1: The Man

Although Wang Mang was born in Ancient China, his world much resembled that of England in the later 18th century. A vivid account of Han China, written forty years before the birth of Wang Mang states:

"The privileged families throng the streets like drifting clouds, the hubs of their chariots knocking against one another in the road. Violating all public laws, they promote but their own interests; monopolizing all offices and markets, their wealth and power exceeds that of government ministers. They combine whole streets in the construction of their mansions, cutting off thoroughfares and alleys. They dig ponds and build winding lanes for their parties-de-plaisir, and keep hounds for hunting the hare. Their wives and daughters dress only in the finest silks and their maids trail trains of the finest linen. Their sons and grandsons ride out with long retinues of chariots and horsemen; in and out they ride to the hunt." (note 1)

If anything the inequalities had deepened by Mang's time, on his own account:

"Fathers and sons, husbands and wives plough and weed for the whole year; what they get is insufficient to keep them alive. The horses and the dogs of the rich have more of beans and wheat meal than they can eat, yet the poor cannot feed themselves on barley bread."

Mang was born into the most powerful family in China. While he was an infant his relatives maneuvered the Han succession so as to install a series of puppet Emperors under their control, with partial if not complete success. Mang's father died young however, and he was a "poor" relative. Thus he grew up with an unparalleled vantage point, viewing the mechanisms of the state from within, yet unable to emulate his cousins and satiate himself on the fruits of this power. Likely enough nature created him something of an outsider, but his circumstances were such as to emphasize any such traits. He showed a contempt for the ostentatious trappings of his relatives and dedicated himself to scholarship. His family name gave him easy access to the homes of the leading scientists and intellectuals of his day, and the curiosity concerning the sciences and the love of the arts stayed with him all his life. In power he founded a university in the capital devoted to astronomy, mathematics, medicine, warfare and all the other disciplines then necessary to a universal education. He took time off from statecraft to patronise experiments in manned flight and human dissection, and spent a great deal of his time composing music for state ceremonies.

Mang described himself in the following way:

"When I meet with other nobles to discuss things face-to-face, I am awkward and embarrassed. By nature I am stupid and vulgar, but I have a sincere knowledge of myself. My virtue is slight but my position is honourable; my ability is feeble but my responsibilities are great."

In truth he had a powerful intellect, and was a quick judge of character. He loved power but not wealth, and made a public show of giving away most of his income throughout his life, trading wealth for power. Adept at manipulating the superstitions which shaped most of contemporary political life, and untainted by the suspicion of graft which stained almost all his contemporaries, he became a national idol. His rise up the political ladder was meteoric, on one particular occasion 487,572 individual petitions were received by the emperor, all urging his further promotion.

Politically Mang was a dedicated Confucian. This tells us almost nothing, as Confucianism had been the dominant political party in China for around 200 years, and seems to have been a very broad church indeed. It has been argued that there are similarities between Confucianism and modern socialism in that:

i) Confucianism held that government existed for the benefit of the people.

ii) direct taxation was favoured over indirect taxation.

iii) bureaucratic rule was encouraged. (C. himself was a senior civil servant, albeit a free lance one)

iv) it was the party of the "intellectuals", as opposed to say the "entrepreneurs". Having said this, the word "socialist" seems to be almost bereft of any specific meaning these days, and perhaps the term "Confucian" had even less in Mang's China. Mang's actual policies were radical and pragmatic, as will be seen below. The bones of his early career run:

Born: 45 BC

At 23 years, senior civil service post (Commander of the Imperial Archers)

At 29 years, made Marquis, and Junior Minister.

At 37 years, in 7 BC, made Minister of War

At 39 years, in 5 BC, falls from favour at palace, retires

At 44 years, in 0 AD, reinstated as Chief Minister.

At 47 years, in 3 AD, becomes father-in-law to the Emperor

At 50 years, in 6 AD, becomes Regent for the heir apparent.

At 53 years, 10th January 9 AD, establishes his "Hsin" (New) dynasty.

The period in forced retirement in mid-life must have given Mang an opportunity for reflection, and certainly seems to mark a change in his attitude. The Han biography does not comment on it however, aside from mentioning that he was ill for a while, and giving us two precious insights into Mang's character. One is an incident where his son is involved in the death of a slave. Mang ordered his son to commit suicide - effectively executing him (Elsewhere it is said that Mang's wife "wept until she was blind" over this incident.)

The second incident gives us an insight into how Mang deported himself. During his illness in the country, he became acquainted with the official administering the district, Hsui. When the man paid a call, he was received as an equal. They became friends, and Mang wished to present his sword as a gift, but Hsui thought it too generous, and refused it. Mang said it was but the jade hilt he wanted to present, since it would bring good health, but Hsui refused this also. Mang smashed the jade, wrapped it and gave it to Hsui. Later Mang wished to employ Hsui in government it seems, but nothing came of it.

