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  • James Houser

23 AD - The Rise and Fall of Wang Mang's Whacky Reign

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

DECEMBER 24 - 23 AD. He is called the first socialist, a visionary and sacrificing ruler who sought to implement the truest promises of equality and human rights. He is also called a dangerous religious fanatic who tried to turn an ancient philosophy into a real governing system and failed dramatically. His name is Wang Mang, and for 14 years he has ruled China as Emperor, but today he is overthrown. The Han Dynasty is back to clean up the mess of Wang Mang’s whacky reign.

The Han Dynasty of ancient China was the first stable, long-term regime to encompass most of the modern core of China. It occupies a place in Chinese history similar to the Roman Empire in European history, which makes sense given that the Han existed about the same time as the Roman Empire and they shared a lot of challenges in common. The story I’m about to tell you today took place in large part during the reign of Augustus, considered the first Emperor of Rome, as well as during the life of Jesus Christ. It’s kind of wild that these Chinese happenings were going on across the world from some of the most consequential events of Western history, and most people in China couldn’t give two figs for the Roman Legions or the twelve disciples. But a world separated Rome and China, and they barely even knew of each other.

The Han Dynasty had been founded by a former government official named Liu Bang – later Emperor Gaozu - in 202 BC, and for the last two centuries had been a vibrant, powerful state. Much like modern China, it controlled a huge population and large economic resources, and governed them all with an authoritarian hand. The government was involved in nearly every detail of life, with local magistrates carrying out laws that affected society and the family. Government monopolies on things like iron and salt were a key source of income, and the complex system of bureaucrats and regulations easily surpassed anything the Roman Empire ever assembled. China had a deep and long history of the highly educated civil servant, a tradition that just did not exist in Ancient Greece or Rome.

As the Han Empire continued to prosper, the main governing philosophy of its rulers trended more and more in a direction known as “Legalism.” Legalism embodied the authoritarian structure of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang. Under this way of thinking, rules had to be strictly enforced, punishments enacted with utmost severity, and the orderly transfer of power that was important above all. While this may sound terrible and autocratic, this was the Ancient World, after all. Anything that kept order was often better than the other options, and most Legalists would describe their philosophy as “pragmatist conservatives” rather than “crazy dictators.” Despite their beliefs, Legalist rule of China was relatively nonintrusive and far from radical. Their beliefs - that people are naturally lazy and bad and need to be reformed by law, that taxes and trade are good for the nation, that a tightly controlled monopoly was the best economic solution for critical goods, that government is about reality and not theory - are all elements of traditional conservatism to a certain degree.

The scholars and bureaucrats of China, though – the educated classes – tended to be devotees of Confucius. It is hard to peg Confucianism; it is part religion, part philosophy, part ideology. Confucian philosophy focused on harmony, good behavior, proper structure and proper rites. Respect and devotion to the natural order was the preeminent principle. The people should be left alone to fulfill their natural call to agriculture, and free enterprise was the order of the day. Everything must be in its right place, with its right name, and in accordance with right behavior. The government should pull its hand back from the lives of the people and allow their own social consciences to flourish, restoring the delicate balance between yin and yang by promoting morality over efficiency. The Confucians pointed to ideal ancient societies of past China as the model for what China should be in the present.

The somewhat mystical, divine nature of “Heaven” played a key role in Confucian beliefs. As long as things were in accordance with the doctrines of Heaven, society would prosper and the state would flourish; anger Heaven, and disaster would follow. The Emperor was not in charge because he was Emperor, but in charge because he was good, and a bad Emperor would soon be removed by Heaven. This was the origin of the long-lived doctrine of the “Mandate of Heaven.” If a ruler deserved to overthrown, Heaven would demonstrate this by earthly apparitions like earthquakes, floods, disease or rebellion. As I’ve mentioned before this year, the “Mandate of Heaven” provided a very convenient excuse for anyone trying to seize power in ancient China. If someone was overthrown, having “lost” the Mandate of Heaven, they had obviously not deserved to rule in the first place. The very act of their overthrow meant that Heaven must have approved.

While the Legalists had been in power throughout most of the Han Dynasty, the Confucians had been an experiencing an intellectual renaissance and had grown in power throughout the last years of the 100s BC. It was an odd debate: the Legalists, currently in power, were the “Modernists” who looked to the future, while the Confucian reformists were the “Reformers” who looked to the distant past. By 40 BC, the Confucians were clearly winning the broader ideological and cultural debate, since they were able to ascribe every bad thing that happened to China to the Legalists’ lack of virtue and neglect of Heaven’s decrees. With the Confucians ascendant, they only needed an opportunity to take power and show the errant Legalists how China was TRULY supposed to be run. They found their opportunity in 1 BC, just as Jesus was being born in Bethlehem according to Christian doctrine. The Confucians had their man in Wang Mang.

