Emperor Wang Mang

Wang Mang

(Chinese: 王莽, c. 45 BC – 6 October 23 AD)


By Null –, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27454447

Reign 9–23
Predecessor None, Ruzi Ying as Emperor of Western Han Dynasty
Successor Dynasty abolished, Emperor Gengshi as Emperor of Xuan Han Dynasty

Wang Mang courtesy name Jujun (巨君), was a Han Dynasty official who seized the throne from the Liu family and founded the Xin (or Hsin, meaning “renewed”[1]) Dynasty (新朝), ruling 9–23 AD. The Han dynasty was restored after his overthrow, and his rule marks the separation between the Western Han Dynasty (before Xin) and Eastern Han Dynasty (after Xin). Some historians have traditionally viewed Wang as a usurper, while others have portrayed him as a visionary and selfless social reformer. Though a learned Confucian scholar who sought to implement the harmonious society he saw in the classics, his efforts ended in chaos.

In October 23 AD, the capital Chang’an was attacked and the imperial palace ransacked. Wang Mang died in the battle.

The Han dynasty was reestablished in 25 AD when Liu Xiu (Emperor Guangwu) took the throne.

Wang Mang was the son of Wang Man (王曼), the younger brother of Empress Wang Zhengjun, and his wife Qu (渠, family name unknown), born in 45 BC. Wang Man died early, while Wang Mang was young, before Emperor Cheng took the throne and his mother Empress Wang became empress dowager. Unlike most of his brothers, Wang Man did not have the opportunity to become amarquess. Empress Wang took pity on his family, and after she herself was widowed, had Qu moved to the imperial palace to live with her.

While Wang Mang was obviously well-connected to the imperial family, he did not have nearly the luxuries that his cousins enjoyed. Indeed, unlike his relatives who lived expensively and competed with each other on how they could spend more, Wang Mang was praised for his humility, thriftiness, and desire to study. He wore not the clothes of young nobles but those of a young Confucian scholar. He was also praised on how filial he was to his mother and how caring he was to his deceased brother Wang Yong (王永)’s wife and son Wang Guang (王光). Wang Mang befriended many capable people and served his uncles carefully.

When Wang Mang’s powerful uncle Wang Feng (王鳳, commander of the armed forces 33 BC-22 BC) grew ill, Wang Mang cared for him near his sick bed day and night, and attended to his medical and personal needs. Wang Feng was greatly touched, and before his death, he asked Empress Dowager Wang and Emperor Cheng to take good care of Wang Mang. Wang Mang was therefore given the post of imperial attendant (黃門郎) and later promoted to be one of the subcommanders of the imperial guards (射聲校尉).

In 16 BC, another of Wang Mang’s uncles, Wang Shang (王商) the Marquess of Chengdu, submitted a petition to divide part of his march and to create Wang Mang a marquess. Several well-regarded officials concurred in this request, and Emperor Cheng was impressed with Wang Mang’s reputation. He therefore created Wang Mang the Marquess of Xindu and promoted him to the Chamberlain for Attendants (光祿大夫). It was described by historians that the greater the posts that Wang was promoted to, the more humble he grew. He did not accumulate wealth, but used the money to support scholars and to give gifts to colleagues, so he gained more and more praise.

Another thing that Wang Mang made himself known for was that he had only a single wife, Lady Wang, and no concubines. (Note that she had the same family name as Wang Mang—strong evidence that at this point the taboo against endogamy based on the same family name was not firmly in place in Chinese culture.) However, as later events would show, Wang was not completely faithful to his wife, even at this time.

Emperor Cheng appointed his uncles, one after another, to be commander of the armed forces (the most powerful court official), and speculation grew as to who would succeed Wang Mang’s youngest surviving uncle, Wang Gen (王根, commander 12 BC-8 BC). Wang Mang was considered one of the possibilities, while another was his cousin Chunyu Zhang (the son of Empress Dowager Wang’s sister), who had a much closer personal relationship to Emperor Cheng than Wang Mang did. Chunyu also had friendly relations with both Emperor Cheng’s wife Empress Zhao Feiyan and his deposed former wife Empress Xu.