2: The Plan

During Mang's absence from court, men of his party had suffered badly. Some had chosen a Confucian martyrdom rather than betray their principles. Perhaps this contributed to the new ruthless determination with which Mang acted henceforth. As soon as his power was sufficiently consolidated, 3 years after his return to court, lists of his political opponents were drawn up, and hundreds were executed. Shortly after this he established a new penal colony in Tibet in the far West, a sort of ancient gulag. Unfortunately we have no direct account as to the nature of the crimes of those exiled to Tibet. In 6 AD the reins of power were still more firmly in his grasp, and Mang ordered his first reform of the coinage. Fundamentally this was a stratagem to nationalize the gold stocks, and put the empire back on a copper standard. Gold was requisitioned and exchanged against very high value bronze tokens. Two years later the tokens were demonetized. The cash assets of the aristocracy and the wealthy merchants must have been largely wiped out overnight. It is in the first couple of years of Mang's independent reign that the astonishing breadth of his reform proposals appear. His reforms include:

1) the abolition of slavery.

2) the nationalization of land.

3) standard plots of arable land for all adult males who wished to work them.

4) farming families grouped in hamlets of 6 or 8, with a common tax assessment.

5) a national bank offering fair rates of interest to all.

6) government market activity to counteract cornering and monopolization.

7) a new currency system in 15 denominations - circulating by government fiat.

8) defeat of the Huns

His new taxes include

taxes to be paid in cash or kind on cultivated land (one tenth)

triple rates to be paid on uncultivated land (parks and gardens etc.)

c) all self-employed or professional people outside farming shall register for income tax, which will be universally levied at 10% per annum. Those avoiding registration, or submitting false accounts to be sentenced to one years hard labour.

d) the state monopolies on iron, salt, silk, cloth and coinage to be retained

e) a new state monopoly on wine to be introduced.

Discussion of the proposals

1) Events in his private life show Mang's abhorrence of slavery. He vilified the political system of the legalists, established in the Chin dynasty (221-206 BC) specifically by alluding to the manner in which they established market places for male and female slaves, "putting human beings in auction pens as if they were cattle." (note 2)

Reforms 2, 3, 5 & 6) The nationalization of land and its distribution amongst the peasant farmers themselves is of course one solution to the central economic problem in all pre-modern civilizations, (which presumably finds its roots in the bronze age and persisting right down to the machine age). Peasants must have security of tenure and just returns for their labour, otherwise they will not be encouraged to work effectively - and the state and all within it will thereby be impoverished. However if they are made private landowners then clever, unscrupulous, hard-working individuals within and outwith the peasantry will begin to gain land at the expense of their neighbours. The chief mechanisms of this gradual monopolization of the land by a class of people distinguished by their wealth are:

  1. Preying upon private 'misfortune', (illness, death, and marriage expenses) by loansharking.
  2. Preying upon public misfortunes (bad harvests) by loansharking.
  3. Creating shortages by rigging the markets, exacerbating private and public misfortunes, and then loansharking.
  4. Unfairly biasing tax assessments, creating and exacerbating private and public misfortunes, and then loansharking.
The end result of this tendency is likely to be that the bulk of farmers lack security of tenure and or just returns, and cease to work effectively, to the impoverishment of all. Reforms 2, 3 & 5 bear on this problem in an obvious way. Reform 6 - the "Five Equalizations" is a little more complicated, so I shall explain it at greater length. Fundamentally it required the installation of government officials at the five important markets of the empire who would "buy things when they were cheap and sell them when they were dear." In more detail: "The superintendent of the market, in the second month of each of the four seasons, shall determine the true price of the articles under their responsibility, and shall establish high, middle and low prices for each type of item. When there are unsold goods on the market, the superintendent shall buy them up at the cost (low?) price. When goods become expensive (ie exceed the high price?) the superintendent shall intervene to sell goods from the official store (and thereby reduce the price)." The regulation thus allows markets to operate, but provides for state intervention to stop speculation. It is very similar (Jan. 1993) to the mechanism by which the values of currencies traded in the ERM are controlled, but in principle significantly more sophisticated. Mang's regulations allow for a review and revision of the trading bands four times a year. (The lack of any agreed mechanism for review of the bands in the regulation of the ERM was a factor in the failure of that system to resist speculative attacks late in 1992).

