Wang Anshi

Wang Anshi (1021-1086) is one of China's most famous scholar-officials. Known as a reformers, he qualified at age 21 as an "advanced scholar" in the civil service examinations and wrote a 10,000-word memo to Emperor Rensong in 1058 arguing that China's officials were not fit for purpose, and needed better training. Appointed as privy counsellor in 1067, he launched "new policies" that included government loans for farmers and stimulating the economy by minting coins. He irritated conservatives by carrying out a land survey to reassess property taxes and doing away with recitation of classics and poetry composition in the civil service exams. Instead he put an emphasis on law, medicine and military science. Wang resigned in 1074, returned to civil service in 1075, then retired for good in 1076 to write poetry. David Hinton wrote that he was “one of the most powerful and controversial statesmen in Chinese history” who nevertheless “remained frugal almost to a fault and completely immune, even hostile, to the grandeur of high office and political power” [Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica; "The Late Poems of Wang An-Shih" by David Hinton]

Wang Anshi distinguished himself during a long term of service as a country magistrate. Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “The behaviour and competence of China's bureaucrats have defined the state for 2,000 years. But in the 11th Century came a visionary who did something almost unheard of - he tried to change the system. For the first 50 years of his life everything Wang Anshi touched turned to gold. To begin with, he came in fourth in the imperial civil service exam - quite an achievement, as Frances Wood, curator of the Chinese collection at the British Library explains: "To come in fourth in the whole of China… think of the size of China. To come fourth out of thousands? Tens of thousands of people? It's absolutely massive." “The successful Wang Anshi was sent off to administer a southern entrepreneurial city. You can imagine him on an inspection tour, peering out through the silk curtains of his sedan chair at the stallholders and hawkers. But after 20 years of this, it was clear to him that writing essays about Confucian virtue just wasn't relevant any more. A civil servant needed a different skill set." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 17, 2012 \=]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ In 1068, the young Shenzong Emperor (r. 1068.1085), then twenty years old, appointed Wang Anshi as Chief Councilor and charged him with carrying out a thorough-going reform of the empire’s finances, administration, education, and military. The intention was to address a serious problem: declining tax revenue and mounting government expenses, including the huge and growing cost of maintaining a large standing army. Wang Anshi proposed a series of reforms, including the “Crop Loans Measure” discussed in the memorial below. The reforms were carried out. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Good Websites and Sources Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; ; Chinese Text Project Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization

Wang Anshi’s Life and Career

Wang Anshi was born 1021 to a family of local public servants with several holders of jinshi degree (the highest and final degree in the Chinese imperial exam system) in present-day Fuzhou in Jiangxi province). Wang’s family was relatively poor. He lost his father when he was young and is believed to have had eight younger brothers and sisters. He placed fourth in the palace exam and obtained a jinshi degree in 1042. He began his career in the Song bureaucracy as a secretary (qianshu) and assistant to a military commissioner in what is now Yangzhou, Jiangsu province.. He was then promoted to district magistrate (zhixian) in present-day in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, where he won praise for reorganized water projects for to supply irrigation water and gave credits to the peasant. [Source: Wikipedia

Toru Makinoda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Anshi “tackled bold national administrative reforms, drawing upon his experience governing Ningbo early in his career. Ningbo served as a testing ground for Wang's reforms. Wang passed the difficult civil service examination in his 20s. He took a post in the local government in Ningbo, which was then called Yinxian Country, at the age of 27 and worked as a top local administrator for three years. When he discovered during an inspection that farmers were suffering from drought as waterways were damaged, he mobilized tens of thousands of residents to clear them and had them construct floodgates. To relieve farmers from starvation, Wang established a system that loaned stockpiled crops to farmers in need and asked them to replenish the supply after harvest, paying a small amount of interest. [Source: Makinoda, Toru, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 20, 2014]

“About 20 years after Wang worked as a top local administrator, Emperor Shenzong selected him as chancellor of the Northern Song, which was in its decline, to rebuilt the country. Wang inaugurated major reforms, called "xin fa" (new laws). Their main feature was a national system to prevent tenant farmers from accumulating debt to landowners by lending money and rice to farmers at low interest rates. Shen Xiaobao, author of a book about Wang, said: "The origin of the new laws can be found in Wang's policy of saving tenant farmers when he was a top local administrator in Yinxian Country. Wang believed in saving the weak and expanding wealth. He cared about the people, and this expressed in lined like “The lives of the people are important for the nation.” His philosophy incorporated not only Confucianism but also Buddhist egalitarianism. Shen said; “ His hardships growing up created the foundation of his basic principles.”

