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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 this half-sister became the mother of Emperor Yang's successor, Emperor Cheng (r. 33-7 BCE). This enabled Wang Mang to win an appointment in court circles where, according to Wikipedia, he won "praise for his humility, thriftiness, and desire to study" and "wore not the clothes of young nobles but those of a young Confucian scholar."

After the six-year reign of Emperor Ai and the appointment of the nine-year-old Peng-di as emperor, Wang Mang's aunt was running things at court, and she appointed Wang Mang as Peng-di's regent. Quickly, Wang Mang, now around 45 years-old, used his power to reduce his aunt's critics in court squabbles.

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 execution of Ping's uncles. (The Encyclopedia Britannica writes of Wang's enemies as the source of the accusation.) WangMang's aunt felt obliged to grant Wang the title of acting emperor. Wang approved of her selection of another child as emperor, Emperor Ruzi. But in the year 8, Wang Mang usurped the throne by isolating the child (Ruzi was to be dead by 25 CE) and by having his aunt give him the imperial seal. She initially refused, but relented. Wang Mang not being of the Lui family, the Han Dynasty had ended.

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. Like the Hebrew priesthood of Jehovah worship during 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 of reforms that Wang said he wanted. He decreed a return to the golden times when every man had his measure of land to till. He wanted families with excess acreage (more than fifteen acres) to distribute that 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 famous Confucian scholar Mencius (372-289 BCE) 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 they did to their own wealth. They and other owners of good-sized lands failed to cooperate in implementing Wang's reforms. 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 as a political and policing force, but it didn't happen.

In the year 11 the Yellow River broke its banks, creating floods. The usual failure to store enough grain for hard times left people without food. By the year 14, 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

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