Wang Mang — A Possible Time-traveller and A Radical Reformist in the History of China 

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

Through his talent and decent reputations, and with supports from a large number of 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 both 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, who showed no interest in luxury lifestyle nor money, Wang Mang's obtaining of the throne was more for his idealistic, and political ambitions.   

After a series of attempts, Emperor Wang Mang failed, caused nationwide chaos, and was assassinated tragically. His skull had been collected in royals for the next two centuries until it was burnt out in an accident. 

Emperor Wang Mang the Usurper of the Han Dynasty

Wang Mang as A Frugal Noble of Benevolence Reputation  

Wang Mang was a cousin of Emperor Liu Ao, which meant that he came from the most powerful 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 powerful uncles.  

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

Gradually, his gracious reputation and his talent earned him the support of many officials, as well as respect from 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 had supported two kid emperors in a row. 

Unearthed Chop of the Western Han Dynasty

Unearthed Chop 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 the empress dowager to command all the aristocrats to live a frugal life, then he collected a great deal of money, which was given to people that were suffering from natural disasters or poverty.

Besides, he led many aristocrats to donate many 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. 

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

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

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

Usurping the Throne and Establishing A New Dynasty 

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

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

Wang Mang defeated all the forces of the Liu Clan that had fought against him, then he announced himself as emperor, and established a new Dynasty named Xin, with support from large numbers of officials and civilians.

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

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

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

Besides, he loved the scientific experiments and inventions. Wang  Mang even performed a post mortem examination himself, 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 the trading of land. 

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

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

  • More low-rental houses were built for poverty 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 businessmen could not manipulate the market.

  • Tax and officers’ income fluctuated, 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 tax had to participate in jobs whatever the government assigned.

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

  • Besides, he initiated many wars to neighbor 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 a series of 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 that Executed His Sons

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

This was not just a slogan that used to impress people or show his justice, it was a principle that he implemented.

His second son killed a slave that was purchased a long time ago, so Wang Mang forced him to commit suicide for this crime. Two of his other sons were forced to death as well after they sinned. 

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

Besides Wang Mang’s usurping of the throne displeased the royal Liu clan, his reform offended nearly the entire aristocrat landlord class; soon, wars and many natural disasters made more civilians suffering.

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

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

Failure of Emperor Wang Mang and His Cruel Ending

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 indeed quite a smart and knowledgeable person, and was frugal in his entire life; as a noble-born into a powerful and wealthy clan, he barely lived like a rich person.

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

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.

After Wang Mang obtained the throne and achieved centralized power, he kept working diligently and had barely enjoyed life. All the things that he had done were trying to make a change, to take care of the disadvantaged groups, and to 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 barely 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 quite surprising. 

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