To overcome Chunyu’s presumptive hold on succeeding Wang Gen, Wang Mang took action. He collected evidence that Chunyu, a frivolous man in his words and deeds, had secretly received bribes from the deposed Empress Xu and had promised to help her become “left empress”, and that he had promised his associates great posts once he succeeded Wang Gen.

In 8 BC, he informed Wang Gen and Empress Dowager Wang of the evidence, and both Wang Gen and Empress Dowager Wang were greatly displeased. They exiled Chunyu back to his march. Chunyu, before he left the capital, gave his horses and luxurious carriages to his cousin Wang Rong (王融) – the son of his uncle Wang Li (王立), with whom he had a running feud. Wang Li, happy with Chunyu’s gift, submitted a petition requesting that Chunyu be allowed to remain at the capital—which drew Emperor Cheng’s suspicion, because he knew of the feud between Wang Li and Chunyu. He ordered Wang Rong to be arrested, and Wang Li, in his panic, ordered his son to commit suicide—which in turn caused Emperor Cheng to become even more suspicious. He therefore had Chunyu arrested and interrogated. Chunyu admitted to deceiving Empress Xu and receiving bribes from her, and he was executed.

Also in 8 BC, Wang Gen, by then seriously ill, submitted his resignation and requested that Wang Mang succeed him. In winter 8 BC, Emperor Cheng made Wang Mang the commander of the armed forces (大司馬), at the age of 37.

First tenure as the commander of the armed forces

After Wang Mang was promoted to this position

—effectively the highest in the imperial government

—he became even better known for his self-discipline and promotion of capable individuals than before.

As a result, the people’s perception of the Wang clan as arrogant, wasteful, and petty, began to be reversed.

In 7 BCE, Wang’s cousin Emperor Cheng died suddenly, apparently from a stroke (although historians also report the possibility of an overdosage of aphrodisiacs given to him by his favorite, Consort Zhao Hede). Emperor Cheng’s nephew Crown Prince Liu Xin (劉欣) (the son of his brother Prince Kang of Dingtao (劉康)) became emperor (as Emperor Ai). For the time being, Wang remained in his post and continued to be powerful, as his aunt became grand empress dowager and was influential.

However, that would soon change. Emperor Ai’s grandmother, Princess Dowager Fu of Dingtao (concubine of Grand Empress Dowager Wang’s husband Emperor Yuan) was a domineering woman who ruled her grandson. She greatly wanted the title of empress dowager as well.

Initially, Grand Empress Dowager Wang decreed that Princess Dowager Fu and Emperor Ai’s mother Consort Ding see him periodically, every 10 days. However, Princess Dowager Fu quickly began to visit her grandson every day, and she insisted that two things be done: that she receive an empress dowager title, and that her relatives be granted titles, like the Wangs.

Grand Empress Dowager Wang, sympathetic of the bind that Emperor Ai was in, first granted Prince Kang the unusual title of “Emperor Gong of Dingtao” (定陶共皇) and then, under the rationale of that title, granted Princess Dowager Fu the title “Empress Dowager Gong of Dingtao” (定陶共皇太后) and Consort Ding the title “Empress Gong of Dingtao” (定陶共皇后). Several members of the Fu and Ding clans were created marquesses. Grand Empress Dowager Wang also ordered Wang Mang to resign and transfer power to the Fu and Ding relatives. Emperor Ai declined and begged Wang Mang to stay in his administration.