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “In 1067 a young emperor came to the throne, hungry for new ideas, and Wang Anshi got his chance. Once in the top ranks of the civil service, Wang Anshi set about diluting Confucius and surrounding himself with like-minded men. Morality was out, maths and medicine were in. "He was trying to reform the examination system," says Xun Zhou, a historian at Hong Kong university. "So he got rid of some of the subjects. He introduced more practical subjects, so that enabled people with practical skills into the government. And once they were in, Wang Anshi asked them practical questions. How can we improve education? How can we improve agriculture? How can we provide credit to farmers? How can we ensure a flow of goods? The civil service has a way of doing things, and in the 11th Century Wang Anshi was turning it upside down, asking the mandarins to roll up their sleeves and manage every corner of the economy. He wanted state loans for farmers, more taxes for landowners, centralised procurement. But he was not watching his back. He was too sure of himself and too focused on the big picture.” \=\

The new laws were sharply condemned by those with special interests such as landowners. The new laws exacerbated divisions and Wang was fired by the Emperor four years after the laws were deemed a failure. Wang spent the last years of his life in seclusion in present-day Nanjing

Wang Anshi’s Radical Reform Program


Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “In the 1050s, Wang began to formulate ideas for how government policies could be radically restructured to address underlying problems he saw with the Song model. His proposals fell on deaf ears; however, he was undeterred, and continued to submit memorials (official reports) to the throne with unusual recommendations. In 1067, a new emperor came to the throne. Known as Shenzong, he was young and ambitious; when Wang sent a memorial detailing policy proposals that he had now been polishing for a decade, the emperor was persuaded. Wang suddenly found himself Prime Minister, and he began to implement his reforms. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Wang Anshi’s reforms covered a broad range of issues. Some were strictly economic: for example, he instituted an ambitious program to provide government loans to farming families who needed seed and tools, and who were being crushed by usurious interest rates being charged by local landholders. Tax remissions were converted to cash payments, rather than payments in kind, to avoid the high transportation costs entailed with shipping grain and other goods used to remit tax obligations to the capital. Wang created a bureau for the management of state finance policy, and allowed increased local autonomy for state agencies in charge of government monopolies on goods such as salt and tea. In addition, Wang developed programs for the reorganization of the military supply system, and implemented a registration system for the population to make tax collection and law enforcement more manageable. /+/

“Other reforms addressed the issues of competence and control of the sub.bureaucracy. The curriculum for the exam system was altered to introduce new, practical training aspects. A special tax was created to fund the independent government appointment of "yamen" staffs, in an attempt to give the magistrates greater ability to free themselves from dependence on local elites, and to allow them to reward effective subordinates. An appointment track was created to allow for promotion of local "yamen" staff who demonstrated ability and integrity, and Wang proposed developing exams tailored for this semi-educated group. /+/

“These reform measures met with very strong resistance from traditionally minded Confucian officials. Where Wang’s policies were effective, they raised arguments on the basis of moral principle of historical precedent, where they were ineffective – and a number of them were – the opposition had ready ammunition to attack the entire enterprise. Perhaps no features of the reforms so angered traditionalists as the dilution of the Confucian exam system with elements of a practical curriculum, involving topics such as agriculture, animal husbandry, and water conservation. These mere technical arts were seen as details that could easily be managed by men fully trained in the enormous corpus of Confucian moral and historical texts. Moreover, the idea of promoting and creating an exam track for the semi-educated members of the subbureaucracy threatened in the long run to turn government over to men whose training was entirely in the art of service to the Legalist state, without any basis in the moral authority of Confucian teachings to act as a restraint on the autocratic impulses of the imperial court. The government effectively split into two camps on Wang’s reform policies, and the controversy proved so damaging that the emperor was forced to dismiss Wang in 1076. In his place, he appointed Sima Guang, a clear signal that Cultural Confucianism had prevailed.” /+/

