Driven by his concern for the poverty-stricken peasants, the eleventh-century bureaucrat Wang Anshi pioneered state reforms to improve their lives during the reign of the Song Dynasty. His life and his groundbreaking socialist reforms were chronicled in the Bible Timeline Poster with World History between his birth in AD 1021 and until his death in 1086.
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Early Life: A Portrait of a Bureaucrat
Wang Anshi was a Chinese poet, essayist, philosopher, and bureaucrat who tried to implement sweeping and radical reforms in Song Dynasty China. He was born in 1021 in the city of Linchuan, Jiangxi Province. Although his father worked as a government worker, he remained in a low clerical post as he did not pass the civil service exams. Wang Anshi passed the civil service exams with flying colors by ranking fourth overall in 1042 and served in the local government of the Jiangnan region (which Jiangxi was part of) afterward.
This experience allowed him to observe the problems the peasants and local administrators encountered with the Song bureaucracy, such as the heavy taxes imposed upon the peasants and the exploitation they experienced under the rich landowners and corrupt (as well as inept) government officials.
He was unable to do anything about the issues he noticed, so he started to write essays and poems about the injustice the peasants experienced. Wang Anshi’s essays and poems later reached the Song capital of Kaifeng. The central government officials offered him a promotion after they read about his insights. For unknown reasons, however, he declined these offers many times. In 1059/1060, he returned to the capital and worked for the Finance Commission; he also submitted to then Emperor Renzong his “Ten Thousand Word Memorial” (Wanyan Shu) which contained his insights on the Song government’s shortcomings.
For Wang Anshi, the Song bureaucracy lacked talented men who were supposed to fill in the administrative posts. He suggested that the government itself invest in the cultivation of talented young men who would serve the people, appoint them based on individual competence, and provide evaluations on their performance. The reforms he suggested were ignored by the Song administrators for some years. Emperor Yingzong (Renzong’s successor) also died in 1067, so that Wang Anshi was largely forgotten thereafter. He also took some time off to grieve for his mother who died in the same year, but a year later, the new Emperor Shengzong summoned him to work at the elite Hanlin Academy. He later met Emperor Shengzong and impressed him enough that he attained a high administrative post in the central government as a Chief Councillor.
Wang Anshi did not go without his share of enemies. Some of the most formidable were conservatives Ouyang Xiu, Sima Guang, and Su Dongpo. He finally fell out of favor in 1074 when his reform programs did not work out. He left the palace in the same year to settle in Jiangning. Emperor Shengzong died in 1085. His death was followed by Wang Anshi one year later.
Wang Anshi’s Reforms
Wang Anshi formulated political and economic reforms during the reign of Emperor Shengzong which included:
- Low-interest loan (also called the “Green Shoots loan”) grants to poverty-stricken peasants that would prevent them from taking out high-interest ones from private lenders and loan sharks. He also suggested this loan program to the emperor in order to help raise government revenues that the government officials would collect after a given time. This loan program, however, backfired when drought set in and ruined the crops which made the farmers unable to pay their debts and the taxes they owed the government. Wang Anshi’s situation worsened when the government failed to stop the officials who were in charge of revenue collection from charging higher interest rates.
- The implementation of a land survey to compute the tax a peasant should pay based on his land’s actual production.
- The decree that the peasants should pay money for taxes instead of unpaid labor (corvée).
- The decree that the number of professional soldiers in service of the Song be reduced to save the government money and the establishment of the baojia system (the use of community-based law enforcement officers).
- The launch of a public school system which aimed to educate the children of the poor.
- The transformation of the civil service exams from tests on the memorization of poetry (which was deemed useless and impractical by Wang Anshi) to more practical tests on government and economic affairs.
Picture by Public Domain, Link
Chang, Kang-i Sun, and Stephen Owen. The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature. Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
China’s Economic Future: Challenges to U.S. Policy. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.
Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goodman. China: A New History. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.
Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970.
Mote, Frederick W. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Ropp, Paul S. China in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
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