Wang Mang

The Yellow River flooded in A.D. 11 causing a famine and mass migration that was followed by a massive drought that helped set off a series of rebellions that led to the ouster of Wang Mang and the downfall of the first the Han Dynasty. By A.D. 25 a descendants of Western Han royalty had retaken the throne, establishing the eastern Han Dynasty which lasted another 200 years.

Towards the end of Wu Di's rule the treasury was running low as a result of resources spent on military campaigns and expansion and money embezzled by corrupt officials. In the meantime local aristocrats were bleeding the peasantry dry with high taxes, creating conditions ripe for revolt and chaos.

In A.D. 9, Wang Mang usurped the throne from the Liu family. To this day Liu men are reluctant to marry women from the Wang family because it is believed they bring disaster. In any case, Wang Mang tried to right some of the wrongs committed against the peasantry but was ultimately driven from power in riots that occurred after terrible Yellow River floods and had his head chopped off by a group who splashed paint on their foreheads and called themselves the Red Eyebrows.

While the Red Eyebrows were sacking Changsan, a new member of the Liu clan, Liu Xiu, established a new capital in Luoyang, ushering in the Eastern Han dynasty. The Liu's remained in power for another 195 years in Luoyang.

Good Websites and Sources: Han Dynasty Wikipedia ; Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu

Decline of the Han the Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The wars carried on by Wu Di and his successors had been ruinous. The maintenance of large armies of occupation in the new regions, especially in Turkestan, also meant a permanent drain on the national funds. There was a special need for horses, for the people of the steppes could only be fought by means of cavalry. As the Xiongnu were supplying no horses, and the campaigns were not producing horses enough as booty, the peasants had to rear horses for the government. Additional horses were bought at very high prices, and apart from this the general financing of the wars necessitated increased taxation of the peasants, a burden on agriculture no less serious than was the enrolment of many peasants for military service. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Finally, the new external trade did not by any means bring the advantages that had been hoped for. The tribute missions brought tribute but, to begin with, this meant an obligation to give presents in return; moreover, these missions had to be fed and housed in the capital, often for months, as the official receptions took place only on New Year's Day. Their maintenance entailed much expense, and meanwhile the members of the missions traded privately with the inhabitants and the merchants of the capital, buying things they needed and selling things they had brought in addition to the tribute. The tribute itself consisted mainly of "precious articles", which meant strange or rare things of no practical value. The emperor made use of them as elements of personal luxury, or made presents of some of them to deserving officials. The gifts offered by the Chinese in return consisted mainly of silk. Silk was received by the government as a part of the tax payments and formed an important element of the revenue of the state. It now went abroad without bringing in any corresponding return.

The private trade carried on by the members of the missions was equally unserviceable to the Chinese. It, too, took from them goods of economic value, silk and gold, which went abroad in exchange for luxury articles of little or no economic importance, such as glass, precious stones, or stud horses, which in no way benefited the general population. Thus in this last century B.C. China's economic situation grew steadily and fairly rapidly worse. The peasants, more heavily taxed than ever, were impoverished, and yet the exchequer became not fuller but emptier, so that gold began even to be no longer available for payments. Wu Di was aware of the situation and called different groups together to discuss the problems of economics. Under the name "Discussions on Salt and Iron" the gist of these talks is preserved and shows that one group under the leadership of Sang Hung-yang (143-80 B.C.) was business-oriented and thinking in economic terms, while their opponents, mainly Confucianists, regarded the situation mainly as a moral crisis. Sang proposed an "equable transportation" and a "standardization" system and favoured other state monopolies and controls; these ideas were taken up later and continued to be discussed, again and again.

Han Dynasty Cliques

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Already under Wu Di there had been signs of a development which now appeared constantly in Chinese history. Among the new gentry, families entered into alliances with each other, sealed their mutual allegiance by matrimonial unions, and so formed large cliques. Each clique made it its concern to get the most important government positions into its hands, so that it should itself control the government. Under Wu Di, for example, almost all the important generals had belonged to a certain clique, which remained dominant under his two successors. Two of the chief means of attaining power were for such a clique to give the emperor a girl from its ranks as wife, and to see to it that all the eunuchs around the emperor should be persons dependent on the clique. Eunuchs came generally from the poorer classes; they were launched at court by members of the great cliques, or quite openly presented to the emperor. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The chief influence of the cliques lay, however, in the selection of officials. It is not surprising that the officials recommended only sons of people in their own clique—their family or its closest associates. On top of all this, the examiners were in most cases themselves members of the same families to which the provincial officials belonged. Thus it was made doubly certain that only those candidates who were to the liking of the dominant group among the gentry should pass.

“Surrounded by these cliques, the emperors became in most cases powerless figureheads. At times energetic rulers were able to play off various cliques against each other, and so to acquire personal power; but the weaker emperors found themselves entirely in the hands of cliques. Not a few emperors in China were removed by cliques which they had attempted to resist; and various dynasties were brought to their end by the cliques; this was the fate of the Han dynasty.