4). In resettling the people securely on the land, Mang choose to group them into "chings" of 6 or 8 families - attempting to restore the traditional "well field" system. This provided for the regular exchange of land between the families, to give all a go at the best ground, and for joint responsibility for a common tax demand. The ching system was believed, by the Confucian party in the 1st century BC at least, to have been destroyed by the growth of mercantilist exploitation under the Chin legalists. There are hints that the state went on to use the ching structure in crime prevention measures, by making all members of the ching culpable for the unreported crime of any single member. The installation of a land nationalization scheme under the banner of a return to the ancient Chou system of 'chings' had a great deal of propaganda value amongst the Confucian elite which surrounded Mang. A sentimental view of rural working class life seems to be a common weakness amongst aristocratic and middle class intellectuals of all periods. Mang's own observations of the labouring poor would necessarily have been made at a distance - perhaps he too shared in this sentimental myopia. The evidence suggests that the peasantry did not welcome this aspect of the reforms

7) Food was the first concern of Confucian government, but coinage was the second. Only fair prices could encourage the farmers. Only markets could create fair prices. Only with coins could markets exist. Mang introduced a rational set of 15 denominations of coin, valued from 1 to 1,000 cash and circulated by government fiat. Mang did not invent the idea of fiat or fiduciary currency, a brief attempt had been made to circulate one in China a century earlier. However Mang was the first to systematically think through the matter in a practical context, and to apply it over a protracted period. Future successful ancient and medieval experiments with fiat currency, first in China, then in Japan and Central Asia, and unsuccessful ones in medieval India and Persia all looked back - directly or indirectly - to Mang. The first successful fully fiduciary currencies in Europe are products of the 20th century, more than 700 years after Europeans became aware of Chinese practices. (I am neglecting a great deal of late Roman copper coin here of course. I am by no means knowledgeable on such coins, but my understanding is that in principle, if not in practice, Rome was generally on the silver or the gold standard, and copper was exchangeable on demand.) On my own reading of the text, Mang's main concern is to get gold and silver off the market, so they could not be used to bid his tokens down - his coinage was intended to replace gold coinage, not supplement it

New Taxes

Mang's tax proposals are strikingly pragmatic, in direct contrast to his social reforms. The Confucian tradition strongly favoured direct taxation, eschewing indirect, and contemporaries criticised him for not only retaining the old monopolies, but also introducing a new one on wine. It seems to me very strong evidence of his genuine humanitarian aims that he acted so decisively on slavery and landholding, yet without dogmatism on taxes. Very likely he foresaw the serious revenue implications for the reforms that were so dear to his heart, and did not wish to risk them for the sake of fiscal ideology.

The major innovation in the sphere of taxation was the introduction of a 10% income tax. As far as I can tell Mang originated the idea of income tax, i.e. deducting capital and charging a percentage of the profit. Does anyone have any further information on this? Income tax is surely the fairest way of assessing tax ever devised - if not the easiest to assess and collect, and I am astonished that none of the histories I have read pay just heed to this achievement. Certainly Mang was 1800 years in front of British best practice. A rate of 10% looks modest by 20th century & 1st century standards. The combined taxes and rents falling on the impoverished farmer prior to the reforms came to 50% of his yield. They caused uproar when they were introduced. I would not wish to draw any conclusion from this, as I doubt there ever was a tax introduced that did not cause uproar.

3: The Result

Was there ever a man so ill rewarded for his good intentions as Wang Mang? This is an account of what happened

The demonetization of the wu-shu coinage, and its replacement by fiat coinage caused complete dislocation in the markets. I must guess at what actually happened, as economic affairs are not the strong point of our narrator, Pan Ku, - (strange that nature should have chosen him for this particular biography!) - his account is short and garbled. Most probably there was a general strike of shop keepers, who refused to sell for the new coins. This is exactly what happened in Persia when Gaykhatu, attempting to copy medieval Chinese practice, issued paper currency in the 13th century.

Now in every ancient and medieval city the streets would throng with a great mass of half starved humanity, sleeping on the pavement, living hand to mouth. Tailors and barbers, fortune-tellers and conjurers, porters and rickshaw pullers, prostitutes and singers - these people had no capital, they awoke with empty bellies, and hunted the streets all day trying to fill them. Starvation would set in for them the first day that money stopped circulating. The sudden dislocation of the economy would breed a panic at all levels of society, stopping up many of the natural impulses to charity. In Medieval Persia Gaykhatu backed down after two months - by which time the city streets must have presented a grim spectacle. In Ancient China, Pan Ku merely records that men and women were crying in the market places. Wang Mang did not back down; he ordered the death penalty for anyone in possession of the old wu-shus, or even heard to criticize the new coins. Countless people were sentenced, and we must conclude from the lack of further comment that Wang Mang succeeded in breaking the strike. More serious still was an outbreak of counterfeiting of the new coins. This too was made a capital offence, but as this alone proved an insufficient deterrent, new laws sentencing the five neighboring families of the culprit (presumably the whole 'ching') to state slavery were put on statute.