The Han Dynasty, like many Eastern monarchies, had fallen increasingly into the hands of its ministers. The Emperor Yuandi (died 33 BC) had been a promoter of the Confucian doctrines, but after his death the Emperors of China were increasingly short-lived, often infants, and usually incapable of rule. True power in the Chinese court fell to Yuandi’s widow, the Empress Wang Zhengjun, and her cadre of ambitious relatives. Yuandi’s heirs failed to produce sons or have much interest in the affairs of empire, which left the Wang family totally in the driver’s seat – which was soon to be occupied by the most illustrious member of the family, the brilliant and famous Wang Mang.

Wang Mang was a high-ranking noble who had been at court for many years, serving at various points as Commander of the Army or Marshal of State. In his status as one of Han China’s Very Important People, though, he had had little opportunity to practice his beliefs. Wang Mang was a Confucian, a diehard to rival all diehards, and believed with all his heart that if Confucius’s philosophy and beliefs were put into practice with no compromise that China would truly prosper. This devotion to every letter of Confucian doctrine would lead to one of China’s most radical periods, possibly THE most radical period in Chinese history until the rise of the Communist Party – who, incidentally, often regard Wang Mang as the first socialist.

It is hard to figure out what to make of Wang Mang. He certainly was not a Marxist. His beliefs on social order and righteousness were entirely based on the explicit word of ancient Chinese philosophy and the will of Heaven, and so they assumed a religious bent along with an ideological one. But at the same time, Wang Mang was not above using trickery and deceit to promote his own power, even when faking signs from the Divine as support for his regime. He was so cynical at times about his manipulation and use of power that one is tempted to think that he never really believed in the Confucian texts and just used them for his own ends. The alternative, after all, is somehow more frightening – that Wang Mang REALLY believed this shit, and saw no obstacle in his drive to realize the perfection of China under Heaven. Like many radical revolutionaries, he was routinely willing to break his own beliefs in order to fulfill them.

In 1 BC, the Emperor Aidi died without any male heirs, leaving the succession in the hands of the court – mainly, of course, in the hands of the Empress Wang Zhengjun. Zhengjun selected one of her dead husband’s grandchildren, Pingdi, as the new Chinese Emperor. Pingdi was nine years old. There were several older, capable adults who could have happily served as Emperor of China, but Zhengjun had picked a child Emperor for a reason: so that he would be putty in the hands of his advisors. The main advisor was, of course, Wang Mang. After a few more deaths, some of them even natural, the Wangs were in total control of China. Quite by chance, the year of Christ’s birth had become the first year of Wang Mang’s attempted rebirth of China.

Wang Mang justified his rise by pointing to a series of disasters that had befallen Han China in the last thirty years: fires, comets, eclipses, droughts, floods, earthquakes, avalanches, and terrible thunderstorms. All of these were rallied as portents of Heaven’s disfavor, ill omens that cried out for a change in the Chinese ruling policy. The lack of legitimate heirs to the last three Emperors also spelled trouble; this was an obvious sign of Heaven’s displeasure. When Wang Mang married one of his daughters to Pingdi as the Empress, in the hopes that a new heir would soon come, Pingdi had the gall to die at age 14 in 6 AD. Wang Mang shrugged and went looking through the Han Dynasty’s family tree for a suitable puppet, and finally had a boy named Ruzi appointed as Emperor. Ruzi was, um, one year old. So we can see who’s still going to be in charge here.

As unchallenged Prime Minister of China, with babies famously unable to do things like control their bowels or rule a country, Wang Mang got to work creating the perfect China he dreamed of. But it was not sufficient that Ruzi and his family should be in the way. Wang began to engineer portents that showed that Heaven was on his side. A prophetic letter was found hidden in a copper casket, numerous (well-paid) court nobles reported dreams of Wang’s ascension, and inscriptions were “found” hidden on rocks. The subject kingdoms of the Han Dynasty began to send gifts of good omen that signaled divine favor – probably helped along by the fact that Wang had sent secret messages instructing them to send these gifts. Most unusually of all, Han loyalists were dropping dead after accidentally running into people’s knives! All of these were signs that Wang Mang and his cadre of Confucian fundamentalists should ascend to the throne.

