Wang Mang

Regency and buildup of personality cult

Emperor Ai died suddenly in 1 BC, without heir. In 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 BC, Wang, now in power, took drastic action to attack actual or perceived political enemies:

The relations of Emperor Ai, the Fus and the Dings, were demoted and exiled back to their ancestral lands.

Empress Dowager Zhao Feiyan, the wife of Emperor Cheng (who was friendly with the late Grand Empress Dowager Fu), and Empress Fu, the wife of Emperor Ai (and related to Grand Empress Dowager Fu) were demoted to commoner status and ordered to guard their husbands' tombs. They committed suicide in response.

Grand Empress Dowager Fu and Empress Dowager Ding were posthumously demoted—to the titles of "the mother of Prince Gong of Dingtao" and "Consort Ding" respectively. (In 5, Wang would further disinter Consorts Fu and Ding's caskets and strip their bodies of jade burial shells, and then returned to Dingtao to be buried there. Their tombs were then completely flattened and surrounded with thorns.)

Dong Xian (who had committed suicide soon after his demotion) was disinterred and reburied within a prison, and his clan was exiled.

He Wu (何武), the former prime examiner, and his friend Gongsun Lu (公孫祿), who had opposed Wang Mang's regency, were relieved of their posts.

Wujiang Long (毋將隆), the governor of the Nan Commandery (roughly modern Hubei ), who had rejected Wang Mang's advances to serve as a political ally, was falsely accused of having falsely accused the innocent Princess Dowager Feng Yuan of Zhongshan of witchcraft in 6 BC, and he, along with the real coconspirators against Princess Dowager Feng, were exiled.

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 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 AD, 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, 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, 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, then, in an act of false modesty intended to create the opposite result, he petitioned Grand Empress Dowager Wang that his daughter not be considered—and then started a petition drive by the people to have his daughter be 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, 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, 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 then committed suicide, and his wife (Lü Kuan's sister) Lü Yan (呂焉) was executed. Wang Mang then 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 then 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, 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, Emperor Ping, having grown older, appeared to grow out of a heart condition that 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, 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." Wang had his political allies force Grand Empress Dowager Wang to issue an edict granting him the title of "Acting Emperor" (假皇帝), with the commission to rule as emperor until a great-great-grandson of Emperor Xuan could be selected and raised.

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:

In 6, Liu Chong (劉崇), the Marquess of Anzhong, made an attack against Wancheng (宛城, in modern Nanyang, Henan ). His attack failed, but historians did not specify what happened to him, other than that as punishment, Wang had his house filled with filthy water.

In 7, Zhai Yi (翟義), the governor of the Commandery of Dong (roughly modern Puyang, Henan ) and Liu Xin (劉信), the Marquess of Yanxiang (and the father of Liu Kuang (劉匡), the Prince of Dongping (roughly modern Tai'an, Shandong )) started the largest of these rebellions—and they were joined by agrarian rebellion leaders Zhao Peng (趙朋) and Huo Hong (霍鴻) from the area immediately west of the capital Chang'an. They declared Liu Xin emperor. Wang responded by sending messengers all around the nation to pledge that he will in fact return the throne to Emperor Ruzi once he was grown. Wang's armies defeated Zhai and Liu's armies in winter 7, and Zhai was captured and executed by drawing and quartering. Liu fled and was never captured. Zhao and Huo were also eventually defeated and executed.

In 9 (after Wang Mang had usurped the throne—see below), Liu Kuai (劉快), the Marquess of Xuxiang, attacked the Dukedom of Fuchong, of his brother Liu Ying (劉殷), the former Prince of Jiaodong. He was defeated and died while fleeing from the battle.

In 13, under Emperor Wang Mang's rule, the Heavenly Stems were incorporated to number the years and replace the previous system which used only the Earthly Branches.

After Zhai and Liu Xin was 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 homophonous character—長安 (literally long peace) to 常安 (literally enduring 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

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. Eventually, 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 textile by purchasing excess goods and then selling them when 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 tax 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—of 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

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, 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 Yu", in modern Xinjiang and former Soviet central Asia) kingdoms' pledges of allegiance, which were banned previously by Wang. (See also below.)

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 Guiyang, 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.

Read More About Wang Mang


Last update 01-06-2012

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