The Fate of Wang Mang: Unfettered Power, the Road to Destruction

Wang Mang was always respectful and thrifty in his youth, and treated others with humility. Meanwhile, his cousins were extravagant and degenerate, and lost themselves in decadence. As the emperor’s powerful relatives, the Wang clan needed someone who could lead the clan keep prosperous. Then Wang Mang became the widely accepted successor to the power of the clan. As he was continually promoted, he became even humbler. Wang Mang distributed his possessions to others, and his house was very simple. He appointed virtuous men as officials, and gave what he was rewarded with to his subordinates. He restrained himself all the time, and became thriftier. Wang Mang tried to make his family members conform to his demands. His wife always wore simple clothes. His son had to kill himself after killing a servant. Wang Mang gained a great prestige. After Han Ai-Emperor and his mother, who hated the Wang clan, removed Wang Mang from the imperial court, many officials pleaded for his return.

Wang Mang returned to the imperial court after Han Ai-Emperor died and Han Ping-Emperor ascended the throne. He promoted his supporters, and cruelly purged his opponents. Zhao Feiyan, who was famed for her beauty and dance, chose a wrong side after her husband died. Now she had to kill herself. Wang Mang formed an excellent team of advisers. He always refused the positions that he yearned for, but his followers would try their best to recommend him in the imperial court.

Wang Zhengjun was the aunt of Wang Mang and the most powerful woman in the late period of the Western Han Dynasty. She was the wife of Han Yuan-Emperor and the mother of Han Cheng-Emperor. Now it was the reign of the fourth emperor that she was passing through. She had two goals in her mind, keeping her clan powerful and keeping the dynasty glorious. When she heard that Wang Mang only ate vegetarian food after natural disasters happened, she told Wang Mang to eat meat and keep health for the country. Wang Mang bribed foreign chiefs and made them pay a great homage to the dynasty. Wang Zhengjun was intoxicated with the glorious scenes. She believed that her nephew would make the empire great again.

The imperial court was trying to find a suitable woman for being the wife of Han Ping-Emerpor. Wang Mang hoped his daughter to be the empress. He told the imperial court that his daughter should not be one of candidates. However, every day there were more than a thousand people, including ministers, officals, students and common people, who stayed in front of the imperial palace and showed their support to the daughter of Wang Mang. Then the daughter of Wang Mang became the wife of the emperor. After getting a lot of gifts from the emperor, Wang Mang gave them to his relatives who were poor.

Wang Mang tried to control the young emperor, and the emperor was separated from his mother and relatives. One of Wang Mang’s sons felt sympathy with the emperor. After failture to persuade his father, he used some fake supernatural things to threaten his father. Wang Mang knew the truth soon, and put his son in prison. His son killed himself. The wife of his son was killed after she bore a child. Wang Mang took advantage of the case, and killed a large number of people including the maternal relatives of the emperor and dissidents over the country. The purge made the entire country be in shock.

The imperial court decided to give the farmland of a region to Wang Mang, but Wang Mang refused to accept it. Throughout the empire, 487,572 people submitted written statements to the imperial court for persuading Wang Mang to accept the farmland. Princes, vassals and nobles who visited the imperial court appealed for raising the reward to Wang Mang. A statement submitted by 902 people including ministers, princes, scholars and vassals compared Wang Mang to ancient sages. Then the imperial court granted “Nine Awards”, the top honour for a minister, to Wang Mang.

The imperial court sent eight inspectors to make a tour of the country. The eight men tried their best to glorify how harmonious and prosperous the country now was under the leadership of Wang Mang. They wrote many songs of praise, and told the imperial court that the songs were the works of the common people for showing their gratitude.

Han Ping-Emperor died at the age of 14. Wang Mang chose a baby from the royal clan as the heir to the throne. Someone fabricated a supernatural prophecy and said that Heaven wanted Wang Mang to be an emperor. Ministers told the message to Wang Zhengjun. Wang Zhengjun doubted it, but she had to let Wang Mang act as regent. Later, Wang Mang was called “acting emperor”.