Memorial on the Crop Loans Measure by Wang Anshi

Imperial Order

“Memorial on the Crop Loans Measure” by Wang Anshi: In the second year of Xining (1069), the Commission to Coordinate Fiscal Administration presented a memorial as follows: The cash and grain stored in the Ever.Normal and the Liberal.Charity granaries of the various circuits, counting roughly in strings of cash and bushels of grain, amount to more than 15 million. Their collection and distribution are not handled properly, however, and therefore we do not derive full benefit from them. Now we propose that the present amount of grain in storage should be sold at a price lower than the market price when the latter is high and that when the market price is low, the grain in the market should be purchased at a rate higher than the market price. We also propose that our reserves be made interchangeable with the proceeds of the land tax and the cash and grain held by the fiscal intendants, so that conversion of cash and grain may be permitted whenever convenient. [Source: “Memorial on the Crop Loans Measure” by Wang Anshi, 1021-1086, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 617-618; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

With the cash at hand, we propose to follow the example set by the crop loan system of Shaanxi province. Farmers desirous of borrowing money before the harvest should be granted loans, to be repaid at the same time as they pay their tax, half with the summer payment and half with the autumn payment.1 They are free to repay either in kind or in cash, should they prefer to do so if the price of grain is high at the time of repayment. In the event that disaster strikes, they should be allowed to defer payment until the date when the next harvest payment would be due. In this way not only would we be prepared to meet the distress of famine but since the people would receive loans from the government, it would be impossible for the monopolistic houses2 to exploit the gap between harvests by charging interest at twice the normal rate. [Notes: 1: Interest of 2 percent per month (24 percent per annum) was to be charged for the loans. Private moneylenders generally charged more. 2 This refers to usurers who seek to monopolize wealth in the form of money, goods, or land, but not to industrial monopolists in the modern sense.

“Under the system of Ever-Normal and Liberal-Charity Granaries, it has been the practice to keep the grain in storage and sell it only when the harvest is poor and the price of grain is high. Those who benefit from this are only the idle people in the cities. Now we propose to survey the situation in regard to surpluses and shortages in each circuit as a whole, to sell when grain is dear and buy when it is cheap, in order to increase the accumulation in government storage and to stabilize the prices of commodities. This will make it possible for the farmers to go ahead with their work at the proper season, while the monopolists will no longer be able to take advantage of their temporary stringency. All this is proposed in the interests of the people, and the government derives no advantage therefrom. Moreover, it accords with the idea of the ancient kings, who bestowed blessings upon all impartially and promoted whatever was of benefit by way of encouraging the cultivation and accumulation of grain.

Note: This proposal was adopted by the emperor and put into effect first in the limited areas of Hebei Jingtong, and Huainan, as suggested by the Commission to Coordinate Fiscal Administration. The results obtained were later considered to justify extension of the system to other areas.

Remonstrance Against the New Laws by Cheng Hao

Cheng Hao

Many in the court disagreed with Wang Anshi’ reforms. The following document is a memorial addressed to the Emperor — “Remonstrance Against the New Laws — by Cheng Hao (1032-1085), a contemporary and former supporter of Wang Anshi: “The mind of Your Majesty does not hesitate to make a change; it is only the minister in charge of the government who still persists in his obstinacy. Thus the people’s feelings are greatly agitated and public opinion becomes more clamorous. If one insists on carrying these policies out, certain failure awaits them in the end. … Rather than pursue one mistaken policy at the expense of a hundred other undertakings, would it not be better to bestow a grand favor and reassure the people’s minds by doing away with the disturbances caused by those sent out to enforce these decrees and by manifesting your humanity to the extent of abolishing the interest charged on the crop loans? [Source: “Remonstrance Against the New Laws” by Cheng Hao, 1032-1085, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition”, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 618-619; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Recently, your servant has presented repeated memorials asking for the abolition of the advancing of crop loans at interest1 and abolition of the [Economic] Administrators.2 Day and night [your servant] waits expectantly, and yet Your Majesty still has not acted upon them. … Now whether the state is secure or insecure depends upon the feelings of people; whether there is order or disorder hinges upon how things are handled at the start. If great numbers of people are opposed, then whatever one may say, one will not be believed; but if all the people are of one accord, then whatever one does will certainly succeed. …Your servant considers that Your Majesty already sees clearly into the heart of the matter and fully realizes what is right and what wrong. The mind of Your Majesty does not hesitate to make a change; it is only the minister in charge of the government who still persists in his obstinacy. [Notes: 1 The text is vague here, referring only to “advance allocations.” 2 Administering the various economic activities of the government, such as the Ever-Normal Granaries the salt and iron monopolies, and so on]

