Wang Anshi [wǎŋ ánʂɨ̌]; Chinese: 王安石; December 8, 1021 – May 21, 1086), courtesy name Jiefu (Chinese: 介甫), was a Chinese politician, poet and prose writer during the Song dynasty. He served as chancellor who attempted major and controversial socioeconomic reforms known as the New Policies. These reforms constituted the core concepts of the Song-Dynasty Reformists, in contrast to their rivals, the Conservatives, led by the Chancellor Sima Guang.
|Duke of Jing (Jīngguógōng) 荊國公|
|Chancellor of Song Dynasty|
|Born||8 December 1021|
|Died||21 May 1086 (aged 64)|
"Wang Anshi" in Chinese characters
Wang Anshi's ideas are usually analyzed in terms of the influence the Rites of Zhou or Legalism had on him. His economic reforms included increase currency circulation, breaking up of private monopolies, and early forms of government regulation and social welfare. His military reforms expanded the use of local militias and his government reforms expanded the civil service examination system and attempted to suppress nepotism in government. Although successful for a while, he eventually fell out of favor of the emperor.
During the Song Dynasty, the unprecedented development of large estates, whose owners managed to evade paying their share of taxes, resulted in an increasingly heavy burden of taxation on commoners. The drop in state revenues, a succession of budget deficits, and widespread inflation prompted the Emperor Shenzong of Song to seek advice from Wang.
Wang Anshi came from a family of imperial scholars (進士 Jìnshì) and was placed fourth in the imperial exam of 1042. He spent the first twenty years of his career in the regional government of the lower Yangtze region. During this period, he gained practical experience in local governance. This experience guided his analysis in formulating solutions to revitalize the ailing Song society.
Wang believed that the state has the responsibility to provide for its people the essentials for a decent living standard: "The state should take the entire management of commerce, industry, and agriculture into its own hands, with a view to succoring the working classes and preventing them from being ground into the dust by the rich."
Wang came to power as 2nd privy councilor in 1069. It was there that he introduced and promulgated his reform policy (xin fa 新法). There were three main components to this policy: 1) state finance and trade, 2) defense and social order, and 3) education and improving of governance. Some of the finance reforms included paying cash for labor in place of corvee labor, increase the supply of copper coins, improve management of trade, direct government loan to farmers during planting seasons and to be repaid at harvest. He believed that foundation of the state rests on the well being of the common people. To limit speculation and eliminate private monopolies, he initiated price control and regulated wages and set up pensions for the aged and unemployed. The state also began to institute public orphanages, hospitals, dispensaries, hospices, cemeteries, and reserve granaries.
The military reform centered on a new institution of the baojia system or organized households. This was done to ensure collective responsibility in society and was later used to strengthen local defense. He also proposed the creation of systems to breed military horses, the more efficient manufacture of weapons and training of the militia.
To improve education and government, he sought to break down the barrier between clerical and official careers as well as improving their supervision to prevent connections being used for personal gain. Tests in law, military affairs and medicine were added to the examination system, with mathematics added in 1104. The National Academy was transformed into a real school rather than simply a holding place for officials waiting for appointments. However, there was deep-seated resistance to the education reforms as it hurt bureaucrats coming in under the old system.
Although Wang had the alliance of such prominent court figures as Shen Kuo, imperial scholar-officials such as Su Dongpo and Ouyang Xiu bitterly opposed these reforms on the grounds of tradition. They believed Wang's reforms were against the moral fundamentals of the Two Emperors and would therefore prevent the Song from experiencing the prosperity and peace of the ancients. The tide tilted in favor of the conservatives due to renewed foreign conflict. He was even temporarily removed from power and imprisoned in 1075.
Like many Chinese officials of the era, Wang's career experienced many reversals, but the beginning of the end came in 1074. A famine in northern China drove many farmers off their lands. Their circumstances were made worse by the debts they had incurred from the seasonal loans granted under Wang’s reform initiatives. Local officials insisted on collecting on the loans as the farmers were leaving their land. This crisis was depicted as being Wang’s fault. The empress dowager was also an opponent of Wang. Wang wanted to resign, but the emperor still supported him, giving him high honors and an appointment to Jiangning (present-day Nanjing.)
He was recalled by the emperor the following year, but now he was seen as vulnerable and was openly attacked from groups of conservatives. Wang returned to Nanjing, which he preferred to Kaifeng. He wrote and engaged in scholarship through to his death in 1086.
With Shenzong's death in 1085, Wang was ousted and the New Policies were rolled back - some temporarily, some permanently.
In addition to his political achievements, Wang Anshi was a noted poet. He wrote poems in the shi form, modeled on those of Du Fu. He was later ranked number seven among the Eight Great Prose Masters of the Tang and Song (唐宋八大家). He was an adherent of the Classical Prose Movement championed by Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan, first and second of the Eight Masters of the Tang and Song respectively. His poetry often included social themes along with the traditional observations of nature.
A well-known man-of-letters, Wang Anshi produced many outstanding essays and poems. Lines from one of his most famous pieces:
Green in the spring winds
One of eight famous literati of Tang－Song period, Wang Anshi was known for writing with succinctness and profundity. He laid stress on literature's social function and that writings should serve a purpose. His essays "A Visit to Baochan Mountain" and "In Reply to Official Censor Sima's Letter" are widely read by posterity.
Chinese politicians and historians have continued to look back on the reforms of Wang Anshi as either principled and measured or misguided and disastrous.
The twentieth-century Chinese warlord Yan Xishan cited the reforms of Wang Anshi to justify his use of a limited form of local democracy in Shanxi. Yan believed that the focus and intent of Wang's reforms was to strengthen the Song dynasty by persuading ordinary Chinese to give the dynasty their active support, instead of merely serving it. The system of "democratic" government that Yan justified via the philosophy of Wang Anshi was mostly focused on improving Yan's own popularity without holding any real power, and never became an effective alternative to military dictatorship. On the other hand, the popular scholar Lin Yutang cast Wang as the equivalent of communist totalitarian government in his biography of Wang's adversary Su Dongpo.
- hence referred to as Wáng Jīnggōng 王荊公
- hence referred to as Wáng Wéngōng 王文公
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- Yutang Lin. Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo. New York: John Day, 1947; rpr. Hesperides 2008 ISBN 978-1-4437-2217-9.
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