Several months later, however, Wang Mang came into direct confrontation with now-Empress Dowager Fu. At a major imperial banquet, the official in charge of seating placed Empress Dowager Fu’s seat next to Grand Empress Dowager Wang’s. When Wang Mang saw this, he rebuked the official and ordered that Empress Dowager Fu’s seat be moved to the side, which drew great ire from Empress Dowager Fu, who then refused to attend the banquet. To sooth her anger, Wang Mang resigned, and Emperor Ai approved his resignation. After this event, the Wangs gradually and inexorably began to lose their power.

Retirement during Emperor Ai’s reign

After Wang Mang’s resignation, he was initially requested by Emperor Ai to remain at the capital Chang’an and periodically meet him to give advice. However, in 5 BC, after Empress Dowager Fu was more successful in her quest for titles—Emperor Ai removed the qualification “of Dingtao” from his father’s posthumous title (thus making him simply “Emperor Gong”), and then gave his grandmother a variation of the grand empress dowager title (ditaitaihou (帝太太后), compared to Grand Empress Dowager Wang’s title taihuangtaihou (太皇太后)) and his mother a variation of the empress dowager title (ditaihou (帝太后), compared to Empress Dowager Zhao’s title huangtaihou (皇太后)) – the prime minister Zhu Bo (朱博) and vice prime minister Zhao Xuan (趙玄), at her behest, submitted a petition to have Wang demoted to commoner status for having opposed Grand Empress Fu previously. Emperor Ai did not do so, but sent Wang back to his march Xindu (in modern Nanyang, Henan).

While in Xindu, Wang was careful not to associate with many people (to prevent false accusations that he was planning a rebellion). In 5 BC, when his son Wang Huo killed a household servant, Wang Mang ordered him to commit suicide. By 2 BC, there had been several hundred petitions by commoners and officials to request Wang Mang’s return to the capital. Emperor Ai, who also respected Wang Mang, summoned him and his cousin Wang Ren (王仁), the son of Wang Gen, back to the capital to assist Grand Empress Dowager Wang. However, Wang Mang would have no official posts and would exert little influence on politics for the time being.

Regency and buildup of personality cult

Emperor Ai died suddenly in 1 BCE, without heir. Taking decisive action, Grand Empress Dowager Wang seized power back from Emperor Ai’s male favorite and likely lover Dong Xian (who was the commander of the armed forces by this point) and summoned Wang Mang back to the imperial government. She put him in charge of the armed forces and the government. They summoned Prince Jizi of Zhongshan (the last surviving male issue of Grand Empress Dowager Wang’s husband Emperor Yuan) to the capital to succeed Emperor Ai, and he ascended the throne as Emperor Ping. Wang Mang became his regent.

Also in 1 BCE, Wang, now in power, took drastic action to attack actual or perceived political enemies:

  • The relations of Emperor Ai, the Fus and the Dings, were demoted and exiled back to their ancestral lands.
  • Empress Dowager Zhao Feiyan, the wife of Emperor Cheng (who was friendly with the late Grand Empress Dowager Fu), and Empress Fu, the wife of Emperor Ai (and related to Grand Empress Dowager Fu) were demoted to commoner status and ordered to guard their husbands’ tombs. They committed suicide in response.
  • Grand Empress Dowager Fu and Empress Dowager Ding were posthumously demoted—to the titles of “the mother of Prince Gong of Dingtao” and “Consort Ding” respectively. (In 5 CE, Wang would further disinter Consorts Fu and Ding’s caskets and strip their bodies of jade burial shells, and then return the bodies to Dingtao to be buried there. Their tombs were then completely flattened and surrounded with thorns.)
  • Dong Xian (who had committed suicide soon after his demotion) was disinterred and reburied within a prison, and his clan was exiled.
  • He Wu (何武), the former prime examiner, and his friend Gongsun Lu (公孫祿), who had opposed Wang Mang’s regency, were relieved of their posts.
  • Wujiang Long (毋將隆), the governor of the Nan Commandery (roughly modern Hubei), who had rejected Wang Mang’s advances to serve as a political ally, was falsely accused of having falsely accused the innocent Princess Dowager Feng Yuan of Zhongshan of witchcraft in 6 CE, and he, along with the real co-conspirators against Princess Dowager Feng, were exiled.