Wang Mang

Wang Mang was first and last emperor of China's Xin Dynasty (A.D. 9 - 23), a brief period that interrupted the Han dynasty, dividing it into the periods of the Western Han (206 B.C. - A.D. 9) and the Eastern Han (A.D. 23- 220). In A.D. 9, Wang nationalized his state's land and redistributed it to the peasantry — a revolutionary act cost him his throne and his life. Even today his motives remain unclear.

Tristan Shaw wrote in Listverse: Some 1,900 years before Mao Zedong founded the communist People’s Republic of China, China’s first “socialist” ruler, Wang Mang, seized power from a child emperor and founded the Xin dynasty in AD 9. Wang, an ambitious and socially conscious reformer, embarked on a number of policies that many later historians have interpreted as socialistic. In an attempt to fix China’s dire economic situation and a starving and poor peasantry, Wang’s government took control of all the land in the country and ordered that rich landholders equally redistribute their estates. He also introduced price controls, banned the slave trade, and confiscated thousands of pounds of gold to weaken the power of the elite.[Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016]

“Not surprisingly, the country’s rich merchants and nobles weren’t very enthusiastic about Wang’s new policies. The reforms only worsened China’s terrible economic crisis, and Wang called them off after only eight years. Wang’s timing, however, proved to be too late. A civil war erupted, and both the elite and the peasantry that he had tried to help took up arms against him. By the fall of AD 23, Wang realized that his situation was hopeless. As the rebels approached his capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an), Wang lingered in his palace, consorting with magicians and trying to cast spells. On October 7 of that year, the rebels invaded Chang’an and stormed Wang’s palace. They beheaded him and then dismembered his body, bringing an end to the first and last Xin emperor.”

Rise of Wang Mang

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The beginning of its fall came with the activities of the widow of the emperor Yuan-di (Yuan Di, Yuan Ti, ruled 49–33 B.C.). She virtually ruled in the name of her eighteen-year-old son, the emperor Cheng-di Chengdi, Ch'eng Ti, 33–7 B.C.); (32-7 B.C.), and placed all her brothers, and also her nephew, Wang Mang, in the principal government posts. They succeeded at first in either removing the strongest of the other cliques or bringing them into dependence. Within the Wang family the nephew Wang Mang steadily advanced, securing direct supporters even in some branches of the imperial family; these personages declared their readiness to join him in removing the existing line of the imperial house. When Cheng-di died without issue, a young nephew of his (Ai-di, Aidi, 6-1 B.C.) was placed on the throne by Wang Mang, and during this period the power of the Wangs and their allies grew further, until all their opponents had been removed and the influence of the imperial family very greatly reduced. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

When Ai-di died, Wang Mang placed an eight-year-old boy on the throne, himself acting as regent; four years later the boy fell ill and died, probably with Wang Mang's aid. Wang Mang now chose a one-year-old baby, but soon after he felt that the time had come for officially assuming the rulership. In A.D. 8 he dethroned the baby, ostensibly at Heaven's command, and declared himself emperor and first of the Hsin ("new") dynasty. All the members of the old imperial family in the capital were removed from office and degraded to commoners, with the exception of those who had already been supporting Wang Mang. Only those members who held unimportant posts at a distance remained untouched.

“Wang Mang's "usurpation" is unusual from two points of view. First, he paid great attention to public opinion and induced large masses of the population to write petitions to the court asking the Han ruler to abdicate; he even fabricated "heavenly omina" in his own favour and against the Han dynasty in order to get wide support even from intellectuals. Secondly, he inaugurated a formal abdication ceremony, culminating in the transfer of the imperial seal to himself. This ceremony became standard for the next centuries. The seal was made of a precious stone, once Qin dynasty ruler before he ascended the throne. From now on, the possessor of this seal was the legitimate ruler.

Wang Mang: the Tyrant with Bulging Eyes?

Mike Dash wrote in smithsonian.com: “Wang Mang may be the most controversial of China’s hundred or more emperors. Born into one of his country’s oldest noble families in about 45 B.C., he was celebrated first as a scholar, then as an ascetic and finally as regent for a succession of young and short-lived emperors. Finally, in 9 A.D., with the death (many believe the murder) of the last of these infant rulers, Wang seized the throne for himself. His usurpation marked the end of the Former Han Dynasty, which had reigned since 206 B.C...In the Han’s place, Wang proclaimed the Xin—”new”—dynasty, of which he was destined to remain the solitary emperor. [Source: Mike Dash, smithsonian.com, December 9, 2011 ~~]

