Wang Mang’s Rise to Power Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Wang Mang, who rose to power through his aunt, the dowager empress Wang, declared himself emperor of the Xin Dynasty, dividing the Han dynasty in two.

Summary of Event

Wang Mang’s rise to power was due to marriage politics. Up to the mid-first century b.c.e., the Wang clan had produced only minor officials who served in the local government of the Western Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-23 c.e.). The clan began its rise to national prominence after Wang Cheng-chun became a concubine of a future emperor, Yuandi (Yuan-ti, r. 49-33 b.c.e.); her longevity, extraordinary for that time, contributed to their success. She was elevated to empress in 51 b.c.e. after the birth of a son, who became emperor as Chengdi (Ch’eng-ti, r. 33-7 b.c.e.). Because Chengdi was only eighteen years old when he came to the throne, his mother, now Dowager Empress Wang, asserted power over him. She entrusted the reins of government to three of her brothers, and after their passing, to her nephew Wang Mang in 16 b.c.e. Wang Mang Wang Cheng-chun

The rise of the Wang clan to dominate the government and of Wang Mang, who eventually usurped the throne and established a new dynasty, was largely because of the application of the Chinese concept of filial piety in government. A filial Chinese owes lifelong obedience to his parents. However, because an emperor usually ascends the throne after the death of his father, he can demonstrate his devotion and obedience only to his mother. If he ignores filial piety, he presents a bad example for his people and, therefore, cannot expect them to honor and obey him. Thus, ambitious dowager empresses (mothers or grandmothers of emperors) throughout the Han Dynasty were able to dominate their sons and grandsons and grant great power to male members of their families. The rise of the Wang family was a prime example of this.

Wang Mang’s father had died when he was young, but he had been educated by his uncle. The longevity of his aunt, the dowager empress Wang, and a succession of young emperors on the throne, some chosen because their youth would ensure long regencies under the Wang family, culminated in power passing to Wang Mang. When his handpicked child-emperor and son-in-law Pingdi (P’ing-ti, who had been chosen to succeed the childless Chengdi) died in 6 c.e., Wang picked a two-year-old boy from the Liu clan to succeed, but instead of naming him emperor, he gave him the title of “young prince” and gave himself the title of “acting emperor.” Protests by members of the Liu clan were crushed. Wang then launched a campaign to orchestrate his ascension to the throne, citing favorable omens and portents to indicate that heaven had ended its mandate to the Liu clan and given it to the worthy Wang Mang. In 9 c.e., Wang Mang declared the Han Dynasty ended and ascended the throne as emperor of the Xin (Hsin), meaning “new,” dynasty.

Wang Mang ruled as the only emperor of the Xin Dynasty between 9 and 23 c.e. He attempted many changes during this period; most failed. Natural disasters, most notably the Yellow River’s two changes of course during six years of his reign, caused great distress and loss of life, culminating in popular rebellion, his death, and, after a period of civil wars, the restoration of the Han Dynasty. As a result, historians did not recognize the Xin as a legal dynasty, and Wang Mang was labeled a villainous usurper.

Wang Mang began his reign with many reforms, which he claimed were a return to the institutions of the golden age of the early Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 1066-256 b.c.e.) and the true teachings of Confucius. In particular, he likened himself to the revered duke of Zhou (Chou), despite the fact that whereas the duke had acted as regent for his nephew and retired when the younger man reached maturity, Wang had deposed the young prince in whose name he had ruled and placed himself on the throne. Wang Mang degraded members of the imperial Liu clan to commoner status and elevated his family members and supporters to noble ranks. He confiscated private land holdings; nationalized forests and mines and the salt, liquor, and iron industries; and enacted laws to redistribute land to all adult males. He treated merchants harshly, debased the currency, issued new coins, and increased taxes. He also forbade the buying and selling of privately owned slaves.

Although some of his reforms were of marginal importance or merely ineffective, the overall results of Wang Mang’s changes were disastrous. For example, the number of privately owned slaves was small during the Han Dynasty, and the law that forbade the buying and selling of slaves did not affect many people. The laws that confiscated private estates and distributed the land to small farmers were not enforceable and alienated the landowners whom Wang Mang tried to bring under his control. His debasement of the currency, which forced the rich to turn in their gold to the treasury in exchange for copper coins, enriched the treasury but alienated the upper classes, and his several changes of the coinage system confused the population and eroded confidence in the government. In foreign policy, however, he was fairly successful; he mobilized a large army on the frontier but was able to avoid war with the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu).