Inevitably the wealthy would loose heavily in these reforms - dissent was unavoidable. Pan Ku records that hundreds more of the nobility were executed in the year after the reforms, which we must interpret as further evidence of Mang's determination to force them through. The ranks of government became. so thin that a search for candidates of ability was ordered, extending to the commoners. One man, Kung Sheng, when summoned to a senior Ministerial post, chose to starve himself to death rather than serve Mang.

Away from the court a storm of destruction was daily gathering. The regular purges of high office naturally involved chiefs of the army, and the disruption of the high command led to a break in the chain of discipline.

"Greatly cunning villains were taking it upon themselves to make dupes of the troops"


"each uses his power to intimidate good people, illegally putting seals upon common people's necks. Only when they had extorted payment did they take them off."

so "the common people left the cities and became vagrants, thieves and robbers."

Parallel breaks in communication occurred in the civil service. The new tax registers for the reformed empire could not be completed. The costs of local government had to be met from the treasury - which of course could only do it by what we would call a resort to the printing presses. In real terms pay in the civil service plummeted, morale followed it down, and corruption flourished. The five equalization policy also failed. Just as the army and the civil service sought to corrupt the reforms for personal gain, so too did the merchants. Men such as Nieh Tzu-chung, Chang Ch'ang-shu and Hsin Wei criss-crossed the empire in four horse chariots, rigging the markets and milking the state. There is no limit to the profits that can be culled in such circumstances.

At this date, some time in 12 AD, Ou Po, apparently an official of no great rank, persuaded Mang that his reforms, although good in themselves, could not be instituted fully given a century, let alone a year. Mang had needed to gain the support of the common people, those who his reforms were intended to benefit. He had failed to get it, and should back off for a while. Mang listened and the prohibitions on private ownership of land and slaves were lifted.

Mang was now in a jamb. He had antagonised the whole population outside a narrow clique, to the point where he daily feared assassination. He hardly dare leave the palace, and was mocked and satirized everywhere. His ideas had not caught on in the general population, despite his obvious expectations, because they were too sophisticated. State finances were in chaos, and significant parts of the army were running amok. Thoughts of building a utopia were gone, Mang began to work day and night just to stop the empire slipping over the edge - into the abyss. Much of his effort was aimed at bolstering public confidence through attention to ceremony, and superstitious propaganda.

"Mang's notion was that if the institutions were fixed, the empire would naturally become tranquil"

It is impossible to decide from Pan Ku's hostile account whether Mang was skillfully using propaganda to ring changes, undermine opponents and bolster public confidence, or whether under the strain of recent events, his mind had lost some of its balance. In the circumstances, a combination of the two seems very likely. Mang's confidence in his own authority was likely seriously shaken, and a constant stream of edicts from his desk concerning state ritual and the like may well have fulfilled a largely personal need to constantly reassure himself that the empire still obeyed him. A growing inability to attend to the details of legal cases, or to the selection and review of high officials also suggests that his mind had lost the firm grip on government affairs that it once had had. All that we read is consistent with an account of a compassionate but determined man, retreating from a reality which constantly reminded him of the awesome scale of his failure.

The coinage was reformed, for the last time, in 14 AD. The reform was a partial retrenchment. Only 3 of the 15 fiduciary denominations of 'precious' currency had actually circulated, all were now to be withdrawn with little or no compensation. The new coinage, the Huo Chuan, put the coinage nominally back on the copper standard, circulating at the value of the traditional wu-shu. This was supplemented by a new fiduciary spade issue, the Huo Pu. In order to discourage forgery these coins were beautifully designed, and cast with extraordinary precision. The practice of giving the coins an ornamental blue glaze continued - decus et tutamen. In the next 9 years these coins were cast in extraordinary quantities, and warn us against underestimating the control Mang still held over the institutions of state. The reform of the currency does seem to have been at least partially successful, for in 16 AD we find Mang attempting, after 'the distresses of 9 dry years', to pay salaries in full to the civil service. He seems to be back on his old form, since a sophisticated scheme has been devised to link the pay of officials to their results. 1st century Chinese civil servants seem to have been about as keen on this idea as 20th century British civil servants. Mang hoped that his regulations would bring "the advancement of agriculture and tranquillity to the multitude" but officials claimed the calculations were impossible to follow, and continued to mulch the populace.

Throughout this period the outer provinces were under constant attack from without. The Imperial army won some and lost some, but the civilian population lost every time. Enormous special local taxes were levied, and as much looting originated with Chinese as with foreign troops. There was a great famine by 14 AD in the Northern province, cannibalism was being reported amongst the local population. Some people began to migrate South and sell themselves into slavery, others swelled the ranks of the roving vagrants, robbers and thieves we heard of back in 12 AD. These swelled literally to an army, several armies, each numbering tens of thousands. They gained a generic name - the 'Red Eyebrows'. In the capital they became a source of awe, superstition and fear - an armies with no written instructions, no uniform, no flag. In 17 AD they were offered an official pardon, but they had left their villages in despair - none saw any reason to return. By 22 AD a group of Red Eyebrows, several tens of thousands strong, was capable of meeting and defeating the imperial troops.