“The 14 years of Wang Mang’s reign can be divided into two parts: eight years of dramatic reform followed by six of escalating rebellion. The first period witnessed attempts to overhaul the entire system of imperial government, though whether the emperor intended to return China to the days of the semi-legendary Zhou Dynasty, which had ruled China before the Han, or introduce radical new policies of his own, remains hotly disputed. The second period witnessed the upheaval known as the Red Eyebrow Rebellion (an attempt by desperate and essentially conservative peasants to reverse some of Wang’s riskier reforms), the resurgence of the Han and the deaths of an estimated 25 million people—perhaps half the total Chinese population at that time. ~~

“Any attempt to assess Wang’s reign is beset with difficulties. Usurpers rarely enjoy a good press, but China has always treated its rebel rulers rather differently. In imperial times, it was believed that all emperors ruled thanks to the “mandate of heaven,” and hence were themselves the Sons of Heaven, practically divine. It was, however, perfectly possibly to lose this mandate. Portents such as comets and natural disasters could be interpreted as heaven’s warning to a ruler to mend his ways; any emperor who subsequently lost his throne in an uprising was understood to have forfeited heaven’s approval. At that point, he became illegitimate and his successor, no matter how humble his origins, assumed the mantle of Son of Heaven. ~~

“From the point of view of Chinese historiography, however, emperors who lost their thrones had never been legitimate to begin with, and their histories would be written with a view to demonstrating just how lacking in the necessary virtues they had always been. Wang Mang provoked a devastating civil war that ended with a large proportion of his empire in arms against him. Because of this, the historian Clyde Sargent stresses, he “traditionally has been considered as one of the greatest tyrants and despots in Chinese history.” No line of the official account of his reign views his policies as justified or positive. Even its description of his features reflects bias; as Hans Bielenstein observes, Wang “is described as having a large mouth and a receding chin, bulging eyes with brilliant pupils, and a loud voice which was hoarse.” ~~

Wang Mang’s Xin Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Wang Mang's dynasty lasted only from A.D. 9 to 23; but it was one of the most stirring periods of Chinese history. It is difficult to evaluate Wang Mang, because all we know about him stems from sources hostile towards him. Yet we gain the impression that some of his innovations, such as the legalization of enthronement through the transfer of the seal; the changes in the administration of provinces and in the bureaucratic set-up in the capital; and even some of his economic measures were so highly regarded that they were retained or reintroduced, although this happened in some instances centuries later and without mentioning Wang Mang's name. But most of his policies and actions were certainly neither accepted nor acceptable. He made use of every conceivable resource in order to secure power to his clique. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“As far as possible he avoided using open force, and resorted to a high-level propaganda. Confucianism, the philosophic basis of the power of the gentry, served him as a bait; he made use of the so-called "old character school" for his purposes. When, after the holocaust of books, it was desired to collect the ancient classics again, texts were found under strange circumstances in the walls of Confucius's house; they were written in an archaic script. The people who occupied themselves with these books were called the old character school. The texts came under suspicion; most scholars had little belief in their genuineness. Wang Mang, however, and his creatures energetically supported the cult of these ancient writings. The texts were edited and issued, and in the process, as can now be seen, certain things were smuggled into them that fitted in well with Wang Mang's intentions. He even had other texts reissued with falsifications.

“He now represented himself in all his actions as a man who did with the utmost precision the things which the books reported of rulers or ministers of ancient times. As regent he had declared that his model was the brother of the first emperor of the Zhou dynasty; as emperor he took for his exemplar one of the mythical emperors of ancient China; of his new laws he claimed that they were simply revivals of decrees of the golden age. In all this he appealed to the authority of literature that had been tampered with to suit his aims. Actually, such laws had never before been customary; either Wang Mang completely misinterpreted passages in an ancient text to suit his purpose, or he had dicta that suited him smuggled into the text. There can be no question that Wang Mang and his accomplices began by deliberately falsifying and deceiving. However, as time went on, he probably began to believe in his own frauds.

Wang Mang: China’s First Socialist?

Mike Dash wrote in smithsonian.com: “More recently, however, Wang Mang has undergone a startling reappraisal. This process can be dated to 1928 and the publication of a study by Hu Shih, a renowned scholar who was then the Chinese ambassador to the United States. In Hu’s view, it was the Han Dynasty that most richly deserved condemnation, for having produced “a long line of degenerate scions.” Wang Mang, on the other hand, lived simply, thought deeply and was “the first man to win the empire without an armed revolution.” Moreover, Wang then nationalized his empire’s land, distributed it equally to his subjects, cut land taxes from 50 percent to 10, and was, all in all, “frankly communistic”—a remark Hu intended as a compliment. [Source: Mike Dash, smithsonian.com, December 9, 2011 ~~]

“Hu Shih’s portrayal of Wang Mang has been hotly disputed since he wrote it, and understanding what the emperor really thought, or intended, during his reign is rendered all but impossible by the scarcity of sources. With the exception of a few coins and a handful of archaeological remains, all that is known of Wang is contained in his official biography, which appears as Chapter 99 of the History of the Han Dynasty, compiled shortly before 100 A.D. This is quite a lengthy document—the longest of all the imperial biographies that survive from this period—but by its very nature it is implacably opposed to the usurper-emperor. To make matters worse, while the History says a good deal about what Wang did, it tells us very little about why he did it. In particular, it displays no real interest in his economic policies.” ~~