After enough of these “auspicious” signs from Heaven, on January 10, 9 AD, Wang Mang “formally” accepted the resignation of the Han Dynasty and consigned Ruzi back to his nursery. If Ruzi had ever even known he was Emperor, he didn’t raise much of a fuss in anything except his diaper. Wang Mang formally proclaimed his new dynasty to be the Xin Dynasty, meaning “New.” Despite this obvious assertion, there was very little new about what Wang Mang was going to do. His policies were a slavish adherence to the ancient Confucian doctrine to the very letter and the very number. He was a revolutionary, in a sense, in that he wanted to model a “lost” society that had been both ancient and perfect. This effort would result in near-disaster for China. Wang Mang is Emperor, and let’s get into the crazy.

What WERE Wang Mang’s economic policies? Some of them seem like objectively good ideas. Wang Mang outlawed slavery in China, which is only slightly less awesome when one realizes that slavery had never really been a big thing in China in the first place. Wang introduced things like a personal income tax, too, which was a totally new thing for China, in addition to starting China’s first national bank! All of these are very modern policies. He completely upended the Chinese aristocracy, reintroducing old nobilities and ranks to correspond with the exact letter of Confucian philosophy – weird, but still not crazy yet.

One of Wang’s biggest early changes, and the one that gains him the title of “first socialist,” was his land reform policy. Land reform would be a major Marxist initiative throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, so it makes sense they would look on Wang’s reforms with favor. Wang Mang outright banned the sale of land, and decreed that large estates were to be broken up and redistributed to the peasants. This was not out of some economic drive for equality like the Marxists, but instead an attempt to realize Confucian idealist views of the peasant landholder. Under Wang’s policies, eight families would hold an equal land of area in a boxed grid, with the middle square in the Rubik’s cube of rice fields being used in common. This collectivist, top-down organization would be replicated by Mao and Stalin almost two millennia later, and it was a radical move to redress inequality and reinstate an old-style agrarian economy that both Confucius and Thomas Jefferson would have approved of.

If Wang had stopped there, things might have been all right. But that’s the problem with taking holy books or philosophical texts 100% literally: the cool comes mixed with the alright mixed with the absurd mixed with the disastrous. If Wang had stuck to land reform, equalizing, and banning slavery, he would have been awesome. But he couldn’t stop there. He had to fulfill all the Confucian dreams. It’s like Libertarians: they’re cool when they want more guns or free speech rights or legal weed, but then they start talking about the Federal Reserve and no taxes and child porn and it’s off to Crazy Town.

One of Wang Mang’s big obsessions was names. According to the Confucian utopian ideal, the names of things were supremely important because of the precise orientation of ceremony and Heaven. If the names were right, cosmic order was restored and yin and yang would once again be balanced. Things had to be called what they were for Heaven to smile fondly upon China.

So Wang Mang set about changing names. Not only did he completely change the calendar and rename every province and rank in China to correspond with old Confucian ideals, he even renamed the geography to correspond with a traditional concept of the “Four Seas,” which involved renaming a small lake as an ocean and Tibet as a sea. This was all harmless, of course. But then.

One thing that stands out in the years AD 1-200 in Chinese history is how all the names suddenly change. Most Chinese names are a combination of a one-syllable family name and a two-syllable given name. For instance, Mao Zedong (MAO the family name, ZE – DONG the given name.) Well, when Wang Mang (who notably had one-syllable family and given names) became Emperor, he extended his renaming spree to the people of China. Since everyone in the Confucian annals had one-character given and family names, obviously everyone should have single character names. Wang Mang put laws into place that literally made it illegal for newborns to receive two-character names and “officially” encouraged (read: mandated) that everyone change their names to correspond to the perfect society. Again, harmless, if totally bonkers.

Another of his big “WHY” policies was the rebalancing of pay for bureaucrats. Wang Mang believed that the Han Dynasty had paid its bureaucrats in absurd ways, and that the civil servants needed to be paid according to the rates of Confucius’s time. So he abolished the Han Dynasty pay scale while his historians were still trying to interpret the ancient records for the old pay scales. The bureaucrats went unpaid for years while Wang and his scholars tried to find the perfect pay rates to achieve social harmony. This resulted in one of the most corrupt administrations in history, since the civil servants weren’t getting paid at all and had to support themselves through bribes, exactions, and thuggery. By the time Wang Mang did figure out the pay scale, it was obviously way too low (hello inflation!) so the bureaucrats still weren’t getting paid at survival rates. So the corruption continued.

But then we get to monetary policy. Now, if you’re like me, you don’t know MUCH about monetary policy. But even someone who knows nothing about currency or exchange rates can understand how utterly screwed Wang Mang’s monetary policy was. His idolization of the Confucian era led him to reenact ancient policies from hundreds of years ago, back when China’s economy and society were utterly different.