That year hundreds of thousands of the starving congregated outside the capital. Mang gave orders that the imperial granaries should be opened for famine relief, but the commissioners preferred to cook the books and sell the grain onto the black market. 70% to 80% of these people died. By 23 AD there were reports of bands of red eyebrows numbering more than 100,000. A rival Han emperor had been declared, Han armies were winning victories and advancing towards the capital. Mang knew he had lost control of the money supply, and the food supply, and in his heart he surely knew it was all over. Orders were drawn up to recall all the imperial edicts and ordinances; a general amnesty was called. Mang dyed his hair, in order to look calm and youthful. He organised a harem from the "virtuous young ladies": three Harmonious Ladies, nine Spouses, 27 Beauties, and 81 attendants. He had been widowed some years earlier - now he took a new wife, (on the 30th of March 23 AD). The imperial treasury was vast - in order to force his fiduciary currency to circulate, almost all competing forms of stored wealth had been bought up and stored away. None of this mattered any more. The gifts he gave to the bride's family were worth near a billion cash, and included 7 tons of gold. An imperial 'army of a million' was ordered to be mobilised, 420,000 actually marched - but only to defeat by the Han troops. Mang, who for more than ten years had worked through the night, and slept at his desk, now spent his days in the harem with magicians, "testing magical and technical arts". He began to give strange magical titles to his generals, such as "the general for whom Jupiter rests in the sign of shen, with the assistance of the watery element." and "the colonel holding a great axe to chop down withered wood" My own assessment of Mang's conduct during the last six months is frankly that he was high on drugs for most of the period. Knowing all was lost, he choose to escape from reality, seeking a few last weeks of pleasure in the harem. An army of nine "tiger" generals was formed, leading 10,000 picked troops, but was defeated. A final army, composed of convicts, ran away. On the 4th October, 23 AD, Han troops entered Ch'ang-an.

4: The End

The Han troops fought their way through the suburbs on the first day; as night fell, the outer guard fled, opening the way to the palace. On the second day, students of the town rose in support of the Han army, and fired a palace gate. The fire spread to the women's quarters, and all was confusion. Mang dressed himself in deep purple, the colour of the sky around the pole star - the imperial colour. He laid out his mat, his astrological chart, and his dagger, and sat to consult the fates, saying

"Heaven begat the virtue that is in me. The Han troops - what can they do to me?"

Suicide was the obvious option, perhaps it would have been the honourable course 10 years before, when the reforms failed. Reason might have suggested it when his army was defeated, again when his city was breached. He did not take it then: he did not take it now.

At dawn on the third day, Mang had long stopped eating, and was near senseless. He was carried to a chariot and driven to 'the tower surrounded by water' within the palace. More than a thousand of his retinue followed him there. Mang was carried to the top floor. All the inner clique fought to the end, after the last arrow, the fighting continued hand to hand, all day, up the stairways. Mang was slain in the late afternoon. Tu Wu took his seals, Kung-pin Chiu his head. His body was cut to pieces by soldiers seeking mementos. His head was taken to the Keng-shih Emperor in Yuan, where it was hung in the market place. It was pelted with stones and dung. Someone reportedly cut out the tongue, and ate it.

The Han Keng-shih Emperor kept Ch'ang-an intact, and took it as his capital. One year later the army of the Red-Eyebrows arrived. This was an army which marched not on but for its stomach, and cared for no more for Han than for Hsin. They numbered hundreds of thousands. Keng-shih did not attempt a resistance, he was sent to work as a labourer, later stabbed in the fields. The palace and the markets were burned, the tombs opened. All the food, and at least some of the population, were eaten. The city returned to wilderness.

6: Critical Bibliography

6.1 Pan Ku "The memoir of Wang Mang" from the Han Shu, (The Han Dynastic History) Our only written account of the reign of Mang is contained in the official Han history. Although credited to Pan Ku, it was in fact composed over a period of 50 years, begun by his father and completed posthumously by his sister. It is a rather uneven compilation of material, giving rather too much detail concerning the careers and schemes of the lesser nobility and far too little detail of the major political reforms and their direct consequences.

Given that it was written by an employee of the Han Government, a few decades after Mang had deposed the Han line and set the government on a course that led to the death of perhaps half the population it is remarkably unbiased. It is a tribute to the standards of intellectual integrity of its times. It does inevitably vilify Mang however, calling him, amongst other things "duplicitous, licentious, evil, supercilious, swaggering, blustering, pompous, poisonous, insatiable, nefarious, wicked and weird".

