Wang Mang’s fame derived from his failed attempt to establish a dynasty called Xin (Hsin), meaning “new,” between 9 and 23 c.e. when the Han dynasty divided into two parts, the Western, or Former, Han (202 b.c.e.–9 c.e.) and the Eastern, or Later, Han (25–220 c.e.). His rise reflected the great power the families of imperial consorts of Han rulers often enjoyed, leading to his usurpation of the Han throne.
The Wang family was gentry; some of its male members served in the civil service, but its rise to power was due to the selection of one of its daughters. Wang Chengjun (Wang Cheng-chun) was sent to the harem of the future emperor Yuandi (Yuan-ti) and bore him a son in 51 b.c.e., for which she was made empress. When her husband died in 33 b.c.e. and was succeeded by her 18year-old son, she gained the powerful position of empress dowager. Her longevity and the youth and short life span of her son and his successors enabled her to dominate the Han government and to appoint her family members to the most important offices of the land. After the death of all her brothers the now Grand Empress Dowager Wang appointed her nephew Wang Mang regent, then acting emperor. Finally he proclaimed himself emperor of a new dynasty called Xin (Hsin) in 9 c.e., crushing revolts by loyalists of the Han dynasty.
As emperor, Wang Mang made drastic changes to the government, rationalizing his changes on his interpretations of Confucian teachings. He thus reinstituted feudalism, made many offices hereditary, nationalized land, changed the monetary system, and made laws that discriminated against the merchants. Although many of his changes were unenforceable and were soon rescinded, they nevertheless provoked popular discontent. His attempts to change the relationship with the nomadic Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) and Central Asian states produced unrest along the borders. Finally, even nature turned against his regime: droughts in the capital region, breaks of the Yellow River dikes, extensive flooding due to a change of the course of the Yellow River, and other natural disasters resulted in famine and revolts. The most serious peasant revolt was called the Red Eyebrow Rebellion. Several princes of the imperial Liu clan rose to lead the rebel forces in 22 c.e., and Wang Mang was killed the following year. Two more years of civil war ended in the restoration of the Han dynasty in 25 c.e. Although some of his reforms were well intentioned, Wang Mang is remembered in history as a usurper, and Chinese historians do not recognize his brief Xin dynasty as legitimate.
- Sargent, Clyde B. Wang Mang: A Translation of the Official Account of His Rise to Power Given in the History of the Former Han Dynasty. Shanghai, China: Graphic Art Book, 1947;
- Twitchett, Denis, and Michael Loewe, eds. The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires, 221 B.C.–A.D. 220. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
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