Wang Mang’s biggest mistake was in reforming the currency. He looked at the records of the Zhou Dynasty, cobbled together pieces of Confucian text, and got some weird idea about what Confucius’s contemporaries thought money was. Based on this terrible understanding of history, Wang Mang decided to impose the use of six different currencies: gold, silver, copper coins, turtle shells, sea shells, and oddly-shaped “fabric bills.” There were officially 26 different denominations. Copper came in units of 1, 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50; Fabric in hundreds from 100-1000; Seashells in 3-10-30-50-216; Turtle shells in 100-300-500-2160, silver in 1000-1580, and gold in units of 10,000. The values of seashells and turtle shells were based on their size, the copper on their weights. But both denominations of silver were actually the same weight, with the only difference in the value of the silver coinage being the number printed on it.

Does this make any damn sense at all? No. No it doesn’t. It made so little sense that it threw the Chinese economy into total paralysis. NO ONE in China understood the new monetary system, least of all the people who were supposed to be running it. Confused peasants trying to exchange 50 seashells for 50 coins of copper were disappointed when the weight of the copper didn’t match the size of the shell, would they take their pay in half a piece of fabric? Merchants were looking at armfuls of turtle shells to see how many would match three gold coins. It was utter madness. The bewildered people just refused to take part in this system after a few years, and began to secretly use the old Han Dynasty coins instead. Wang Mang was so furious at this subversion of good Confucian law that he decreed exile for anyone caught using Han Dynasty coins – which was everyone, since no one trusted or understood the new monetary system.

As trade and commerce slid to a halt based on these new terrible policies, chaos and distress erupted across the land. Even as Wang Mang’s good policies – land reform, the opening of schools, the restructuring of the central government – proceeded apace, they were hamstrung by economic chaos and widespread corruption. Despite this failure, Wang Mang might have succeeded and avoided disaster if he had been lucky. But he wasn’t lucky, and when China confronted crisis all his reforms melted like the first snow.

First came the plague of locusts. Wang Mang offered a bounty to locust hunters, with a copper coin paid out for each insect, which of course led to enterprising individuals breeding locusts in secret then cashing them in for a turtle shell or whatever. Then came the floods, which caused the Yellow River to overrun its banks and displace many farmers into exile. This sudden population rush ruined Wang Mang’s carefully laid land reform program, and attempts to return the “happy, peaceful peasants” to their flooded Rubik’s-Cube plots at spearpoint resulted in widespread revolt. Because of the economic strangulation, corruption, and the rupturing of the market, food was not able to make it to the areas eaten out by locusts or flooded by the Yellow River.

When rebellions broke out everywhere in 23 AD, Wang Mang sent his troops out to deal with the rebels. When they failed – most of the officers were getting paid pennies thanks to the new system of salaries – Wang Mang decided that Heaven obviously didn’t like the names of all the units and ranks. So he changed them all again and sent out the army, believing that now Heaven would smile on him. But Heaven apparently didn’t like those names either, and soon the rebellion was closing in on all sides.

Irony of ironies, Wang Mang’s attempts to please Heaven backfired upon him in the most epic way. The survivors of the Han Dynasty used the chaos of 23 AD to claim that Heaven had turned against Wang Mang and favored the restoration of their regime. The self-justifying logic of the Mandate of Heaven had turned against its most zealous devotee, and Wang Mang began to descend into ever-fanciful ideas for victory. These included building bridges on the backs of swimming horses, appetite suppressants as a cheap alternative to military rations, and the possible use of man-made flight. This Icarus-like endeavor involved a Confucian scholar building wings like a bird’s, only to plummet off a cliff to his death after briefly ascending.

As the rebellion closed in, Wang Mang lost his mind. He lived on a diet of beer and shrimp, read only military texts, and slept on a stool. By the time his capital was overrun by the angry peasants, those agrarian workers he had idealized, he was too weak to walk; he had to be carried to his walls to observe the destruction of his city. Wang Mang fell in the storming of the capital, decapitated and dismembered by the mob.

The Han Dynasty was shortly restored, under the distant Han cousin and scion Emperor Guangwu starting in 25 AD. The Han would continue to rule for another 200 years, only briefly interrupted by the 14-year blip of Wang Mang’s revolutionary, radical, idealist rule.

A lot of lessons can be taken from Wang Mang: the past cannot be replicated, a revolution cannot be bound by strict codes, economic reality will always challenge the dreams of a visionary.

Although the utopian ideal of Wang Mang, or some version of it, has constantly recurred throughout human society from the Bronze Age to the modern era (see for instance CHAZ just this year), they have all met the same fate. You can’t build a modern society, with all its terrible realities, on a religious-philosophical text that was written by people who never had to deal with the pragmatic problems of governance.

That should be an easy lesson to understand, but apparently not.

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