Pan Ku clearly had much ability as an archivist and story teller, but little as an economic commentator. He did realize the importance of this aspect of history, and wrote a special economic "pull out" supplement to the Han Shu - the "Food and Money". The contents of this unique document, though immensely valuable, do nothing to demand we revise our estimate of the author's talents in this area.

6.2 Hu Shih: "Wang Mang, the Socialist Emperor of Nineteen Centuries Ago" (Journal of the northern
Branch of the Royal Asiatic society LIX, 1928 p.218-30)

Hu Shih was a Chinese ambassador to the USA. His paper is nearly impossible to get hold of, but worth the effort. He aims to write, in a modest 12 pages, the first re-evaluation of Mang's 'cursed name' in 19 centuries. The assessment of the character and policies of the man are entirely positive. His very brief treatment of the failure of the reforms attribute it partly to Mang being 1900 years ahead of his time and partly to speculation by "the great capitalists" named in the Han Shu. No account of the abyss into which China fell is given. Hu Shih's analysis is along the lines of the advice Ou Po is reported to have given to Mang. In broad terms I would agree with Hu Shih. There is evidence of a bias in his viewpoint however which leads him to stress the way corruption amongst the merchant community undermined Mang s policies, disregarding the evidence of the text that suggests that corruption in the army and the civil service were as much if not more to blame.

In a fascinating aside from the main story, Hu Shih defends the view that a large number of the ancient Chinese classics are forgeries written by the clique that surrounded Mang - to give their policies false, or at least "improved" pedigrees. In particular he singles out the "Chou-Li", a utopian scheme of political organisation purporting to belong to the 12th century BC. He describes it as the main source of inspiration for all later Chinese political reformers, including the Northern Wei and Wang An-shih, (who wrote a commentary on it). The Chou-Li was translated into French in the mid 19th century, but I have searched for an extract or even a summary of its contents in the English language, with no success whatsoever.....

6.3 C B Sargent "Wang Mang" (pub 1947, Shanghai, reprinted 1977 USA)

The second major modern work on Mang was again by a diplomat - this time a USA diplomat working in the East. A translation accompanied by an assessment of the man and his policies, it seems to have inspired, at least in part, by Hu Shih's short paper. Again, it focuses on the early years - the rise to power. Sargent admits that that he was initially attracted by the apparent idealism and modernity of Mang, but concludes that although such traits have some substance, reality is more complicated. In his own words:

"I...find it necessary to discard the (Pan Ku's) traditional interpretation in favour of one which sees Wang Mang attempting, and failing, to reform a degenerate court and experimenting in an adjustment of economic conditions of the empire through the application of poorly-understood economic principles."

Sargent, like Hu Shih, concludes that the main events of the period, are to be explained in terms of the practical consequences of Mang's economic reforms, and so far I would agree with him. However in his scorn of Mang's intellectual grasp of economic principles Sargent is surely more biased than Hu Shih.

Mang's "Confucian" policies on the currency and the economy are remarkably sophisticated, and in many ways similar to those of the later 20th century democracies. There seem to me to be two main differences in the circumstances of their application, the first is quite obvious - Mang was trying to make changes in 2 or 3 years that we have seen develop over 2 or 3 centuries. More importantly, the modern reforms have taken place against a background of technological change, change that has more or less kept pace with ever rising expectations, at least of 'Western' populations. So much wealth has been created by machines that it has been possible for we in the west to have our cake and eat it - to improve conditions for the poor without overly provoking the rich by extractions. It is not at all obvious that it would have been possible to ripen the egalitarian fruits of the modern state without the bottomless jug of technological growth to water its roots. I certainly cannot join Sargent in being so ready to point the finger at Mang's "poorly understood economic principles".

There are signs that the 21st century may see a halt to this growth of technology. If applied sciences etc no longer enables us to out pace human expectations in the west, then politicians will again, like Mang, have to turn and face them. Will they acquit themselves any better than he?

Personally, I doubt it.

6.4 Homer H. Dubs "The History of the Former Han Dynasty" (Waverly Press, 1955)

Dubs was Professor of Chinese at Oxford University. His translation of the Han histories - including "The memoir of Wang Mang" and "Food and Money" is a monumental work, with a mass of fascinating references to traditions and sources outside the period. Without it the current essay could not have been written.

Having said this of the translation, it seems to me that the detailed analysis Professor Dubs provides does not give a fair minded view of Mang or his aims. Mang wished to abolish slavery, and economic exploitation of the poor. He tried to do this using a number of different policies acting in concert, all of these policies relying upon an extensive bureaucracy. In order to pay this bureaucracy Mang had to raise taxes. It is clear from the histories that Mang believed that total extractions from the farmers under the Han had been 50% of the yield, and that he planned to lower it to 10%, in part by spreading the tax burden to other parts of society. Dubs explains:

"the monopolies were thus a means of obtaining additional revenue for the government. I can find no other purpose for them. They were a burden upon the poor and common people, since they were a tax upon necessities.....This policy of mulching the people for the benefit of government also showed itself in the new income tax."