Wang, having thus consolidated his power, began to further build up his personality cult, encouraging others to submit false prophecies in which he was mentioned as the second coming of Ji Dan, the Duke of Zhou and the regent for King Cheng of Zhou, or other great mythical personalities. He also began a regime of modifying the governmental structure to recall the governments of the Zhou Dynasty and the even more ancient Shang Dynasty. This included numerous changes to officials’ titles and even to geographical locations. To prevent Emperor Ping’s maternal uncles of the Wei clan from becoming powerful, he ordered that they, along with Emperor Ping’s mother Consort Wei, not be allowed to visit him in the capital.

In 1 CE, after bribing the distant Yueshang Tribes (probably in modern southern Vietnam) to submit offerings of an albino pheasant (considered a rare sign of divine favor), Wang was successful in having his followers persuade Grand Empress Dowager Wang to create him the Duke of Anhan (安漢公) – even though the Han nobility system did not include dukes and no duke had ever been created in Han history up to that point—to let his title parallel that of the Duke of Zhou. Believing her nephew to be truly faithful, Grand Empress Dowager Wang further transferred more of her authority to him.

In 2 CE, Wang Mang issued a list of regulations to the ally-vassal Xiongnu, which the Xiongnu chanyu Nangzhiyasi (囊知牙斯—later shortened to Zhi in response to Wang Mang’s request) obeyed, but Wang Mang’s tone of treating Xiongnu as a subordinate state rather than an ally offended Nangzhiyasi, which would foreshadow the eventual breakdown of relationships with the Xiongnu.

Also in 2 CE, Wang Mang decided to have his daughter married to Emperor Ping to further affirm his position. Initially, he started a selection process of eligible noble young ladies (after declaring, in accordance with ancient customs, that Emperor Ping would have one wife and 11 concubines). However, in an act of false modesty intended to create the opposite result, he then petitioned Grand Empress Dowager Wang that his daughter not be considered—and then started a petition drive by the people to have his daughter selected as empress. The petitioners stormed the outside of the palace, and Grand Empress Dowager Wang, overwhelmed by the display of affection for Wang Mang, ordered that Wang Mang’s daughter be made empress. In 4 CE, Emperor Ping officially married her and made her empress.

Wang Mang’s son Wang Yu (王宇) disagreed with his father’s dictatorial regime and program to build up his personality cult, afraid that in the future the Wangs would receive a backlash when Emperor Ping was grown. He therefore formed friendships with Emperor Ping’s Wei uncles, and told Consort Wei to offer assurances to Wang Mang that she would not act as Emperor Ai’s mother and grandmother did, trying to become an empress dowager. Wang Mang still refused to let her visit the capital.

In 3 CE, Wang Yu formed a conspiracy with his teacher Wu Zhang (吳章), his brother-in-law Lü Kuan (呂寬), and the Weis, to try to see what they could do to break Wang Mang’s dictatorial hold. They decided that they would create what appeared to be supernatural incidents to make Wang Mang concerned, and then have Wu try to persuade Wang Mang to transfer power to the Weis. Wang Yu told Lü to toss a bottle of blood onto Wang Mang’s mansion door to create that effect—but Lü was discovered by Wang Mang’s guards. Wang Mang then arrested Wang Yu, who committed suicide, and his wife (Lü Kuan’s sister) Lü Yan (呂焉) was executed. Wang Mang subsequently executed the entire Wei clan, except for Consort Wei. Wu was cut in half and then drawn and quartered. (It is not known what happened to Lü, but it would appear that there would be no way for him to escape death.)