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Wang Mang's great series of certain laws has brought him the name of "the first Socialist on the throne of China". But closer consideration reveals that these measures, ostensibly and especially aimed at the good of the poor, were in reality devised simply in order to fill the imperial exchequer and to consolidate the imperial power. When we read of the turning over of great landed estates to the state, do we not imagine that we are faced with a modern land reform? But this applied only to the wealthiest of all the landowners, who were to be deprived in this way of their power. The prohibition of private slave-owning had a similar purpose, the state reserving to itself the right to keep slaves. Moreover, landless peasants were to receive land to till, at the expense of those who possessed too much. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“This admirable law, however, was not intended seriously to be carried into effect. Instead, the setting up of a system of state credits for peasants held out the promise, in spite of rather reduced interest rates, of important revenue. The peasants had never been in a position to pay back their private debts together with the usurious interest, but there were at least opportunities of coming to terms with a private usurer, whereas the state proved a merciless creditor. It could dispossess the peasant, and either turn his property into a state farm, convey it to another owner, or make the peasant a state slave. Thus this measure worked against the interest of the peasants, as did the state monopoly of the exploitation of mountains and lakes. "Mountains and lakes" meant the uncultivated land around settlements, the "village commons", where people collected firewood or went fishing. They now had to pay money for fishing rights and for the right to collect wood, money for the emperor's exchequer. The same purpose lay behind the wine, salt, and iron tool monopolies. Enormous revenues came to the state from the monopoly of minting coin, when old metal coin of full value was called in and exchanged for debased coin. Another modern-sounding institution, that of the "equalization offices", was supposed to buy cheap goods in times of plenty in order to sell them to the people in times of scarcity at similarly low prices, so preventing want and also preventing excessive price fluctuations. In actual fact these state offices formed a new source of profit, buying cheaply and selling as dearly as possible.

“Thus the character of these laws was in no way socialistic; nor, however, did they provide an El Dorado for the state finances, for Wang Mang's officials turned all the laws to their private advantage. The revenues rarely reached the capital; they vanished into the pockets of subordinate officials. The result was a further serious lowering of the level of existence of the peasant population, with no addition to the financial resources of the state. Yet Wang Mang had great need of money, because he attached importance to display and because he was planning a new war.

Wang Mang’s Reforms

Wang Mang knife coin

Mike Dash wrote in smithsonian.com: “The little that is known about Wang Mang’s reforms can be summarized as follows. It is said he invented an early form of social security payments, collecting taxes from the wealthy to make loans to the traditionally uncreditworthy poor. He certainly introduced the “six controls”—government monopolies on key products such as iron and salt that Hu Shih saw as a form of “state socialism”—and was responsible for a policy known as the Five Equalizations, an elaborate attempt to damp down fluctuations in prices. Even Wang’s harshest modern critics agree that his ban on the sale of cultivated land was an attempt to save desperate farmers from the temptation to sell up during times of famine; instead, his state provided disaster relief. Later the emperor imposed a ruinous tax upon slave owners. It is equally possible to interpret this tax as either an attempt to make slaveholding impossible or as a naked grab for money. [Source: Mike Dash, smithsonian.com, December 9, 2011 ~~]

“Of all Wang Mang’s policies, however, two stand out: his land reforms and the changes he made to China’s money. As early as 6 A.D., when he was still merely regent for an infant named Liu Ying, Wang ordered the withdrawal of the empire’s gold-based coins and their replacement with four bronze denominations of purely nominal value—round coins with values of one and 50 cash and larger, knife-shaped coins worth 500 and 5,000 cash. Since Wang’s 50-cash coins had only 1/20th the bronze per cash as his smallest coins did, and his 5,000-cash coins were minted with proportionally even less, the effect was to substitute fiduciary currency for a Han dynasty gold standard. Simultaneously, Wang ordered the recall of all the gold in the empire. Thousands of tons of the precious metal were seized and stored in the imperial treasury, and the dramatic decrease in its availability was felt as far away as Rome, where the Emperor Augustus was forced to ban the purchase of expensive imported silks with what had become—mysteriously, from the Roman point of view—irreplaceable gold coins. In China, the new bronze coinage produced rampant inflation and a sharp increase in counterfeiting. ~~

“Wang Mang’s land reforms, meanwhile, appear even more consciously revolutionary. “The strong,” Wang wrote, “possess lands by the thousands of mu, while the weak have nowhere to place a needle.” His solution was to nationalize all land, confiscating the estates of all those who possessed more than 100 acres, and to distribute it to those who actually farmed it. Under this, the so-called ching system, each family received about five acres and paid the state tax in the form of 10 percent of all the food they grew.” ~~

