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Wang Mang — Emperor of A Possible Time Traveler and Radical Reformist

Wang Mang (46 BC — 23AD), courtesy name Jujun, was one of the most controversial emperors in Chinese history. 

Through his talent and a decent reputation, and with support from a large number of nobles, officials, and civilians, Wang Mang obtained power as a regent and then ended the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 9 AD) and established a new empire, the Xin Dynasty (9 AD — 23 AD). 

Within 15 years of his reign, however, he displeased the ruling class and civilians because of his radical reforms that jeopardized their interests.

As an emperor who valued the lives of his sons and slaves equally and showed no interest in luxury lifestyle or money, Wang Mang's obtaining the throne was more for his idealistic and political ambitions.

After several attempts, Emperor Wang Mang failed, caused nationwide rebellions, and was assassinated tragically. Royals collected his skull for the next two centuries until it was burnt out in an accident. 

Emperor Wang Mang the Usurper of the Han Dynasty

A Frugal Noble with a Reputation for Benevolence

Wang Mang was a cousin of Emperor Liu Ao, which meant that he came from the most potent clan at that time, the house of the current empress dowager.

Wang Mang’s father and big brother passed away when he was little, so he was raised by his influential uncles.

As a talented young man from the strongest clan, Wang Mang was brilliant, modest, kind, and frugal; meanwhile, he spent most of his money helping people in poverty. 

Gold Ingot Unearthed From Mausoleum of Marquis Haihun (Haihunhou), A Grandson of Emperor Wudi of Han

Gold Ingot Unearthed From Mausoleum of Marquis of Haihun (Haihunhou) of Han Dynasty — Jiangxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Gradually, his gracious reputation and talent earned him the support of many officials and the respect of civilians.


In addition to the noble title that his father left him, Wang Mang became more and more influential in politics. 

After Emperor Liu Ao departed without a son, his nephew inherited the throne and passed away seven years later. 

Since then, Wang Mang and his clan became even more powerful and supported two kid emperors in a row. 

Unearthed General's Signet of the Western Han Dynasty

Unearthed General's Signet of the Western Han Dynasty — Three Gorges Museum of Chongqing (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Reputable Regent Wang Mang

During that period, Wang Mang was quite a great regent that gained almost everyone’s respect.

He suggested that the empress dowager command all the aristocrats to live a frugal life.


He collected a great deal of money to give to people suffering from natural disasters or poverty.

Besides, he led many aristocrats to donate lands and built tens of thousands of free houses for civilians who lost their homes in natural disasters. 

He also highly respected intellectuals and had never connived crimes of his clan. 

Green Glaze Pottery Pigsty of the Early Han Dynasty

Green Glaze Pottery Pigsty of the Early Han Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

When the emperor rewarded Wang Mang, he only accepted titles but refused all the land and money.

Later, many scholars and scientists were summoned to the capital city to teach and disseminate their knowledge, and each was rewarded with a fine, free house.

Those caring and kind policies that Regent Wang Mang had implemented brought him increased support and respect dramatically from both the ruling class and the civilians. 

Bronze Artifact with Inlaying Gold and Silver that used to Press Sitting Mat

Bronze Artifact of Han with Inlaying Gold and Silver that used to Press Sitting Mat — Hebei Museum  (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Usurping the Throne and Establishing A New Dynasty

Soon, the first emperor that Wang Mang supported passed away, and then Wang Mang enthroned a 2-year-old child as the crown prince while he became the regent emperor.

This made the royal Liu clan quite furious, and they started to fight.

Wang Mang defeated all the forces of the House of Liu that had fought against him.


Then, he announced himself as emperor and established a new Dynasty named Xin, with support from many officials and civilians.  

Mirror of the Han Dynasty with Inscriptions, Praising Wang Mang's Enthronement and His Replacement of the Former Royal Liu Clan

Mirror of the Han Dynasty with Inscriptions, Praising Wang Mang's Enthronement and His Replacement of the Former Royal Liu Clan — Fuyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Then Emperor Wang Mang implemented a series of reform policies, frequently considered radical in the history of China.

He was sometimes considered a time traveler because many of his policies resembled those utilized in recent decades in China.

It felt like a Chinese born in the 1980s and then traveled to the Han Dynasty and applied all the policies from the era in which he lived.

Besides, he loved scientific experiments and inventions. Wang Mang even performed a post-mortem examination to persuade people to stop believing in superstitions.

Bronze Calipers of the Xin Dynasty

Bronze Calipers of the Xin Dynasty — Yangzhou Museum

"Time Traveler" Wang Mang and His Radical Policies

  • Wang Mang claimed all the farmland belonging to the state and did not allow land trading. 