Wang Mang took this opportunity to further wipe out potential enemies—by torturing Wang Yu and Lü’s co-conspirators, arresting anyone that they mentioned, and having them either executed or forced to commit suicide. The victims of this purge included Emperor Yuan’s sister Princess Jingwu (敬武長公主), Wang Mang’s own uncle Wang Li, and his own cousin Wang Ren. He falsely told Grand Empress Dowager Wang, however, that they had died of illnesses. Many other officials who were not willing to follow Wang Mang were also victimized in this purge. After this, Wang Mang’s hold on power became absolute. In 5 CE, Wang Mang revived an ancient ceremony intended for those who have made great contributions to the state, and had himself given the nine bestowments (九錫). (The “nine bestowments” would, after Wang Mang, thereafter become a customary step for usurpers to receive before they usurped the throne.)

Circa 5 CE, Emperor Ping, having grown older, appeared to grow out of a heart condition from which he suffered as a child, and it became fairly plain that he resented Wang for slaughtering his uncles and not allowing his mother to visit him in Chang’an. Wang therefore resolved to murder the emperor. In the winter of 5 CE, Wang submitted pepper wine (considered in those days to be capable of chasing away evil spirits) to the 13-year-old emperor, but had the wine spiked with poison. As the emperor was suffering the effects of the poison, Wang wrote a secret petition to the gods, in which he offered to substitute his life for Emperor Ping’s, and then had the petition locked away. (Historians generally believed that Wang had two motives in doing this—one was, in case Emperor Ping recovered from the poisoning, to use this to try to absolve himself of involvement in the poisoning, and the second was to leave for posterity evidence of his faithfulness.) After a few days of suffering, Emperor Ping died.

As acting emperor

Because the young Emperor Ping had not had any children by his wife Empress Wang or any of his concubines, there was no heir. Further, by that point, Emperor Ping’s grandfather, Emperor Yuan had no surviving male issue. The progeny of Emperor Ping’s great-grandfather Emperor Xuan were therefore examined as possible successors.

There were 53 great-grandsons of Emperor Xuan then still living by this stage, but they were all adults, and Wang Mang disliked that fact—he wanted a child whom he could control. Therefore, he declared that it was inappropriate for members of the same generation to succeed each other (even though Emperor Ping had succeeded his cousin Emperor Ai several years earlier). He then examined the 23 great-great-grandsons of Emperor Xuan—all of whom were infants or toddlers.

While the examination process was proceeding, the mayor of South Chang’an submitted a rock with a mysterious red writing on it – “Wang Mang, the Duke of Anhan, should be emperor.” In May, Wang had his political allies force Grand Empress Dowager Wang to issue an edict granting him the title of “Acting Emperor” (假皇帝),[2] with the commission to rule as emperor until a great-great-grandson of Emperor Xuan could be selected and raised. To further bolster his claims, Wang also faked his genealogy, declaring himself a descendant of the Yellow Emperor, a legendary emperor revered in Chinese culture.[3]

In the spring of 6, Acting Emperor Wang selected the child Ying—then just one year old—as the designated successor to Emperor Ping, claiming that soothsayers told him that Ying was the candidate most favored by the gods. He gave Ying the epithet Ruzi – the same epithet that King Cheng of Zhou had when he was in his minority and under the regency of the Duke of Zhou – to claim that he was as faithful as the Duke of Zhou. However, Emperor Ruzi did not ascend the throne, but was given the title of crown prince. Empress Wang was given the title empress dowager.

As acting emperor, Wang reinstituted the Zhou system of five grades of nobility—duke (公, gong), marquess (侯, hou), earl (伯, bo), viscount (子, zi), and baron (男, nan).