Wang Mang’s Motivations

Mike Dash wrote in smithsonian.com: “Historians are divided as to Wang Mang’s intentions. Several, led by Bielenstein, suggest that catastrophic changes in the course of the Yellow River took place during his regency period, resulting in famine, drought and flood; if this is true, it can certainly be argued that Wang spent his entire reign battling forces that he could not possibly control. But the majority of modern accounts of Wang’s reign see him as a Confucian, not a communist. Bielenstein, in his contribution to the imposing Cambridge History of China, says this, though he chooses to ignore some of the more contentious issues. And while Clyde Sargent (who translated the History of the Han Dynasty) acknowledges the “startling modernity” of the emperor’s ideas, he adds that there is insufficient evidence to prove he was a revolutionary. For Oxford University’s Homer Dubs, author of the standard account of Wang’s economic policies, the emperor’s new coins were issued in conscious imitation of an ancient tradition, dating to the Warring States period, of circulating two denominations of bronze coins. Indeed, the emperor’s monetary policy, Dubs writes, can be viewed as a purely “Confucian practice, since a cardinal Confucian principle was the imitation of the ancient sages”; he also points out that the loans the emperor made available to “needy persons” came with a high interest rate, 3 percent per month. Moreover, few of the emperor’s most apparently socialist policies remained in force in the face of widespread protest and rebellion. “In the abolition of slavery and the restriction of land holdings,” Dubs writes, “Wang Mang undoubtedly hit upon a measure that would have benefited society, but these reforms were rescinded within two years.” [Source: Mike Dash, smithsonian.com, December 9, 2011 ~~]

“For Dubs, the usurper’s policies have mundane origins. None, he argues, was truly revolutionary, or even original to Wang. Even the celebrated land reforms were the product of a Confucian tradition, “said to have been universal in Zhou times”—and were little more than “the dream of idealistic scholars,” since the five-acre parcels handed out to peasant families were too small to make practical farms. (According to the contemporary imperial historian Ban Gu, 10 or 15 acres was the minimum needed to support a family.) ~~

“Others argue that the emperor really did have radical ideas. Tye joins Hu Shih in preferring this interpretation, commenting on the “astonishing breadth” of Wang Mang’s program, from “a national bank offering fair rates of interest to all” and a merit-based pay structure for bureaucrats to “strikingly pragmatic” taxes—among them what amounted to the world’s first income tax. For Tye, the monetary expert, Wang’s fiscal reforms were intended to impoverish wealthy nobles and merchants, who were the only people in the empire to possess substantial quantities of gold. His bronze coins, in this interpretation, released the less-privileged (who owed money) from the curse of debt, while having practically no effect on a peasantry who lived by barter.

“Wang’s view of the economic chaos he created is similarly open to interpretation. We know that, even at the height of the rebellion against him, the emperor refused to release precious metal from his treasury, and that after he was overthrown, the imperial vaults were found to contain 333,000 pounds of gold. For Dubs, this refusal suggests merely that Wang Mang was “miserly.” For Hu Shih, Wang remained noble to the last, refusing to reverse his policies in a clearly doomed attempt to save his government. ~~

“The last word may be left to the emperor himself. Writing with Confucian modesty in the years before his rise to power, Wang observed: “ 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 honorable. My ability is feeble, but my responsibilities are great.”“ ~~

Revolt of the "Red Eyebrows"

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Wang Mang aimed at the final destruction of the Xiongnu, so that access to central Asia should no longer be precarious and it should thus be possible to reduce the expense of the military administration of Turkestan. The war would also distract popular attention from the troubles at home. By way of preparation for war, Wang Mang sent a mission to the Xiongnu with dishonouring proposals, including changes in the name of the Xiongnu and in the title of the shan-yu. The name Xiongnu was to be given the insulting change of Hsiang-nu, meaning "subjugated slaves". The result was that risings of the Xiongnu took place, whereupon Wang Mang commanded that the whole of their country should be partitioned among fifteen shan-yu and declared the country to be a Chinese province. Since this declaration had no practical result, it robbed Wang Mang of the increased prestige he had sought and only further infuriated the Xiongnu. Wang Mang concentrated a vast army on the frontier. Meanwhile he lost the whole of the possessions in Turkestan. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“But before Wang Mang's campaign against the Xiongnu could begin, the difficulties at home grew steadily worse. In A.D. 12 Wang Mang felt obliged to abrogate all his reform legislation because it could not be carried into effect; and the economic situation proved more lamentable than ever. There were continual risings, which culminated in A.D. 18 in a great popular insurrection, a genuine revolutionary rising of the peasants, whose distress had grown beyond bearing through Wang Mang's ill-judged measures. The rebels called themselves "Red Eyebrows"; they had painted their eyebrows red by way of badge and in order to bind their members indissolubly to their movement. The nucleus of this rising was a secret society. Such secret societies, usually are harmless, but may, in emergency situations, become an immensely effective instrument in the hands of the rural population. The secret societies then organize the peasants, in order to achieve a forcible settlement of the matter in dispute. Occasionally, however, the movement grows far beyond its leaders' original objective and becomes a popular revolutionary movement, directed against the whole ruling class. That is what happened on this occasion.