In the end, it was nature that defeated Wang Mang. Drought and unusually bad weather resulted in poor harvests in northern China and caused serious suffering, even in the capital city Changan (now Xi’an). A series of breaks in the dikes of the Yellow River culminated in disastrous floods, followed by the mighty river changing its course, no longer entering the sea from the northern but rather the southern tip of the Shandong (Shantung) Peninsula, and trapping countless people between its two branches. No human effort could have prevented the disaster that followed: Many people were drowned or died of other causes, and many became refugees. Desperate people became bandits and rebels.

In 18 c.e., a peasant rebellion called the Red Eyebrows began. Its members painted their eyebrows red to distinguish themselves from government troops. Red was also the color of the Han Dynasty, but it is not clear whether loyalty to the Han motivated these rebels to paint their eyebrows red. Confucianism was the official state doctrine of the Han and also of Wang’s regime. One Confucian tenet proclaimed: “Heaven sees as the people see; Heaven hears as the people hear.” To the people of the time, what could have been a clearer declaration of Heaven’s disapproval than the widespread natural disasters? Therefore, popular uprisings against the Xin emperor seemed justified.

Wang Mang’s army was unable to suppress the Red Eyebrows, who moved westward from present-day Shandong Province to modern Henan (Honan) Province. At a prosperous city called Nanyang, they joined up with Liu Xiu (Liu Hsiu), the eighth-generation descendant of Liu Bang (Liu P’ang), founder of the Han Dynasty, and anti-Wang Mang gentry forces. Wang was killed in 23 c.e., ending the Xin Dynasty. Civil wars continued for two more years before a member of the Liu clan reinstated the Han Dynasty.

Significance

Because of Wang Mang’s usurpation, the Han Dynasty was divided into two parts: The Western, or Former, Han, with its capital at Changan, ruled between 206 b.c.e. and 9 c.e. (sometimes this is given as 206 b.c.e.-23 c.e., incorporating the Xin Dynasty), followed by the Eastern, or Later, Han, with its capital at Luoyang (Lo-yang), which lasted from 25 to 220 c.e.

Information about Wang Mang derives from the official history of the Han Dynasty written by a famous father-son-daughter team of historians: The father was named Ban Gu (Pan Ku), the son Ban Biao (Pan Piao), and the daughter Ban Zhao (Pan Chao). They wrote a multivolume work titled the Han Shu (also known as Qian Han Shu, completed first century c.e.; The History of the Former Han Dynasty, 1938-1955). The section dealing with Wang Mang vilified him as a manipulative, opportunistic, and unprincipled man. Most subsequent historians have followed this assessment of Wang Mang. The short-lived Xin Dynasty was not recognized as a legitimate dynasty by traditional Chinese historians.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ch’u, T’ung-tsu. Han Social Structure. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967. Scholarly and readable work, with documents. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hinsch, Bret. Women in Early Imperial China. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002. This is the first book to focus solely on Chinese women of the ancient world, mainly during the Han Dynasty. Glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jagchid, Sechin, and Van Jay Symons. Peace, War, and Trade Along the Great Wall: Nomadic-Chinese Interactions Through Two Millennia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. An overview of Chinese-nomadic relations, with large sections devoted to the Han Dynasty. Glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loewe, Michael. Crisis and Conflict in Han China, 104 b.c. to a.d. 9. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1974. An account of court intrigues and policy conflicts in the Han court up to the rise of Wang Mang. Includes reasons for his rise. Glossary of Chinese and Japanese names and terms. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pizzoli-t’Serstevens, Michele. The Han Dynasty. New York: Rizzoli, 1982. Lavishly illustrated, with good maps and well-presented text. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Twitchett, Denis, and John K. Fairbank, eds. The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 b.c.-a.d. 220. Vol. 1 in The Cambridge History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. The definitive history of the Qin and Han Dynasties. Glossary, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wang, Zhongshu. Han Civilization. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. Richly illustrated account with archaeological information. Bibliography and index.
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