A lot of people now became aware that Wang Mang was a threat to the dynasty which was founded by Liu Bang, and launched uprisings. Some of them were from the royal clan, and some of them regarded themselves as loyal people of the dynasty. All of them were ruthlessly eliminated. From victory to victory, Wang Mang believed that he was supported by Heaven. His followers made a lot of supernatural prophecies. A man named Ai Zhang put a drawing and a statement into a bronze box, and gave the box to the imperial court. No one had the courage to doubt it. Wang Mang accepted the box and decided to ascend the throne.

Since Qin First-Emperor who was the first emperor of China made an imperial jade seal, the seal had been inherited for more than two hundred years. It represented the legitimacy of the throne. At this time, the seal was kept by Wang Zhengjun, who regarded herself as the last defender of the dynasty. Wang Zhengjun refused to give the seal to Wang Mang. Wang Mang ordered his coursin Wang Shun, who was trusted by Wang Zhengjun, to take the seal. Wang Zhengjun scolded Wang Shun, but she eventually had to compromise. She threw the seal on the ground. It was said that one of the seal’s corners had been lost since then.

Wang Mang named his dynasty “Xin” which means new. He believed that Heaven supported him to change the old dynasty and create a new world. Wang Mang was so self-confident that he believed that he was the representative of the common people’s interests. In his edicts, he always mentioned people.

Under his economic policy, farmers and businessmen lost their property, money became valueless, and people cried in streets. From princes, ministers to ordinary people, countless people went broke and were arrested because they violated some edicts.

Under his foreign policy, his arrogance offended all neighbours. A large number of troops were sent to be stationed on the northern border as a deterrent to the Huns. Supplies for troops became a heavy burden to the common people.

In some eastern regions, people launched uprisings against local officials. Wang Mang sent an emissary to soothe rebels. When the emissary got back, he said to Wang Mang, “Rebels went home, but later they got together again. I asked them why they did so. They all told me that, laws and bans were so complicated and harsh that they could not do anything, and what they got from hard work could not afford tribute and tax. When they stay home, they might be arrested because his neighbours make counterfeit coins. Treacherous officials cause sufferings of people. People are so poor that they have to be rebels.” The emissary was removed from his position because his words enraged Wang Mang. Later emissaries then told Wang Mang that unruly people should be eliminated and they would be eliminated soon. Wang Mang was pleased and promoted them.

An official named Fei Xing was going to be the governor of a region. Wang Mang asked him about his future plans. Fei Xing said, “The people of my region depend on the resources of mountains and rivers, and they work as fishermen and gatherers. The imperial policy, that imposes state-run business and taxes natural resources, grabs the benefits of people. Droughts for years make people be in hunger and poverty, so they have to be rebels. After I arrive in my region, I will persuade rebels to return home, and offer loans for helping their farming, and delay the schedule of tax collection. It may make people relieved and peaceful.” Because the words criticized the policy of Wang Mang, Wang Mang felt angry and dismissed Fei Xing from office at once.

Throughout the empire, officals were very corrupt, because they could not get much salary and they tried to profit from abuse of power. Wang Mang then launched an anti-corruption campaign. One of his edicts said, “If an officer in the army or an official in the border area got rich from illegal profits, four fifths of his property will be confiscated for funding military operations along the border.” The imperial court sent a lot of officials to fight corruption all over the country. Officers were encouraged to report their generals, and servants were encouraged to report their masters. The campaign’s objective was to stop corruption. However, nationwide corrupt conditions became more severe because of the campaign.

In the beginning, rebels just wanted to get food. They didn’t have the courage to seize any town or kill any senior official. When they accidentally caught an official who was from the imperial court, they told him that they were in hunger, cold, poverty and sufferings. They returned him, but the official was put in prison because Wang Mang didn’t believe what he said. Then no one had the courage to tell the truth to Wang Mang. Moreover, governors also did not have the courage to mobilize troops without the authorization of the imperial court.

There were more and more rebels. Now they seized cities and killed governors. Government forces were defeated again and again. No one could hide terrible news anymore. Wang Mang became aware that people hated what he did. He decided to abolish all of his policies and bans which troubled people. But it was too late. Now rebels clearly claimed the restoration of the Han Dynasty.

Wang Mang was killed eventually. About a thousand followers fiercely fought for him in his last hours. For twenty centuries, people have always thought that he had been a hypocrite since his youth. I would rather believe that a bad system may make a good person become evil. When Wang Mang cruelly purged his opponents for the first time, he was doomed to go astray. Unfettered power is the road to destruction.

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