“Vast swarms of peasants marched to the capital, killing all officials and people of position on their way. The troops sent against them by Wang Mang either went over to the Red Eyebrows or copied them, plundering wherever they could and killing officials. Owing to the appalling mass murders and the fighting, the forces placed by Wang Mang along the frontier against the Xiongnu received no reinforcements and, instead of attacking the Xiongnu, themselves went over to plundering, so that ultimately the army simply disintegrated. Fortunately for China, the shan-yu of the time did not take advantage of his opportunity, perhaps because his position within the Xiongnu empire was too insecure.

Clashes Between Han Dynasty Descendants and Red Eyebrows

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Scarcely had the popular rising begun when descendants of the deposed Han dynasty appeared and tried to secure the support of the upper class. They came forward as fighters against the usurper Wang Mang and as defenders of the old social order against the revolutionary masses. But the armies which these Han princes were able to collect were no better than those of the other sides. They, too, consisted of poor and hungry peasants, whose aim was to get money or goods by robbery; they too, plundered and murdered more than they fought.

“However, one prince by the name of Liu Xiu gradually gained the upper hand. The basis of his power was the district of Nanyang in Henan, one of the wealthiest agricultural centres of China at that time and also the centre of iron and steel production. The big landowners, the gentry of Nanyang, joined him, and the prince's party conquered the capital. Wang Mang, placing entire faith in his sanctity, did not flee; he sat in his robes in the throne-room and recited the ancient writings, convinced that he would overcome his adversaries by the power of his words. But a soldier cut off his head (A.D. 22). The skull was kept for two hundred years in the imperial treasury. The fighting, nevertheless, went on. Various branches of the prince's party fought one another, and all of them fought the Red Eyebrows. In those years millions of men came to their end. Finally, in A.D. 24, Liu Xiu prevailed, becoming the first emperor of the second Han dynasty, also called the Later Han dynasty; his name as emperor was Kuang-Wu Di (A.D. 25-57).

Fall of Wang Mang

Wang Mang went down fighting surrounded by his harem girls. Mike Dash wrote in smithsonian.com: “October 7, 23 A.D. The imperial Chinese army, 420,000 strong, has been utterly defeated. Nine “Tiger Generals,” sent to lead a corps of 10,000 elite soldiers, have been swept aside as rebel forces close in. The last available troops—convicts released from the local jails—have fled. Three days ago, rebels breached the defenses of China’s great capital, Chang’an; now, after some bloody fighting, they are scaling the walls of the emperor’s private compound. [Source: Mike Dash, smithsonian.com, December 9, 2011 ~~]

“Deep within his Endless Palace, Emperor Wang Mang waits for death. For 20 years, ever since he first contemplated the overthrow of the dissolute remnants of the the Han Dynasty, the usurper Wang had driven himself to keep to an inhuman schedule, working through the night and sleeping at his desk as he labored to transform China. When the rebellion against him gained strength, however, Wang appeared to give up. He retreated to his palace and summoned magicians with whom he passed his time testing spells; he began to assign strange, mystical titles to his army commanders: “The Colonel Holding a Great Axe to Chop Down Withered Wood” was one. ~~

“Such excesses seemed out of character for Wang, a Confucian scholar and renowned ascetic. The numismatist Rob Tye, who has made a study of the emperor’s reign, believes that he succumbed to despair. “Frankly, my own assessment is that he was high on drugs for most of the period,” Tye writes. “Knowing all was lost, he chose to escape reality, seeking a few last weeks of pleasure.” ~~

“When the rebels broke into his palace, Wang was in the imperial harem, surrounded by his three Harmonious Ladies, nine official wives, 27 handpicked “beauties” and their 81 attendants. He had dyed his white hair in order to look calm and youthful. Desperate officials persuaded him to retire with them to a high tower surrounded by water in the center of the capital. There, a thousand loyalists made a last stand before the armies of the revived Han, retreating step by step up twisting stairs until the emperor was cornered on the highest floor. Wang was slain late in the afternoon, his head severed, his body torn to pieces by soldiers seeking mementos, his tongue cut out and eaten by an enemy.” ~~