Thus the people’s feelings are greatly agitated and public opinion becomes more clamorous. If one insists on carrying these policies out, certain failure awaits them in the end. … Rather than pursue one mistaken policy at the expense of a hundred other undertakings, would it not be better to bestow a grand favor and reassure the people’s minds by doing away with the disturbances caused by those sent out to enforce these decrees and by manifesting your humanity to the extent of abolishing the interest charged on crop loans? Moreover, when the system of buying and selling grain is put back into effect, 3 our accumulated reserve will expand. The government will then be without fault in its administration, and public opinion will have no cause to be aroused.” [Note: 3 That is, when the reserves of the Ever-Normal Granaries are used for price-support operations rather than being committed to the lending program.]

Sima Guang: Wang Anshi rival and Historian of the Song Dynasty

Sima Guang

Sima Guang was a contemporary and rival of Wang Anshi. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The writing of history became an important literary form in the Han dynasty. Continued on a regular basis from then on, the art of history saw particularly significant development in the Tang and Northern Song periods with the work of historians such as Liu Zhiji (661-721), Du You (735-812), and Ouyang Xiu (1007-1070). However, the outstanding achievement of this period is that of Sima Guang (1019-1086). Sima, who served as a high-ranking official in the imperial government, was also an historian. His greatest work is a chronological account of all Chinese history prior to the Song in 294 chapters, entitled Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“From the Latter Han dynasty it had become the practice to have official historiographers at court taking notes on the emperor’s words and actions as he attended to state business. These matters were then written up and preserved in the archives as the Diaries of Action and Repose (Qijuzhu) to provide source material for later historians. Meanwhile, they impressed on the emperor that everything he said or did would be recorded for posterity. During the Tang it was still the practice to keep the records out of the reach of the imperial glance in order to assure objectivity. This was no longer the case in the Song, but memorialists continued to appeal to emperors to act in a manner that would ensure their posthumous reputation.

Sima Guang’s history was centered on emperors, and emperors needed to hear the truth about themselves face-to-face as well as having it recorded for posterity. The emperor in the following anecdote is Taizong, the de facto founder and second emperor of the Tang. Sima Guang’s comment is clearly addressed to his own emperor.

“Sima Guang has been much criticized for his defense of the “hegemons” (ba), leaders who during the Eastern Zhou were able to prevail for a time but none of whom succeeded in unifying China. Mencius had charged that these rulers, in contrast to genuine worthies, only pretended to virtue but Sima holds that they met the needs of their time. This, however, does not make him a historical relativist, for he stresses that there is only one Way.

“Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance” by Sima Guang

In “Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance”, Sima Guang wrote: “The year 642, summer, fourth month. The Emperor Taizong spoke to the Imperial Censor Chu Suiliang saying, “Since you, Sir, are in charge of the Diaries of Action and Repose, may I see what you have written?” Suiliang replied, “The historiographers record the words and deeds of the ruler of men, noting all that is good and bad, in hopes that the ruler will not dare to do evil. But it is unheard of that the ruler himself should see what is written.” The emperor said, “If I do something that is not good, do you then record it also?” Suiliang replied, “My office is to wield the brush. How could I dare not to record it?” The Gentleman of the Yellow Gate Liu Ji added “Even if Suiliang failed to record it, everyone else in the empire would” — to which the emperor replied, “True.” [Source: “Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance” by Sima Guang, 1019-1086 from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 656-658; [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

Sima Guang

Sima dates the following exchange, which he recapitulates as a basis for his own comment on the subject of the king and the hegemon, to 53 B.C. during the Former Han dynasty. The speakers are the heir apparent and future emperor Yuan (r. 49.33 B.C.) and his father, the reigning emperor, Xuan (r. 74.49 B.C.). The heir apparent appeals to his father to employ more Confucian scholars and fewer Legalists in his government.

