needed to be killed, or that this was a temporary phenomenon. Wang listened to those who flattered him and generally relieved from their posts those who told the truth. Further, Wang made no further attempts to pacify the rebels, but instead decided to suppress them by force.

At this time, Wang made another strategic mistake involving Xiongnu. In 18, Chanyu Xian died, and his brother Yu (輿) became chanyu. He wanted to consider peace with Xin, and he sent one of his key officials and a nephew of his to serve as ambassadors to Chang'an. In response, Wang Mang sent Wang Zhaojun's brother Wang She (王歙) to meet with Princess Yun and her husband Xuyu Dang. At the meeting, however, Xin forces surprised and kidnapped the princess and her husband and took them to Chang'an. Wang Mang created Xuyu chanyu and envisioned placing him on the Xiongnu throne by force. This ended any hope of peace with Xiongnu.

In 20, Wang Mang made a sudden change of his presumed heir—of sorts. He suddenly deposed Crown Prince Lin, under the rationale that disaster would come from the fact that Crown Prince Lin was younger than his brother Lord An, and should not have been crown prince. He then created Lord An the Prince of Xinqian and Wang Lin the Prince of Tongyiyang.

In 21, Empress Wang died. After her death, Wang Mang discovered that one of Empress Wang's ladies in waiting, Yuan Bi (原碧), with whom he had an affair, had also had an affair with Crown Prince Lin, and that she had conspired with Crown Prince Lin to kill Wang Mang, in light of Wang Lin's demotion. Wang Mang ordered Wang Lin to commit suicide by poison, but Wang Lin refused, and killed himself by sword. Later that year, Wang An died as well. Wang Mang then announced that he had in fact two sons by female servants, whom he then created dukes.

Late reign

Agrarian revolts

In 22, Wang Mang finally saw (as many of his officials had tried to tell him earlier) that the agrarian rebellions were posing a much greater threat to his rule than the Xiongnu. He commissioned two of his key officials, Wang Kuang (王匡, not to be confused with the Lülin leader of the same name) and Lian Dan to attack agrarian rebellions, with the Chimei being their first target. Wang and Lian had some initial successes, but Wang insisted on having them keep fighting without resting, and the fatigued forces eventually collapsed.

In the same year, Lülin forces suffered a major plague, killing about half of the rebels. This caused them to divide. One branch headed west to the region of modern Jingzhou, Hubei, while the other headed north to the region of the modern Nanyang, Henan.

Liu's revolt merge with Lülin agrarian revolt

Around this time, the most ambitious of the rebels would emerge. Liu Yan, a descendant of a distant branch of the Han imperial clan, who lived in his ancestral territory of Chongling (舂陵, in modern Xiangyang, Hubei), had long been disgusted by Wang Mang's usurpation of the Han throne, and had long aspired to start a rebellion. His brother Liu Xiu, by contrast, was a careful and deliberate man, who was content to be a farmer. Around this time, there were prophecies being spread about that the Lius would return to power, and many men gathered about Liu Yan, requesting that he lead them. He agreed, and further joined forces with the branch of Lülin forces who had entered the proximity, and they began to capture territory instead of simply roving and raiding. (It was said that many of the neighborhood young men were initially hesitant to join the rebels, but when they saw that Liu Xiu, whom they considered wise and careful, was joining as well, they agreed to.) In 23, under Liu Yan's leadership, the joint forces had a major victory over Zhen Fu (甄阜), the governor of the Commandery of Nanyang, killing him. They then besieged the important city of Wancheng (the capital of Nanyang).

A new imperial pretender

By this point, many other rebel leaders had become jealous of Liu Yan's capabilities, and while a good number of their men admired Liu Yan and wanted him to become the emperor of a newly declared Han Dynasty, they had other ideas. They found another local rebel leader, also of Han imperial descent, Liu Xuan, who was considered a weak personality, and requested that he be made emperor. Liu Yan initially opposed this move and instead suggested that Liu Xuan carry the title "Prince of Han" first (echoing the founder of the Han Dynasty, Emperor Gao). The other rebel leaders refused, and in early 23, Liu Xuan was proclaimed Emperor Gengshi of Han. Liu Yan became prime minister.