Restoration of the Han Dynasty as The Eastern Han Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “Within the country the period that followed was one of reaction and restoration. The massacres of the preceding years had so reduced the population that there was land enough for the peasants who remained alive. Moreover, their lords and the moneylenders of the towns were generally no longer alive, so that many peasants had become free of debt. The government was transferred from Xian to Loyang, in the present province of Henan. This brought the capital nearer to the great wheat-producing regions, so that the transport of grain and other taxes in kind to the capital was cheapened. Soon this cleared foundation was covered by a new stratum, a very sparse one, of great landowners who were supporters and members of the new imperial house, largely descendants of the landowners of the earlier Han period. At first they were not much in evidence, but they gained power more and more rapidly. In spite of this, the first half-century of the Eastern Han period was one of good conditions on the land and economic recovery. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In foreign policy the first period of the Eastern Han dynasty was one of extraordinary success, both in the extreme south and in the question of the Xiongnu. During the period of Wang Mang's rule and the fighting connected with it, there had been extensive migration to the south and south-west. Considerable regions of Chinese settlement had come into existence in Yunnan and even in Annam and Tongking, and a series of campaigns under General Ma Yuan (14 B.C.-A.D. 49) now added these regions to the territory of the empire. These wars were carried on with relatively small forces, as previously in the Canton region, the natives being unable to offer serious resistance owing to their inferiority in equipment and civilization. The hot climate, however, to which the Chinese soldiers were unused, was hard for them to endure.

“The economic results of the Turkestan trade in this period were not so unfavourable as in the earlier Han period. The army of occupation was incomparably smaller, and under Pan Ch'ao's policy the soldiers were fed and paid in Turkestan itself, so that the cost to China remained small. Moreover, the drain on the national income was no longer serious because, in the intervening period, regular Chinese settlements had been planted in Turkestan including Chinese merchants, so that the trade no longer remained entirely in the hands of foreigners.

Decline of the The Eastern Han

“In spite of the economic consolidation at the beginning of the Eastern Han dynasty, and in spite of the more balanced trade, the political situation within China steadily worsened from A.D. 80 onwards. Although the class of great landowners was small, a number of cliques formed within it, and their mutual struggle for power soon went beyond the limits of court intrigue. New actors now came upon the stage, namely the eunuchs. With the economic improvement there had been a general increase in the luxury at the court of the Han emperors, and the court steadily increased in size. The many hundred wives and concubines in the palace made necessary a great army of eunuchs. As they had the ear of the emperor and so could influence him, the eunuchs formed an important political factor. For a time the main struggle was between the group of eunuchs and the group of scholars. The eunuchs served a particular clique to which some of the emperor's wives belonged. The scholars, that is to say the ministers, together with members of the ministries and the administrative staff, served the interests of another clique.

"The struggles grew more and more sanguinary in the middle of the second century A.D. It soon proved that the group with the firmest hold in the provinces had the advantage, because it was not easy to control the provinces from a distance. The result was that, from about A.D. 150, events at court steadily lost importance, the lead being taken by the generals commanding the provincial troops. It would carry us too far to give the details of all these struggles. The provincial generals were at first Ts'ao Ts'ao, Lu Pu, Yuan Shao, and Sun Ts'ê; later came Liu Pei. All were striving to gain control of the government, and all were engaged in mutual hostilities from about 180 onwards. Each general was also trying to get the emperor into his hands. Several times the last emperor of the Eastern Han dynasty, Hsien Ti (190-220), was captured by one or another of the generals. As the successful general was usually unable to maintain his hold on the capital, he dragged the poor emperor with him from place to place until he finally had to give him up to another general. The point of this chase after the emperor was that according to the idea introduced earlier by Wang Mang the first ruler of a new dynasty had to receive the imperial seals from the last emperor of the previous dynasty. The last emperor must abdicate in proper form. Accordingly, each general had to get possession of the emperor to begin with, in order at the proper time to take over the seals.

“By about A.D. 200 the new conditions had more or less crystallized. There remained only three great parties. The most powerful was that of Ts'ao Ts'ao, who controlled the north and was able to keep permanent hold of the emperor. In the west, in the province of Sichuan, Liu Pei had established himself, and in the south-east Sun Ts'ê's brother. But we must not limit our view to these generals' struggles. At this time there were two other series of events of equal importance with those. The incessant struggles of the cliques against each other continued at the expense of the people, who had to fight them and pay for them. Thus, after A.D. 150 the distress of the country population grew beyond all limits. Conditions were as disastrous as in the time of Wang Mang.