This is not a criticism of Mang, it is a criticism of bureaucratic government and direct taxation as a whole. Professor Dubs is showing himself to be at least as far to the right of the political spectrum as Hu Shih was to the left. Unlike Hu Shih however, Dubs does not honestly flag his political credentials, and purports to write as disinterested historian.

We find much the same through the rest of Dub's commentary. I have accounted above how Mang tried to put the money supply in the hands of the government by creating a fiduciary currency, and tried to force it to circulate by taking gold off the market. The practice of creating huge government reserves of gold in quite recent times, so as to give governments sure control of the market price is not identical to Mang's strategy, but it is so similar that his motives ought to be quite transparent. Dubs however fails to see them, and explains the position thus:

'Wang Mang hoarded most of the gold he obtained, (because) he was miserly"

Surely this must be seen by all intelligent readers as merely simple minded and bigoted propaganda for laisser-faire political opinions?

6.5 H. Bielenstein "The Restoration of the Han Dynasty"(I-IV) (Stockholm 1954-1979)

Bielenstein seems to be the current acknowledged authority on Wang Mang. He has written extensively on the topic, in the quoted work and elsewhere. I have only been able to gain access to his contribution on Mang included in the "Cambridge History of China", and trust this correctly reflects his conclusions. Ultimately I find his account even less satisfactory than that of Dubs. It appears to me that Bielenstein too perceived that the debate had developed into a political one, between the supporters of the left wing Chinese diplomat and the right wing Oxford don. Bielenstein side steps all this and constructs a new, sanitised, version of events. He does not merely avoid political bias, it tries to cut out the politics altogether, presenting an unbiased stance by manufacturing a false one. His approach to Mang has two thrusts, the first purports to show that Mang was not an important innovator.

Bielenstein opens by accusing all previous commentators of myopia, and promptly tosses a smoke bomb into the arena - describing Mang's currency policy was one merely of "debasement". There are plenty of accurate ways of describing Mang' s coins: "fiat currency", "fiduciary currency", even "tokens". "Debased currency" is not one of them. He claims Mang was in no way original in his issue and circulation of millions, if not billions, of these fiat coins and cites a reference to the reform of Wu-Ti in 119 BC. Certainly Wu-Ti seems to have toyed with the idea of a fiduciary coinage, but little seems to have been achieved, surviving examples of the 3-Shu issue associated with it are very rare. Fiduciary currency had certainly been urged before Mang. But to dismiss Mang's full scale experiment with it for this reason, as Bielenstein does, is just a rhetorical trick. Like claiming Stevenson's "Rocket" was of no consequence in the technology of transportation because Hero of Alexandria had made a bottle spin on a stick.

Bielenstein further denigrates Mang's achievement in this area by claiming that gold demonetized in 9 BC was being permitted to circulate again by 10 BC. I cannot accept this reading of the text (see above). All the gold the state could get was stored away in the treasury, and the texts tell us most of it was still there when Mang died. Bielenstein also claims the anti-slavery laws were unimportant, that the buying and selling of slaves affected a minuscule proportion of society. If it was of so little importance - why did Mang fail to make the prohibition stick even with his countless transportation's and executions?

Mang's land reforms were just as important as his currency reforms. Bielenstein admits that the Northern Wei, who began the reconstruction of society and the economy in the 5th century AD, after China's "dark age", looked to Mang for inspiration for their successful land reform policy. Nevertheless, Mang again gets no credit for his efforts, again because others had thought of it first.

This unconvincing attack on the idea that Mang was a significant political innovator is continued in Bielenstein's treatment of the new income tax. Despite the fact that he cannot cite even one earlier discussion of such a sophisticated form of tax, let alone its implementation, Mang still gets not a word of credit. The portrait Bielenstein manufactures of Mang is that of just a regular kind of guy - quite astute at foreign policy - applying well know political policies in a pragmatic fashion. It is not a convincing likeness.

This is the major problem for Bielenstein. If Mang was an ordinary chap, with ordinary policies - how come 25,000,000 people died? (note 3) The answer to this question is the second major thrust of Bielenstein's argument:

"he did not fall through mistakes of his own, but because of the cumulative effects of two changes in the course of the Yellow River. Mang's support faded away when peasant unrest, ultimately caused by the Yellow River, could no longer be contained."

The floods in question apparently occurred around 3 AD, and again in 11 AD. Bielenstein does not give a reference to the Han Shu for the first flood. I looked through the many pages of events around this time, and the only meteorological reference I can find is to a gale that blew some tiles off a gatehouse at the capital. The account of the flooding of 11 AD is three sentence in the Han Shu, to the effect that Mang was worried the floods might damage his family tomb, but that in the event it was OK, they went the other way. The text does not even mention loss of life. Where did Bielenstein get his information that these floods were quite so disastrous? At a seance?