The Battle of Kunyang

In the spring of 23, a major military confrontation sealed Wang Mang's fate. He sent his cousin Wang Yi (王邑) and his prime minister Wang Xun (王尋) with what he considered to be overwhelming force, some 430,000 men, intending to crush the newly reconstituted Han regime. The Han forces were at this point in two groups—one led by Wang Feng, Wang Chang (王常), and Liu Xiu, which, in response to the arrival of the Xin forces, withdrew to the small town of Kunyang (昆陽, in modern Pingdingshan, Henan) and one led by Liu Yan, which was still besieging Wancheng. The rebels in Kunyang initially wanted to scatter, but Liu Xiu opposed it; rather, he advocated that they guard Kunyang securely, while he would gather all other available troops in surrounding areas and attack the Xin forces from the outside. After initially rejecting Liu Xiu's idea, the Kunyang rebels eventually agreed.

Liu Xiu carried out his action, and when he returned to Kunyang, he began harassing the besieging Xin forces from the outside. Wang Yi and Wang Xun, annoyed, led 10,000 men to attack Liu Xiu and ordered the rest of their troops not to move from their siege locations. Once they engaged in battle, however, after minor losses, the other units were hesitant to assist them, and Liu Xiu killed Wang Xun in battle. After that, the Han forces inside Kunyang burst out of the city and attacked the other Xin units, and the much larger Xin forces suffered a total collapse. The soldiers largely deserted and went home, unable to be gathered again. Wang Yi had to withdraw with only several thousand men back to Luoyang. This was a major blow to Xin, psychologically; from this point on, there would be no hope for it.

Conquest of the capitals

Emperor Gengshi then commissioned two armies, one led by Wang Kuang, targeting Luoyang, and the other led by Shentu Jian (申屠建) and Li Song (李松), targeting Chang'an directly. All the populace on the way gathered, welcomed, and joined the Han forces. Shentu and Li quickly reached the outskirts of Chang'an. The rebels sacked the capital on 4 October, 23.[2] In response, the young men within Chang'an also rose up and stormed Weiyang Palace, the main imperial palace. Wang died in the battle at the palace (by Du Wu (杜吳)), as did his daughter Princess Huanghuang (the former empress of Han). After Wang died, the crowd fought over the right to have the credit for having killed Wang, and tens of soldiers died in the ensuing fight. Wang's body was cut into pieces, and his head was delivered to the provisional Han capital Wancheng, to be hung on the city wall. However, the angry people took it off the wall and kicked it around, and someone cut his tongue off. Eventually, the head was preserved and kept in a court vault, until it was destroyed in a fire in the Jin Dynasty.

Reasons for Wang Mang's failure

Wang's reforms have been said to be a foreshadowing of socialism.[6] The reasons why he failed were complicated. The Qing Dynasty historian Zhao Yi (趙翼) made the following remarks, which, while perhaps overly derogating of Wang, were not inaccurate:

