Wang Anshi Introduces Bureaucratic Reforms Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

As adviser to the emperor Shenzong, Wang Anshi introduced reforms covering finance, the recruiting and training of officials, and the organization and staffing of the military. Though the reforms failed, many historians see them as the beginning of modern China.

Summary of Event

The Song Dynasty Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279) followed a time of disunion referred to as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-960). Bordered on the north by two powerful tribal dynasties, the Khitan Liao Dynasty Khitan Liao Dynasty (907-1125) and the Jurchen Jin Dynasty Jin Dynasty (Chin; 1115-1234), the Song faced persistent problems with revenue and a weak military. Reforms were proposed by many officials, among them Wang Anshi, who was serving in the area of present-day Nanjing. In a petition known as the “Ten Thousand Word Memorial,” Wang discussed the recruitment and training of officials and suggested procedures to restrain abuses by officials of the imperial system. In 1069, Wang was summoned to the capital of Kaifeng by the recently installed emperor, Shenzong Shenzong (Song emperor) . Through edicts issued from 1069 through 1072, Wang Anshi and Emperor Shenzong implemented a series of reforms Governmental reforms in China . China;governmental reforms [kw]Wang Anshi Introduces Bureaucratic Reforms (1069-1072) [kw]Reforms, Wang Anshi Introduces Bureaucratic (1069-1072) Wang Anshi China;1069-1072: Wang Anshi Introduces Bureaucratic Reforms[1630] Government and politics;1069-1072: Wang Anshi Introduces Bureaucratic Reforms[1630] Wang Anshi Shenzong Zhezong Xuan Ren Sima Guang

Wang’s changes focused on three areas: finance, officials, and the military. In the area of finance, Wang’s first act was to reorganize the finance bureau. He created the finance planning commission. Through this commission, the Chinese government became engaged in advance financial planning for the first time. Wang also instituted a government operation that would buy grain at lower prices, store it in government granaries, and then transport it to markets to sell when supplies were short. Agriculture;China The intent was to stabilize the market price for grain for commoners and to gain profit for the government. He further created the “green shoots” program, under which the government would extend loans to farmers for seeds and expenses during planting, to be repaid after the next harvest. Although the government’s interest rate of 2 percent per month sounds high, it was a lower rate on much easier terms than those offered by private money lenders.

In his reforms pertaining to officials, Wang proposed to increase salaries to raise morale and to reduce the temptation to accept bribes and also to change the examination Examinations, Chinese civil service;reform of system by which government officials were chosen. Wang’s plan for the examination was to incorporate more questions on policy and practical problems and put less emphasis on esoteric learning. Previously, those taking the exam were judged by how well they wrote poems in two different styles. Wang believed in applying Confucian ideas, which had long been favored by the imperial system, to practical situations, and the new exam reflected that view.

To reduce the standing military force and to make that force more effective, Wang proposed using more local militias made up of conscripts. These troops would train for short periods each year and could be called up as needed. The intent was to have more troops available without the expense of maintaining a large standing army. Military;China

These reforms drew criticism from Song officials. Some attacks were personal: One official wrote a petition calling for Wang’s impeachment in 1069, clearly before the reforms would have had an effect. The petition was ignored. More serious criticism came from officials such as Sima Guang, who complained that Wang’s reforms put too much emphasis on government profit to the detriment of the people. The “green shoots” program, for example, was short-circuited by official corruption. What had been a program based on need became mandatory and a burden to farmers who were forced to borrow whether or not they needed the loans. The criticism grew until Wang was forced to resign in 1074. However, in 1075, the emperor, who felt he could not continue the reforms without Wang, recalled him. Despite opposition from many imperial officials, the reform edicts stayed in effect until the death of Shenzong in 1085.

The emperor Zhezong Zhezong (Song emperor, r. 1086-1101) , under the control of the empress dowager Xuan Ren Xuan Ren and with the support of his prime minister Sima Guang, repealed the reforms and exiled Wang Anshi’s supporters. However, on the death of Xuan Ren in 1093, the same emperor asserted his authority by recalling many of these officials and reinstituting many of the reforms. This last phase of the reforms ended when the Song were forced to relocate to the south in 1127.

Most Song officials, including Sima Guang Sima Guang , agreed on the need for reforms, but those instituted by Wang were controversial. Wang’s reforms were part of a shift in power from the large landholders in the north of China to the middle-sized landholders of the increasingly prosperous south. Wang was born in what is now the southern province of Jiangxi to a family that in three generations produced eight jinshi holders (successful candidates who passed the highest level civil service examinations and became eligible for government positions). Part of the opposition to changes to the examination questions came from northern officials who objected that changes in the system would give Wang control over who became officials.

Wang’s reforms also touched off philosophical debates within the Confucian community. According to the Confucian ideal, the emperor controls China by his “shining virtue,” not by laws, punishment, or statecraft. The point of Confucian teaching and scholarship is to train men in virtue so that they can advise and help polish the virtue of the ruler. Wang’s attention to worldly matters such as finance caused many Confucians to feel that he was sacrificing a key Confucian tenet to less important matters and government greed.


Shortly after the political career of Wang Anshi, Chinese historians, the most noted being the prime minister and famous Song historian Sima Guang, tended to take a negative view of his reforms. Wang was seen as sincere but misguided. Such early views also tended to focus on his perceived stubbornness and his tendency to listen only to his supporters.

Later historians have focused on questions such as whether the reforms were practical and whether they could have succeeded if given more time. Wang’s initial period of reform lasted only sixteen years—probably not enough time to overcome the corruption that had become ingrained in the imperial system. Proper oversight of officials in what had become a complicated and far-flung system had waned during the earlier period of disunion. As a result, many of Wang’s efforts such as the “green shoots” program were blunted by inefficient and corrupt local officials.

Other historians have asked whether the reforms can be considered modern in intent and in focus. The reforms do, after all, address what are seen as modern problems such as increasing state revenue, intervening in commerce, and controlling and maintaining a growing bureaucracy. Wang’s aims may have overestimated the ability of any government at the time to realize them. Historians have also debated whether Wang’s reforms were too radical for his times. Wang believed his ideas were workable and couched all of his proposals in terms taken from philosophers such as Mencius and Confucius. Many of his programs, such as the program in which the government would buy grain, transport it, and sell it in areas of shortage, were not actually new but were already in effect in other forms.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Greg. “To Change China: A Tale of Three Reformers.” Asia Pacific: Perspectives 1 (May, 2001): 1-18. An electronic journal article that compares the reform efforts of Wang Mang in the Han Dynasty, Wang Anshi in the Song Dynasty, and Zhang Juzheng in the Ming Dynasty. It contains an interesting perspective on conditions, motives, and results.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Huang, Ray. China: A Macro History. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1988. A general history. Huang describes the reform period very well and discusses the historical debates.
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    xlink:type="simple">Liu, James T. C. Reform in Sung China: Wang An-shih (1021-1086) and His New Policies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. Liu provides a good summary of Wang Anshi’s career and policies, describing his reforms as innovation and noting the political problems they caused for Wang.
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    xlink:type="simple">Meskill, John, ed. Wang An-shih: Practical Reformer? Boston: D. C. Heath, 1963. A collection of articles that includes debates about the reforms and translations of documents from the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Contains a chapter on the Song and Yuan Dynasties with a section on Wang Anshi’s reforms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williamson, H. R. Wang An-shih: A Chinese Statesman and Educationalist of the Sung Dynasty. 2 vols. London: Arthur Probsthain, 1935. Still the most comprehensive source. Williamson bases his work squarely on documents of the period and includes a full translation of the “Ten Thousand Word Memorial.”

Categories: History