“The emperor, troubled that many officials were taking bribes, secretly ordered his attendants to test some of them with bribes. When a registrar in the Board of Punishments took a roll of silk and the emperor wanted to have him executed, Minister of the Treasury Bei Zhu remonstrated “An official taking a bribe should be punished by death, but Your Majesty entrapped this man by sending someone to give it to him. This, I fear, is not ‘leading the people by virtue and restraining them by the rules of decorum.’[Analects 2:3] Delighted, the emperor summoned all officials above the fifth rank and told them, “Bei Zhu was able to contest this case forcefully at court and, did not pretend acquiescence. If every matter is handled this way, what cause will there be to worry about misgovernment?” Your official Guang comments, The ancients had a saying that if the ruler is enlightened, the ministers will be honest. That Bei Zhu was given to flattery under the Sui dynasty but to loyalty under the Tang was not because his personality changed: a ruler who resents hearing of his faults turns loyalty into flattery, but one who is pleased by straight talk turns flattery into loyalty. Thus we know that the ruler is the gnomon [or post for measuring the height of the sun], the minister the shadow. When the gnomon moves, the shadow follows.

“The heir apparent was soft and humane. He liked scholars but observed that many legal officials employed by the emperor used punishments in order to control subordinates. Once at a banquet he let himself go and said, “Your Majesty relies too heavily on punishments. It would be appropriate to employ scholars.” The emperor changed expression. “The House of Han has its own system based on mixing the way of the hegemon and that of the king. How could we possibly rely solely on moral instruction and employ Zhou governance? Moreover, ordinary scholars do not understand the needs of the day but like to affirm antiquity and deny the present, causing men to confuse name and reality so that they don’t know what to hold on to.

“How can they be entrusted with the state?” Your official Guang comments, There are not different ways for king and hegemon. Of old when the Three Dynasties flourished and “rites, music, and punitive expeditions proceeded from the Son of Heaven” [Analects 16:2] [the ruler] was called “king.” When the Son of Heaven became weak and was unable to control the lords, there appeared among them those who could lead allied states to punish false states, thereby honoring the royal house: these were called hegemons.

Wang Anshi Versus Sima Guang

Wang Anshi

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “ The eleventh century is remembered historically for the greatest policy battle in Chinese history. One side of the battle was represented by the great historian-Prime Minister Sima Guang, the leader of the Cultural Conservatives. His adversary was a man named Wang Anshi (1021-86), who is generally remembered either as the greatest of political visionaries, or as a radical and unbalanced man, who led China into a grand misadventure. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In the 1050s, Wang began to formulate ideas for how government policies could be radically restructured to address underlying problems he saw with the Song model. Wang Anshi’s background was more modest than many of the leaders of the Cultural Conservatives. He came from a family that was well off, but not prominent, and he spent the early part of his career, after passing through the exam system, working his way up the ladder of appointment. Like Sima Guang, Wang was an independent minded scholar, but his scholarship was rather unorthodox; he tended to concentrate on Confucian texts that were not the focus of the official curriculum, and to interpret them in new and novel ways. /+/

At a time when the Song Dynasty was experiencing economic and foreign policy problems, Wang Anshi proposed a new style of government. "The pressure of hostile forces on the borders is a constant menace. The resources of the Empire are rapidly approaching exhaustion, and public life is getting more and more decadent," he wrote to the emperor. "There never has been such a scarcity of capable men in the service of the State. Even if they should go on learning in school until their hair turned grey, they would have only the vaguest notion of what to do in office...No matter how fine the orders of the Court, the benefit is never realised by the people because of the incapacity of local officials. Moreover, some take advantage of these orders to carry on corrupt practices.” [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 17, 2012 \=]

“Cultural Confucianism” and Political Struggles in the 11th Century

Sima Guang was a proponent of what became called “Cultural Confucianism”. Dr. Eno wrote: “The early Song leaders placed great emphasis on civil government, as opposed to military, and part of this involved active sponsorship of education and scholarship. The term for the civil aspects of society, "wen", denoted far more than the non-military features of the state. "Wen" denoted the patterns of art and social refinement of the past, and the goal of perfecting “wen society” was not pictured in economic terms, it expressed the ambition to create a cultural flourishing that would reflect the essence of sage wisdom, as that was portrayed in the Confucian canonical texts. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In pursuit of this goal, the imperial court commissioned massive compilations of literary compendia, encyclopedias, and histories, that could bring together the now thousand year-old traditions of the “Confucian” state. Scholarship – pure scholarship – enjoyed a prestige beyond anything seen in past eras. The government’s interest in recruiting scholar-officials through the exam system became increasingly focused on the credentials of scholarship, an ideal that naturally now incorporated the artistic elements of poetry and, increasingly, calligraphy and painting, that had become central to the profile of the "literatus". /+/