The first of Wang Mang's failures was to seize all private land under the wangtian system and prohibiting land transactions. If a person's land exceeded 0.6 square kilometers, then he must distribute them to neighbors or relatives. Those who dared to oppose it were exiled to the wild borderland. He also prohibited people from saving and using the Han coins that the people considered reliable, and he also exiled those who violated this policy. Therefore, farmers and tradesmen lost their livelihood. Further, those who were severely punished for trading land or trading Han coins were innumerable. He then created the six monopolies, ordering local governments to monopolize liquor, salt, and iron, and he created taxes on the goods coming out of mountains, forests, and lakes. These are all policies that angered the Chinese.
Wang Mang thought he had already brought Xiongnu to the north, Koreans to the east, and Huangzhi tribes to the south to submission, but he had no accomplishments in the west, so he encouraged the Qiang tribes to offer their lands to establish the Commandery of Xihai, but after the Qiang tribes lost their lands, they rebelled. He also demoted the barbaric princes to marquesses. He sent ambassadors to issue a new seal to the Xiongnu chanyu, changing the text of the great seal. Chanyu wanted the old seal, but the ambassadors destroyed it. Chanyu became angry and therefore began to disturb the northern territories. The Prince of Juting also rebelled because he was demoted to marquess status. These are all policies that angered the foreigners.
Because of Xiongnu raids, Wang Mang sent 12 generals and 180 officers to lead a force of 300,000 men. When those who violated the coinage policy and their neighbors were all arrested, Wang made these condemned people soldiers. Men were put into stock cars, while women and children were forced to walk with chains around their necks. Their numbers exceeded 100,000. After they arrived, husbands and wives were separated from each other and given over to other men and women. Local governments were required to transport food from the regions of the Yangtze River and the East Sea to the northern extremes. The troops that arrived first were required to wait for the entire army to be constituted before attacking. Therefore, the generals and the officers became lawless in the northern territories and became a major disaster. The Commanderies of Wuyuan and Dai suffered the most. The forces attacking Juting suffered losses of 50 to 60 percent. These are all policies that, because of Wang Mang's militarism, caused foreign states to be embroiled in enmity with China.
Therefore, as a result, the empire boiled like water, and the people rose against him. Gengshi, Chimei, and Guangwu all claimed to have Liu ancestry to obtain support. Many know that Wang Mang's defeat was because the people missed Han Dynasty, but they do not know that the reason why the people missed the Han Dynasty was because of Wang Mang. When Wang Mang first became regent, he accomplished many great deeds to become the basis for his greater evil acts, but these were only acts of ordinary treacherous men. After he usurped the throne, he did not know how to comfort and guide the people, and felt that he could ceaselessly deceive everyone. Therefore, he caused both the Chinese and the foreigners to hate him.
The entire empire was already collapsing, but Wang Mang did not care, but rather buried his head in what is old, believing that once he returned the government structure to the old days, the empire will be peaceful. He only sought to establish proper ceremony and music day and night, and he sought to create explanations for all of the Confucian classics by making tortured interpretations, without spending time on the important affairs of state. Before he could complete his ceremonies and music, he was already killed. This kind of behavior is even more childish than a three-year-old child. There is a common contemporary idiom, "foolishness is but a form of trickery." But for Wang Mang, his trickery was only a form of foolishness.

Personal information

Xin Dynasty sovereigns
Personal name Period of reign Era names (年號) and their according range of years
Wang Mang 9–23

Shijianguo (始建國 shi3 jian4 guo1, "The beginning of a nation's establishment") 9–13
Tianfeng (天鳳 tian1 feng1, "Heavenly Feng") 14–19
Dihuang (地皇 di4 huang2, "Earthly Emperor") 20–23

Wang Mang is a character in the 2011 historical fantasy novel, The Ghosts of Watt O'Hugh, where he is treated admiringly and heroically. He was "the one for whom we'd been waiting," one character says of Wang Mang, after his death, "the one for whom we still wait."


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Wang Mang.


  1. Early Chinese dynasties were typically named after the fief of their founding dynast, and this reading is consistent with Wang Mang's pre-imperial position as Marquess of Xin. In 1950, C.B. Sargent suggested that the name of the dynasty should be read as meaning "new", which J.J.L. Duyvendak rejected out of hand. Chauncey S. Goodrich later convincingly argued that it may be possible to assign a semantic reading to xin, but that it ought to be read as renewed or renewal, not simply new. See Goodrich, Chauncey S. (July 1957). "The Reign of Wang Mang: Hsin or New?". Oriens. Leiden: Brill. 10 (1): 114–8. doi:10.2307/1578760.
  2. 1 2 Robert Hymes (2000). John Stewart Bowman, ed. Columbia Chronologies of Asian History and Culture. Columbia University Press. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-0-231-11004-4.
  3. Robert Hymes (2000). John Stewart Bowman, ed. Columbia Chronologies of Asian History and Culture. Columbia University Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-231-11004-4.
  4. Hallet, Nicole. "China and Antislavery". Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition, Vol. 1, p. 154  156. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. ISBN 0-313-33143-X.
  5. Taskin V.S. 1984. "Materials on history of Dunhu group nomadic tribes", p.15, Moscow, Science)
  6. Dash, Mike (December 9, 2011). "Emperor Wang Mang: China's First Socialist". Past Imperfect blog. Smithsonian magazine. Retrieved 9 January 2014.

Works cited

Emperor of the Xin Dynasty
Born: 45 BC Died: 6 October 23
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Emperor Ruzi of Han
Emperor of China
Xin Dynasty
Succeeded by
Emperor Gengshi of Han
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