China’s Controversial Socialist Emperor

Wang Mang was born in 45 BCE to an incredibly elite family that had married into the Chinese imperial lineage so successfully his cousin was the emperor by the time he was a teenager.

Mang was determined and ruthless, and he wanted the throne for himself. He murdered the 13-year-old emperor in 5 CE and then acted as regent on behalf of the baby emperor he had put in place. By 9 CE, after years of building up his personality cult, he took the throne and established the Xin Dynasty, Xin meaning ‘New’.

Here was an honest, incorruptible emperor, with relatively modest amounts of wealth. Unsurprisingly, the people loved him: in as early as 4 CE half a million people petitioned for him to take the throne, and the same thoughts were being loudly voiced throughout 8 CE.

But things would soon change. In his first two years alone, he seized all private land in the empire, made land transactions illegal, ordered any owners of a large piece of land to distribute it amongst their neighbours or clan members, instituted two unprecedented types of taxes and brought in 28 new coins, whilst making the old Han coins illegal. None of these policies went down well with the majority of the 60 million people he ruled over, but if they dared to oppose him they were exiled.

Mang coin
One of the new coins Mang brought in. Credit: Jerry Woody
Mang’s motives behind these policies are still unclear, but they make more sense if they were born out of something close to socialism. The renationalisation of his empire’s land allowed him to dispense it out equally among the people. The high rate of taxation was supposed to make his government able to give out loans to the poor with traditional poor credit. And banning the sale of private land could be seen as an attempt to stop desperate farmers selling up during famine or floods. He even brought in state provided disaster relief.

But China didn’t care for the reasons behind the laws – they went against centuries of tradition and didn’t seem to help much in the short term, so they had to go.

The number of powerful enemies Mang made throughout his reign grew steadily and as his empire began to collapse, his ascetic routine went with it. His organised routine flew out the window and he spent the last few months of his life holed up in his Endless Palace, high as a kite.

The rebellion that eventually murdered him reinstated the Han dynasty, all his laws still in place were reversed and public records since have largely condemned his brief Xin reign. For better or for worse, Wang Mang has been remembered as an ambitious but manipulative emperor who had to watch his life’s work and legacy go up in smoke.

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