“In response to this direction of government ambition, each generation of examination candidates seemed to produce leading graduates whose scholarly virtuosity reached new heights. The intellectual history of the early Song is peopled by men whose encyclopedic knowledge and literary skill remain unsurpassed in later Chinese history. Since one’s standing in the examination results determined the level at which one’s official career would begin, many of these outstanding scholars became leaders of government, and naturally, they perpetuated this trend to demand increasingly deep scholarly credentials for the next generation of exam candidates.” /+/

Competence and Corruption Among Scholar-Officials

Dr. Eno wrote: “As we have noted before, while the Han Dynasty decision to credential officers of state through a system of Confucian education ensured that government was directed by literate and generally thoughtful men, chosen on the basis of merit, the nature of the Confucian curriculum meant that these officials were not often trained to address directly the practical concerns of governance. These matters included both the demands directly made by the imperial Legalist state, including tax collection and law enforcement, and also a range of issues that varied according local needs: agriculture and water conservancy, maintenance of commercial roads or waterways, supervision of market practices, and so forth. These were not matters that were covered in any detail in the Confucian curriculum. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

right“Although all Chinese governments exercised the absolute power that Legalism prescribed, against which subjects had little or no defense, the degree to which the government controlled society was, in fact, significantly limited by the size of the centrally appointed government, which was actually quite small by modern standards. Although there was a lavish court establishment, much of it staffed by imperial favorites, eunuchs, and others who were not products of the exam system, the actual number of men who were appointed to official position with jurisdiction over the subjects of the realm was generally in the neighborhood of forty thousand. This group of men, exam graduates, aspired to high office in the central government at the capital, but their initial postings, and for many, the only type of appointment they received, were to serve as local “magistrates,” that is, as the sole representatives of the central government in the thousands of small counties of China. From these positions, they might rise to higher status on the local level, for example, a “prefect,” who administered a major urban center or cluster of rural counties, or to a major appointment outside the capital as a provincial governor – and of course, most hoped to rise to positions at the capital. However, the key representatives of the government were truly the lower.level local magistrates – they did not set policy, but they had to implement it, and do so in a way that was responsive to local needs. /+/

“Apart from the fact that their Confucian training provided the men who served as magistrates with few tools to respond to the practical needs of office, there were other major obstacles to success. In order to guard against corruption, there was an inflexible “rule of avoidance” that forbade the appointment of any magistrate to the district from which he himself came. Consequently, many young exam graduates found themselves sent to a remote area of the empire, where they were unfamiliar with the people, the customs, and often even with the spoken language. There, without any other officers of state in their district, they attempted to manage the “yamen “(magistrate’s office), coordinate the police, manage tax collection, act as investigator and judge in criminal and civil court cases, and administer a range of other tasks that varied with their district. /+/

“Obviously, this was not a task a single person could accomplish without help, and, indeed, the government included in the salary of the magistrate funds to hire a “yamen “staff and police force that could implement his orders. Unfortunately, there was no exam system for these appointments, and little way for a magistrate to determine which men of his district were appropriate for these appointments. Magistrates served in their district for only a few years at a time, and as they rotated, they tended to retain the staff hired by their predecessors. But where did these “”yamen “runners” come from. /+/

“Basically, the staff of the “yamen “was drawn from or recommended by the most powerful families in the district. These were generally landholding families, often called “gentry,” who had amassed wealth and local prestige through merchant activities, association with government officials – sometimes their own sons were exam graduates – or successful careers in various criminal activities. All too often, especially in rural districts, local society was dominated by families who used their wealth and reputations to bully the peasants and coerce from them high rents for land, various tribute payments, and unpaid forms of service. When a magistrate arrived to represent the central government, he was, in a sense, in competition with a local power structure that was designed not to serve the government, but to serve the local elite. And the staff he was provided with to help him compete with the local elite was often put forward by and beholden to that same local elite. Frequently, local families underwrote the costs of hiring personnel, since the magistrate’s funds were very limited, and it was in the interest of the families to have their agents infiltrate the “yamen”. /+/

“Consequently, there were two basic types of gaps that existed at the level of local government, where imperial policy was most directly implemented. First, the training of the officers of state did not closely match the practical challenges of governance that they faced. Second, the personnel who comprised what we call the “subbureaucracy” was not aligned with the goals of the state, and were often, in fact, agents of a corrupt local power structure. /+/

