Three Kingdoms History: Wang Mang

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Wang Mang
Ruled (AD 8-22 BC)

Han Ruler and Emperor Biographies
Authoring and Translation by

Wang Mang was a devoted Confucianist, who first came to power during the reign of Ping-Di. He was a great influence on the young Emperor and in the year AD 5, he forced the Emperor to marry his daughter, who was then made the Empress. He also gave himself the title of Duke of AnHan.

During Ru-zi’s reign, Wang Mang was made Regent of the young Emperor, by his aunt, the wife of the late Emperor Yuan-di. He was seen by many Confucianists as a saviour and was expected to help the Han regain its moral virtues and rule the land according to Confucius’ teachings.

In AD 9, Wang Mang usurped the throne and created the Xin Dynasty. The Western Han dynasty had ended after 198 years of consecutive rule.

Wang Mang hoped to gather support from the peasantry be introducing reforms. Wang Mang announced the discovery of books written by Confucius, which were supposedly discovered after Confucius’ house, was destroyed more than two hundred years ago. The discovered work supported the same kind of reform that Wang Mang sought.

Wang Mang defended his policies by quoting from the discovered books. Following what was portrayed as Confucian scripture; he decreed a return to the golden times when every man had his measure of land to till, land that in principle belonged to the state. He declared that a family of less than eight that had more than fifteen acres was obligated to distribute the excess amount of land to those who had none.

His next act as Emperor was to devise a new loan system for peasants. Instead of paying the thirty percent interest that private loaners demanded, Wang Mang offered loans to those in needs with only ten percent interest.

In an attempt to stabilize the price of grain, Wang Mang made plans for a state granary. He did this, hoping to discourage the wealthy landowner to hoard grain and profit from price fluctuations.

Wang Mang delegated a body of officials to stabilize the economy and fix prices every three months. He made a decree that anyone who opposed his ideas of reform would be drafted into the army.

Wang Mang claimed that he was doing the will of Confucius. He announced that his rule was the restoration of the rule of the early Chou Kings. In that age, the Confucian scholar Mencius claimed that this kind of Confucian rule would repeat itself every five hundred years. It was about one thousand years since the beginning of the Chou rule, and five hundred years since the peak of Confucianism, thus Wang Mang believed that his rule was legitimate.

Wang Mang was convinced that his subjects would obey his decrees, but again gentry-bureaucrats gave less importance to Confucianism than to their wealth. They and other landowners did not cooperate with Wang’s reforms, and without large media like newspapers, the local people would remain unaware of any reforms if the landowners withheld the information.

Wealthy merchants that Wang Mang employed to pursue implementation of the reforms succumbed bribery and proved to be interested mainly in enriching themselves.

Wang Mang needed a strong base of support and a willingness to move against those who violated his reform laws, but he was timid and stuck to pacifist idealism. Instead of organizing an army to enforce his rules, the wealthy landowners organized a peasant army and moved against Wang Mang.

In the year AD 11, the Yellow River broke its banks, creating floods from Shan Dong in the north, to where the river empties into the sea. The people did not have grain stored as Wang Mang said they should have. In addition, the people were left without food shortly after the crisis began. In the year AD 14, they resorted to cannibalism.

Thinking that his reforms failed, Wang Mang withdrew them. However, it was too late, because his opposition already took up arms against him.

In Shan Dong province, Wang Mang faced an organised movement of peasant rebels called the Red Eyebrows, led by a former Han Military Chief. In the neighbouring province to the north, another rebellion rose against Wang Mang, and soon rebellion spread across China.

In some places rebels were led by proprietors, some rebels claimed that Wang Mang’s reign was illegitimate. In addition, one of the rebel factions placed at its head a Han Prince called Liu Xiu.

Peasant armies murdered and plundered, and peasants marched towards the Capital, killing officials along the way. The troops sent by Wang Mang either joined the rebel armies or went on plundering sprees, taking what little food they could find.

The basic goodness of people that the Confucianists believed in appeared to have vanished. In the year AD 23, a rebel army invaded and burned down China’s majestic Capital: Chang An.

The soldiers found Wang Mang in the throne room, reciting Confucian writing, he was silenced when a rebel soldier cut off his head and ended the short of the Confucian Xin Dynasty.

Copyright © 2002 - 2003
Major Sources: Shi Ji (Sima Qian), Hou Han shu (Fan Ye)
Ancient Chinese History and Emperors (Brian Williams)
with notes from William Ho and Quentin Tran