  • Everyone could be assigned farmland for free based on the number of family members; any cultivation activities should be authorized by the government.

  • Slavery was abolished, and the trading of slaves was illegal. 

  • More low-rental houses were built for impoverished civilians, and people could get loans from the government with little or no interest.

  • Alcohol, salt, and iron were managed by the state; the government would sometimes manage and supervise the market when necessary so that business people could not manipulate the market.

  • Tax and officers' income should fluctuate based on national revenue.

Printing Plate of An Imperial Edict of Wang Mang's Xin Dynasty

Printing Plate of An Imperial Edict of the Xin Dynasty (in Regard to the Implementation of A New Measurement System) — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Wang Mang also forced everyone to work. People who didn't work or couldn't pay taxes had to participate in jobs that the government assigned.

  • Names of officials, many cities, and buildings were changed as well. 

  • Besides, he initiated many wars against neighboring regimes and successfully expanded his realm.

  • He also reformed the currency system four times, but the results were not as good as he had expected.

On the contrary, those frequent changes negatively influenced people's stable lives and caused chaos.

Parts of Currencies that Wang Mang Had Issued in His Xin Dynasty

Parts of Currencies that Wang Mang Had Issued in His Xin Dynasty — Shanghai Museum

An Impartial Judicial Executor Who Executed His Sons

Wang Mang believed that human lives were equally honorable and important.

This was not just a slogan used to impress people or show justice but a principle he implemented.

His second son killed a slave purchased long ago, so Wang Mang forced him to commit suicide for this crime after it was found out.


Two of his other sons were also forced to death after they sinned. 

Unearthed Painted Ivory Ruler of the Eastern Han Dynasty

Painted Ivory Ruler of Han Dynasty — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Many people benefited from Emperor Wang Mang's new policies; however, the prominence didn't last very long.

Besides Wang Mang's usurping of the throne displeasing the royal House of Liu, his reform offended nearly the aristocratic landlord class. 


Moreover, wars and many natural disasters made more civilians suffer.

Consequently, many of those who supported him to be the emperor gradually turned against him after Wang Mang and his reform jeopardized their interests.

Besides, plenty of changes within a limited time (his new dynasty had lasted only for 15 years) and poor administration skills also led to the final failure.  

Soon, many uprising armies appeared in Wang Mang's late years. 

Pottery Wu Bao (A Type of Private Self Defensive Building) of the Chaotic Period Under Wang Mang's Reign

Pottery Wu Bao (A Type of Private Self Defensive Building) of the Chaotic Period Under Wang Mang's Reign — National Museum of China

The Failure of Emperor Wang Mang and His Cruel Demise

After all of his followers were sacrificed in battles, Wang Mang was assassinated in chaotic fights.


His body was cut into several pieces after his death, and his skull was preserved in the royal for the next 200 years.

Soon, Liu Xiu, an intelligent and brave person from the former royal Liu Clan, re-established the Han Dynasty.

Emperor Wang Mang had long been criticized and despised in the history of China for his radical reforms and the way he got the throne. 

He was pretty intelligent and frugal throughout his life; as a noble-born from a powerful and wealthy clan, he had rarely lived like a rich person.

Also, he was an outstanding politician and a sly opportunist obsessed with power.

Filigree Gold Dragon of the Eastern Han Dynasty Decorated with Gems

Filigree Gold Dragon of the Han Dynasty Decorated with Gems — Dingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

After Wang Mang obtained the throne and achieved centralized power, he kept working diligently and barely enjoyed life.


All he had done were try to make a change, take care of the disadvantaged groups, and decrease the gap between the rich and poor.

Objectively speaking, his reform policies were not based on reality, especially while so many changes were squeezed into such a limited period; also, he scarcely used the right people to help him realize his political ambition.

Besides, the constant natural disasters, civilians’ miserable living standards, and rebellions from the former royal clan Liu and other forces made his failure not entirely surprising. 

However, Emperor Wang Mang was still an aspiring, brave, controversial reformist in the history of China, though he failed, and an ambitious idealist with a big dream. 

Ritual Jade Ware (Yu Die) that Wang Mang Planned to Use in His Fengshan Ceremony in Mount Tai

Ritual Jade Ware (Yu Die) that Wang Mang Planned to Use in His Fengshan Ceremony (the Most Honorable Rite to Offer Sacrifices to the Heaven) in Mount Tai — National Museum of China
Emperor Wang Mang Intended to Inform His Reign's Legality and Blessing from the Heaven, through A Grand Fengshan Ceremony, Like Qin Shi Huang and Emperor Liu Che did Before. However, Wang Mang Never Made it.

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