Several members of the imperial Liu clan were naturally suspicious of Acting Emperor Wang’s intentions. They started or assisted in several failed rebellions against Wang:

  • In 6, Liu Chong (劉崇), the Marquess of Anzhong, made an attack against Wancheng (宛城, in modern Nanyang, Henan). His attack failed, but historians did not specify what happened to him, other than that as punishment, Wang had his house filled with filthy water.
  • In 7, Zhai Yi (翟義), the governor of the Commandery of Dong (roughly modern Puyang, Henan) and Liu Xin (劉信), the Marquess of Yanxiang (and the father of Liu Kuang (劉匡), the Prince of Dongping (roughly modern Tai’an, Shandong)) started the largest of these rebellions—and they were joined by agrarian rebellion leaders Zhao Peng (趙朋) and Huo Hong (霍鴻) from the area immediately west of the capital Chang’an. They declared Liu Xin emperor. Wang responded by sending messengers all around the nation to pledge that he will in fact return the throne to Emperor Ruzi once he was grown. Wang’s armies defeated Zhai and Liu’s armies in winter 7, and Zhai was captured and executed by drawing and quartering. Liu fled and was never captured. Zhao and Huo were also eventually defeated and executed.
  • In 9 (after Wang Mang had usurped the throne—see below), Liu Kuai (劉快), the Marquess of Xuxiang, attacked the Dukedom of Fuchong, of his brother Liu Ying (劉殷), the former Prince of Jiaodong. He was defeated and died while fleeing from the battle.
  • In 13, under Emperor Wang Mang’s rule, the Heavenly Stems were incorporated to number the years and replace the previous system which used only the Earthly Branches.

After Zhai and Liu Xin were defeated, Wang became even more convinced that the empire was entirely under his control, and decided to finally seize the throne and start a new dynasty. In the winter of 8, after receiving a false prophecy written by the hoodlum Ai Zhang (哀章) which pretended to be a divine decree from Emperor Gaozu (Liu Bang) stating that the throne should be given to Wang, and that Grand Empress Dowager Wang should follow this divine will, Wang issued a decree accepting the position of emperor, establishing the Xin Dynasty.


  1. Early Chinese dynasties were typically named after the fief of their founding dynast, and this reading is consistent with Wang Mang’s pre-imperial position as Marquess of Xin. In 1950, C.B. Sargent suggested that the name of the dynasty should be read as meaning “new”, which J.J.L. Duyvendak rejected out of hand. Chauncey S. Goodrich later convincingly argued that it may be possible to assign a semantic reading to xin, but that it ought to be read as renewed orrenewal, not simply new. See Goodrich, Chauncey S. (July 1957). “The Reign of Wang Mang: Hsin or New?”. Oriens. Leiden: Brill. 10(1): 114–8. doi:10.2307/1578760.
  2. Robert Hymes (2000). John Stewart Bowman, ed. Columbia Chronologies of Asian History and Culture. Columbia University Press. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-0-231-11004-4.
  3. Robert Hymes (2000). John Stewart Bowman, ed. Columbia Chronologies of Asian History and Culture. Columbia University Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-231-11004-4.
  4. Hallet, Nicole. “China and Antislavery”. Encyclopedia of Antislavery and Abolition, Vol. 1, p. 154 – 156. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. ISBN 0-313-33143-X.
  5. Taskin V.S. 1984. “Materials on history of Dunhu group nomadic tribes”, p.15, Moscow, Science)
  6. Dash, Mike (December 9, 2011). “Emperor Wang Mang: China’s First Socialist”. Past Imperfect blog. Smithsonian magazine. Retrieved 9 January 2014.

Works cited

  • Steven S. Drachman, “The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh”, Chickadee Prince Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-578-08590-6.
  • Loewe, Michael. “Wang Mang 王莽 (2)”. A Biographical Dictionary of the Qin, Former Han and Xin Periods (221 BC – AD 24). Leiden: Brill. pp. 536–45.
  • Rudi Thomsen, Ambition and confucianism : a biography of Wang Mang, Aarhus University Press, 1988. ISBN 87-7288-155-0.
  • Yap, Joseph P. “Wars With The Xiongnu, A Translation From Zizhi tongjian” Chapters 13–17, AuthorHouse (2009) ISBN 978-1-4490-0604-4

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