We now watch accounts of current affairs on TV, and get rather inured to the accounts of death and destruction. Major floods are commonplace worldwide. Yet floods alone kill hundreds, perhaps thousands . Afterwards the land is generally better than it was before. Natural disasters of the regular sorts - with the exception of long droughts, just do not kill tens of millions, even on today's over crowded planet (note 4). There are many references to droughts and locust swarms in the Han Shu. Mang himself tried to blame them for his plight. If the floods had presented an alternative plausible culprit at the time - surely Mang would have blamed them too? Obviously it is impossible to be certain now exactly how events conspired to create this catastrophe - but a flood that the histories hardly bother to mention is surely not a credible option for the prime suspect. What we regularly see on TV is drought, aggravated by roving bands of soldiers running out of control, and government officials stealing the grain to sell on the black market. We see it all the time. These are major elements in what the Han Shu describes - it kills millions now, it is easy to believe that it killed millions then. However, what we have in the Han Shu is not just millions, it is tens of millions - half the population. Very few types of events could conceivably kill tens of millions, but one type that could is great social reform. We know that tens of millions died during the reforms of Mao and Stalin in the 20th century, close readers of Indian history will suspect that tens of millions died during the reforms of Akbar in 16th century India also . On the evidence - who can doubt that similar circumstances also overtook Mang?

My own conclusions are that the terrible events that occurred in Mang's reign were unintended consequence of his economic reforms - despite the fact that the reform package was both sophisticated and well meant. This is the account given by the Han Shu, and it is a credible one. Mang carefully laid a pavement of economic good intentions, to lead people to utopia, but instead led them to hell. If the study of history is to be of value to man, such events have to be honestly documented. The accounts of Dubs and Bielenstein are not honest.


1 - I do not know if this passage will be quite so vivid to others as to me. The turning over to the hunt of large areas of land, for the pleasure of the rich, has been common from the 11th to the 19th century in British history, and surely the same is true elsewhere. The blocking of public roads, clearing of villages and creation of lakes, purely for the parties-de-plaisir of plutocrats was a major pastime of the English 18th century, and its print is still plain to see on the landscape of South Yorkshire, where I was brought up.

2 - The only surprising thing about Mang's ban on slavery is that we do not find parallel political attitudes expressed in ancient Western Literature. The philosopher Whitehead made a special study of slavery I recall, suggesting that the (European) ancients had grasped fundamental moral principles, but that it took many centuries for such practical moral conclusions as "slavery is bad" to be deduced from these general principles. If I recall this correctly, from my student days - then I would now judge it to be nonsense. Karl Popper sets out to show that parallel anti slavery movements did in fact exist in Greece even at the time of Plato, and characterises arguments critical of this position constructed by Professor Levinson as "grotesque". (The Open society and its Enemies" Vol. 1 p.333-6) I am inclined to believe Popper here, but still have a difficulty accounting for the paucity of evidence for ancient (European) anti-slavery movements that has survived. I can only assume that the monks, working to their own agenda, were perhaps even worse librarians than Umberto Eco leads us to believe.....

3 - Ancient China is unique in providing fairly reliable figures for population. The earliest surviving census comes from 2 AD (during Mang's period as prime minister, another Mang first!) and puts the then population of China at around 50 million, as against today's of around 1,000 million. Pan Ku's claim that 50% died is just a contemporary estimate. It seems consistent with later censuses, the population was still 15% down over a century later. Also the Han Shu describes three separate credible single incidents in which people died by the 100,000. It is as good an estimate as we are ever likely to get.

4 - It is almost impossible to get accurate figures for such events, for reasons central to this discussion. "The Guinness Book of Records" is at least accessible, and recorded the worst flood ever as on the Huang-Ho in China in 1931, with a toll of 3.7 million, in the 1973 edition. By 1992 it had revised this record to the Huang-Ho in 1887, at 900,000. But how many of these people drowned, how many died in a subsequent famine? To what extent was the famine a direct result of the flood, to what the outcome of speculation and hoarding of grain on a bull market, triggered by the shortages? To what extent is the government implicated in the speculation? All these are vital questions - man knows no art or science which will provide an accurate answer to them.

If you can get to a copy, there is an excellent study of a basically medieval type of famine, viewed from a relatively objective modern standpoint by Shoko Okazaki, "The Great Persian Famine of 1870-71" in the SOAS Bulletin in the mid to late Eighties (Vol. XLIV part 1, I think!, p.183-92). Shoko concludes in this case: "The responsibility for the tragedy can be laid squarely at the door of senior bureaucrats, landlords, grain dealers, and high ranking religious officials who engaged in hoarding and market manipulation."