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Was Wang Mang a visionary, or a murderous villain – or both? (Wang Mang art italkcafe.com, The Analects of Confucius; Deriv)

The Emperor is Dead, Let Confucianism and Chaos Reign! The Rise and Fall of Wang Mang and the Xin Dynasty


Some saw Wang Mang as an evil usurper – others a selfless visionary. Either way, an emperor lay dead, and a learned Confucian scholar sought to bring peace and harmony, but the dynasty would descend into chaos and bloodshed. This was the rise and fall of Wang Mang and the Xin Dynasty; a legacy that lasted only one man’s lifetime.

Initially, Wang Mang was a Han official, though he rose to become regent, and eventually seized the throne for himself. Wang Mang is recorded to have been a Confucian scholar , and attempted to implement the teachings of Confucius during his reign. Instead of creating a harmonious society, however, Wang Mang’s efforts ended in chaos, resulting in rebellions that brought his reign, and the Xin Dynasty, abruptly to an end.

Eschewing the Luxuries of a Noble

Wang Mang was born in 45 BC to a prominent family. His father, Wang Man, was the younger brother of the Empress Wang Zheng Jun, who became an empress dowager after the death of her husband, the Emperor Yuan. Although Wang Mang belonged to a distinguished family, he is recorded to have not indulged in a luxurious lifestyle, preferring to pursue Confucian ideals instead. For instance, he lived a simple life, and wore the clothes of a Confucian scholar, instead of those which the nobles were entitled to wear.

A portrait of Confucius (Public Domain)

A portrait of Confucius ( Public Domain )

Wang Mang also respected his elders, as seen in his care for his uncle, Wang Feng, during his illness. As Wang Feng was the commander of the armed forces, he was an influential man. Touched by Wang Mang’s devotion, the uncle, before he died, requested the emperor and empress to look after his nephew.

Humble Beginnings

Thanks to his uncle, Wang Mang was appointed as an imperial attendant, and later promoted as a sub-commander of the imperial guard. Wang Mang was a reputable man even before his appointment as an official, and continued to uphold this reputation even as he rose through the ranks of the imperial court. It has been often asserted that the higher Wang Mang rose in the bureaucracy, the more humble he became, which earned him the praise of everyone who knew him.

Animalistic guardian spirits of day and night wearing Chinese robes, Han dynasty paintings on ceramic tile. (Public Domain)

Animalistic guardian spirits of day and night wearing Chinese robes, Han dynasty paintings on ceramic tile. ( Public Domain )

After the death of Emperor Yuan, the Wang clan continued to prosper, as the new emperor, Emperor Cheng, was the son of Empress Dowager Wang. When Emperor Cheng died, however, he was succeeded by his half-nephew, the Emperor Ai. The Wang clan began to lose their steady influence, though with the death of Emperor Ai, the Empress Dowager Wang seized the opportunity to regain lost power.

The emperor is widely believed to have had a homosexual relationship with a junior official by the name of Dong Xian. Being the lover of the emperor, Dong Xian rose quickly in the imperial bureaucracy. When the Emperor Ai was on his deathbed, he is said to have ordered the throne to be passed to his lover. This, of course, was ignored by his ministers, and Empress Dowager Wang seized the moment to bring her clan back to power.

Politics and Evil Plotting

By this time, Wang Mang had retired from court politics. Presently, he was summoned by his aunt to serve as regent to the Emperor Ping, who was only 13 years old. As regent, Wang Mang consolidated his power, getting rid of potential rivals, and placing those loyal to him in places of power. Once his position was secured, Wang Mang poisoned the boy-emperor, and seized the throne for himself, establishing the Xin Dynasty.

Territory Map of Xin Dynasty (8 - 23 AD). (SS/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Territory Map of Xin Dynasty (8 - 23 AD). (SS/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )

As emperor, Wang Mang tried to institute reforms that conformed to his Confucian ideals and the harmonious society he saw in the classics. These reforms, however, resulted in chaos, rather than the legendary golden age he longed for. For instance, one of his reforms attempted to distribute land more evenly; an unpopular idea among large landowners. He also reformed the existing tax policies, though corrupt officials found ways to go round them. He is also said to have donated enormous sums of money to assist the poor.

Bronze knife coin inlaid with gold, Wang Mang period, issued AD 7 (Public Domain)

Bronze knife coin inlaid with gold, Wang Mang period, issued AD 7 ( Public Domain )

Chaos and Destruction

For one reason or another, Wang Mang was blind to the damages his reforms were causing to the people. By the time he found out, it was too late. Rebellions broke out, which attracted numerous people who were disgruntled with Wang Mang’s reign. The rebels grew so strong that on the 4th of October, AD 23, they succeeded in breaching the walls of the imperial capital. They reached Wang Mang’s palace on the same day, and began to besiege it. Wang Mang and his loyal supporters fled on the 6th of October, and made their last stand at a place called Chien t’ai, ‘Terrace Bathed by Water’.

Yuanyang rice terrace, Laohuzhui. Representative image. (chensiyuan/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Yuanyang rice terrace, Laohuzhui. Representative image. (chensiyuan/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Attempting to bring magical forces to his defence, Mang Wang had been not eating, and was exhausted.  Wearing the purple garments of office and imperial seals, he rode by chariot to the Terrace Bathed by Water, joining his attendants and suporters, where they made their last stand. After their supply of arrows ran out, they fought hand-to-hand with swords, but they were overwhelmed, and Wang Mang’s head was cut off.

With Wang Mang’s death, the Xin Dynasty came to an bloody end. The Han Dynasty was thus revived, and became known as the Eastern or Later Han Dynasty.

A spade-shaped bronze coin issued during Wang Mang's (r. 9–23 AD) reign (Prof. Gary Lee Todd/GFDL)

A spade-shaped bronze coin issued during Wang Mang's (r. 9–23 AD) reign (Prof. Gary Lee Todd/ GFDL)

Traditionally, Wang Mang has been regarded as a villainous usurper. It may be noted that this view was propagated by the revived Han Dynasty. Some modern scholars, however, believe that Wang Mang was a visionary and selfless social reformer, considering the nature of the changes he had sought to achieve.


Top Image: Was Wang Mang a visionary, or a murderous villain – or both? ( Wang Mang art italkcafe.com, The  Analects of Confucius; Deriv)

By Wu Mingren


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Available at: http://totallyhistory.com/wang-mang/

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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