Yellow Turban Revolt

And once more, as then, a popular movement broke out, that of the so-called "Yellow Turbans". This was the first of the two important events. This popular movement had a characteristic which from now on became typical of all these risings of the people. The intellectual leaders of the movement, Chang Ling and others, were members of a particular religious sect. This sect was influenced by Iranian Mazdaism on the one side and by certain ideas from Lao Tzu on the other side; and these influences were superimposed on popular rural as well as, perhaps, local tribal religious beliefs and superstitions. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The sect had roots along the coastal settlements of Eastern China, where it seems to have gained the support of the peasantry and their local priests. These priests of the people were opposed to the representatives of the official religion, that is to say the officials drawn from the gentry. In small towns and villages the temples of the gods of the fruits of the field, of the soil, and so on, were administered by authorized local officials, and these officials also carried out the prescribed sacrifices. The old temples of the people were either done away with (we have many edicts of the Han period concerning the abolition of popular forms of religious worship), or their worship was converted into an official cult: the all-powerful gentry extended their domination over religion as well as all else. But the peasants regarded their local unauthorized priests as their natural leaders against the gentry and against gentry forms of religion. One branch, probably the main branch of this movement, developed a stronghold in Eastern Sichuan province, where its members succeeded to create a state of their own which retained its independence for a while. It is the only group which developed real religious communities in which men and women participated, extensive welfare schemes existed and class differences were discouraged. It had a real church organization with dioceses, communal friendship meals and a confession ritual; in short, real piety developed as it could not develop in the official religions. After the annihilation of this state, remnants of the organization can be traced through several centuries, mainly in central and south China. It may well be that the many "Taoistic" traits which can be found in the religions of late and present-day Mongolian and Tibetan tribes, can be derived from this movement of the Yellow Turbans.

“The rising of the Yellow Turbans began in 184; all parties, cliques and generals alike, were equally afraid of the revolutionaries, since these were a threat to the gentry as such, and so to all parties. Consequently a combined army of considerable size was got together and sent against the rebels. The Yellow Turbans were beaten. During these struggles it became evident that Ts'ao Ts'ao with his troops had become the strongest of all the generals. His troops seem to have consisted not of Chinese soldiers alone, but also of Xiongnu. It is understandable that the annals say nothing about this, and it can only be inferred from the facts. It appears that in order to reinforce their armies the generals recruited not only Chinese but foreigners. The generals operating in the region of the present-day Peking had soldiers of the Wu-huan and Hsien-pi, and even of the Ting-ling; Liu Pei, in the west, made use of Tanguts, and Ts'ao Ts'ao clearly went farthest of all in this direction; he seems to have been responsible for settling nineteen tribes of Xiongnu in the Chinese province of Shanxi between 180 and 200, in return for their armed aid. In this way Ts'ao Ts'ao gained permanent power in the empire by means of these troops, so that immediately after his death his son Ts'ao P'ei, with the support of powerful allied families, was able to force the emperor to abdicate and to found a new dynasty, the Wei dynasty (A.D. 220).

“This meant, however, that a part of China which for several centuries had been Chinese was given up to the Xiongnu. This was not, of course, what Ts'ao Ts'ao had intended; he had given the Xiongnu some area of pasturage in Shanxi with the idea that they should be controlled and administered by the officials of the surrounding district. His plan had been similar to what the Chinese had often done with success: aliens were admitted into the territory of the empire in a body, but then the influence of the surrounding administrative centres was steadily extended over them, until the immigrants completely lost their own nationality and became Chinese. The nineteen tribes of Xiongnu, however, were much too numerous, and after the prolonged struggles in China the provincial administration proved much too weak to be able to carry out the plan. Thus there came into existence here, within China, a small Xiongnu realm ruled by several shan-yu. This was the second major development, and it became of the utmost importance to the history of the next four centuries.

End of the Han Dynasty

After four centuries the Han dynasty was on the verge of collapse. The Xiongnu people in the north created a tribal federation and weakened the Han empire with repeated raids. Corruption and competition destroyed the Han court from within. In the A.D. 1st century the Xianbei replaced the Xiongnu as the dominate horseman group in Mongolia. They raided and intermingled with the Han Chinese in China. The origin of the Xianbei is not known. They are thought to a mix of Turkic and Iranian clans.

Towards the end of the A.D. 1st century, the Liu emperors repeatedly died young without male heirs. Figurehead power was passed on to child cousins while corrupt regents pulled the strings behind the scenes. Eunuchs became increasingly powerful and increasingly corrupt.Confucian scholars and students staged demonstrations. Peasant uprisings spread “like a billowing sea” and threatened the capital. In A.D. 197, a general seized power, executed the eunuchs and placed a child Liu puppet, Liu Xie, on the throne. Warlords began battling one another. Luoyang was burned to the ground

In A.D. 220, the Han dynasty formally ended when Liu Xie abdicated and dynasty generals clashed with each other. China was divided into the Three Kingdoms and would not be unified again until three and half centuries later. But the Han Dynasty did not die completely; it lived on like Greece and Rome did in the legacy of its government, ideas and art.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “At the end of the Han dynasty in the A.D. 3rd century China split into three independent kingdoms. Political instability in the north caused a large migration of Chinese people to the Yangtze River basin. This caused the people living in this area to move to the relatively wild and uncharted south, where various tribal peoples were already living. This started a process of colonization of indigenous lands by the Han Chinese that continues to this day. Some indigenous peoples mixed with the recently-arrived Chinese, assimilating into the Han Chinese masses. Others, such as the Yao, maintained their independence. However, they were forced to abandon their most fertile lands, and migrate further south and into the mountains to agriculturally less productive areas. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org\^/]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; 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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