“As the Cultural Confucians continued to raise the standards of classical scholarship demanded by the exams that qualified men for government service, the consequence was that the men who succeeded in earning government appointment were increasingly well screened for intelligence and ambition, but increasingly less familiar with the practical and technical aspects of society that they would be called upon to address once their quest for appointment was successful. /+/

Wang Anshi's Downfall

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: A drought and a famine overtook Wang Anshi. “It was the opportunity his rivals had been waiting for. "You have this clash between someone who is obviously very bright, very brilliant, and then he's faced with these corrupt people who've managed to buy their way in," says Frances Wood. As is often the case, the good man comes up against entrenched, corrupt bureaucrats who didn't want any changes and they turned the emperor against him." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 17, 2012 \=]

Dr. Eno wrote: “The reform movement did not die with Wang’s dismissal. Four years later, Sima Guang was dismissed and Wang was recalled. In many respects, the competition between the two developing factions was reinforced by differences in the personal styles of their leaders. While Sima Guang was an exemplary orthodox Confucian “literatus”, broad in his tastes and talents, and scrupulous in his manner, Wang was a very different type of person. Not only was his scholarship unorthodox, but he was a man careless of appearance, indifferent to aesthetics (though a poet of some accomplishment), and boorish in his personal manner. These features became mixed together with policy issues in the minds of his opponents; Wang’s lack of “literati “graces made him an easy target, and he and his reforms were opposed as a revival of the spirit of Qin Legalism. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Gracie wrote: “Wang Anshi was not the type to compromise - getting other people on side was not his style. But added to that, it would have been dangerous to be seen building a faction. That way, in China, lies disaster. Mandarins c.1400 Officials have dominated Chinese life for centuries "If the emperor perceives that there's a group of people, a group can grow into something bigger, and I think it's almost more dangerous to be part of a group than it is to be a lone figure crying wolf," says Wood. "Because you're disgraced, but you can't be accused of being a conspirator." So it's a difficult game to be a reformist in China. It's safer to stick with the prevailing wisdom, and keep your head down. Wang Anshi retired in 1076, depressed by demotion and the death of his son. He spent the final years of his life writing poetry.” \=\

Lucas Klein wrote in the LA Review of Books: “After he retired to Zhongshan, or Bell Mountain, in Jiangsu province, to live as a recluse and to spend “his last decade wandering among the mountains and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist monasteries of southeast China, writing the poetry that made him one of the greatest poets in a great poetic age.” On of his poems “Sent to Candor-Sky” goes:
“I follow a creek, goosefoot walking-stick in hand, then set out
across bridges. Can anyone share autumn’s depths of crystalline
quiet? I linger on East Ridge and wonder, wonder. Here, it’s all
ravaged grasses, clouds gone cold, evening distances, distances. [Source: Lucas Klein, LA Review of Books, July 14, 2016]

Legacy of Wang Anshi’s Radical Reform Program

Dr. Eno wrote: “Nor did the battle subside when, in 1086, Shenzong, Sima Guang, and Wang Anshi all died. Shenzong was succeeded by a child emperor, whose mother, acting as regent, enacted a radical repeal of all Wang’s programs, prompting renewed activism by reformists. When the empress-regent died in 1093, another reversal of policy occurred. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“As this dramatic oscillation of policy continued, the politics behind it became increasingly bitter and factionalized. The Cultural Confucians and Pragmatic Reformers were not just two groups with different policy orientations, their struggle became deeply personalized. At the point of one policy shift, the incoming faction ordered that the bodies of recently deceased political enemies be taken from their graves and flailed for their political crimes, a gesture more deeply offensive than outright murder in a culture that prized ancestors over the living. /+/

“Ultimately, this bitter factionalism contributed to a fatal weakening of the central government. While it was certainly not the only cause for the Song state’s inability to resist the invasion of the Jurchen armies a quarter century later, the unhealed scars of these political battles were a major contributor to dynastic weakness, and the disaster of 1127 constituted a major blow to the authority of both the Cultural Confucian and Reformist factions of government. /+/

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “In the 20th Century some communists hailed him as an early socialist. But for nearly 1,000 years he was the black sheep of the bureaucracy, and the failure of his reform programme, a cautionary tale. "By and large, Wang Anshi remains an example of what not to do," says Bol. "There is this radical turn against increasing the state's role in society and the economy. And it doesn't happen again until the 20th Century. "Because in the 20th Century, the communists picked up some of Wang Anshi's ideas again and rescued his reputation." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 17, 2012]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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