02 November 2012

A brief history of Wang Anshi

I have recently come across the legacy of Wang Anshi 王安石, one of the most (in)famous names in Song Dynasty history. A Confucian scholar-official from a family of Confucian scholar-officials (jinshi 進士), born in what is now Jiangxi Province in the south of China, from a very early age he demonstrated his talent for governance, as well as an exceptional literary talent (being considered by the end of his life one of the Eight Great Prose Masters of Tang and Song 唐宋八大家). When he was 20 years old, he placed fourth in the national civil service exams, and spent most of his early career in regional government in the south of China. It may be safely assumed that he saw a great deal of corruption during his time in the local and regional levels of the civil service, and felt outraged and disgusted by it, feeling a bond with the common people the served as they faced evermore crushing tax burdens and struggled against a national government paralysed by abuse, nepotism and graft. Whilst serving in the provincial government, he repeatedly refused all manner of promotions; the more he did so, the more fame he earned as a selfless and principled official. He gained a steady friend and advocate in Han Wei, a secretary to the young heir apparent to the Song throne, who introduced his young pupil favourably to Wang Anshi’s policy ideas.

Wang Anshi had already formed the primary basis of his thinking by the time he arrived in Kaifeng in 1058 to present his ‘Ten Thousand Word Memorial’. Upon attaining his post as second privy councilor under Emperor Song Shenzong at the age of 47, he quickly embarked upon designing a set of sweeping institutional reforms (新法, New Policies; also called 一條鞭法 the One Whip Policies by his many political enemies) of: state finances and trade; defence and military policy; and education and governance. These included a number of policies aimed at combatting corruption: cash wages, fair wages for low-level officials, standardised weights and measures, standardised prices on basic goods, and what might be considered the first policy of issuing short-term, low-interest state microloans to needy farmers and small merchants. Though some of his reforms were ‘modernising’ (the substitution of cash wages for the corvée system, for example), he defended many of his policies (like his plan to pay low-level officials a decent wage) by asserting that they had been used during the Tang Dynasty and before: in particular, he referred often to the Rites of Zhou as justification for many of his reforms. In general, he advocated for strong state interventions in Song Dynasty’s economic and social life, though there were a couple of important exceptions.

One was the baojia system 保甲制度 of local militias which Chancellor Wang invented. This system radically devolved military affairs and law enforcement, and assigned greater responsibilities to the most local level and to the lowest ranks, and it met with resounding success where it was implemented. (When it was reintroduced during the Qing Dynasty, however, it met with far less.) Under the baojia system, ten families would be organised into a bao, and one family would be given a wooden placard designating them as the baozhang 保長 (the bao captain). This placard would rotate amongst the families on a regular basis, theoretically ensuring that each family was mutually responsible to all the others. Chancellor Wang wanted to reduce the Song Dynasty’s dependence on mercenaries, but this system was practically distributist in the way it delegated authority - tasks were directed to the lowest competent level of authority, and government was directly involved only in cases that required the organisation of a large number of bao. This system, the way it was originally designed, was very much in line with the social doctrine of subsidiarity; it also located the primary unit of social organisation as the family.

Another aspect in which his thinking was in line with distributism (even if his methods may not have been) was in his hostility to monopolies: he detested the exorbitant prices and speculative lending engaged in by the powerful merchants of his era; as a result, he set firm restrictions on lending practices and prices of basic goods. His educational reforms, which not only broadened the curriculum but also attempted to reduce the influence of patronage and guanxi in the education system, also made it possible for students from lower-class backgrounds to compete more fairly with their peers who had grown up in literati or wealthy merchant families. And his reforms followed in broad strokes the ideals of Zhang Zai 張載 (another Song Dynasty official) who wanted to restore the Mencian well-field system, break up the huge land holdings and create a relatively egalitarian society of coöperatively-organised smallholders: one might even say this looks distinctly like Chesterton’s land-reform ideal of ‘three acres and a cow’.

Chancellor Wang’s reform programme met with a good deal of support from the literati, in particular from Song polymath Shen Kuo, and from Emperor Song Shenzong. However, his enemies, led by the historian Sima Guang, proved even more powerful in the end. A famine which struck northern China managed to create a minor credit crisis with farmers leaving their lands; local officials insisted on collecting the microloans many of these farmers owed. Sima Guang and his Conservative faction pounced on the incident and portrayed the entire situation as being Wang Anshi’s fault. Of course, many of the later studied critics of Wang Anshi’s lending policies (including the neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi, who was then serving as prefect of Nankangjun 南康軍) took aim only at the implementation, whilst at the same time saying that the basic idea was sound and even expanding on it. But at the time, Wang Anshi was thrown into prison, and his reputation even after his rehabilitation and appointment as governor of Jiangning 江寧 (now Nanjing 南京) by Emperor Shenzong was irrevocably tarnished. He was banished from court upon Shenzong’s death in 1085, but continued writing and engaging in scholarly debates until his own death a year later.

Here we have an official who was very roundly ‘progressive’ in a number of ways, whilst being steadfastly conservative in several others. His reform programmes, particularly those to do with education, trade and official compensation, were justified through his interpretation of the Rites of Zhou and of the history of preceding dynasties. It became a fashion of sorts amongst Confucian literati after he fell from favour to denigrate his record as Chancellor, much in the same way as it became fashionable after the demise of Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 to portray her as a maniacal power-hungry she-devil (often by the same people, particularly Sima Guang and his students). However, my wife says she more highly esteems Wang Anshi, largely because, in her words, ‘it was far easier to stay conservative during that time, but much harder to be brave and creative, while still remaining true to Confucian principles [the way Wang Anshi was]’.


  1. Hello Mr Cooper.

    I have been waiting for you to post a new article on this blog (creepy as it might sound), for I want to ask you something.

    Based on what I learned from my History class at the college I go to, it seems or appears that the economic policy Japan implemented after WWII to great success, and which other countries like South Korea and the PRC copied to varying degrees, was an anti-human one, one example of this being that they had to lower people's standard of living (little to no social spending, from what I recall) in order to make Japan's exports cheap to buy.

    Have you written any article about this, or do you know of any articles that deal with this issue? The postwar Japanese economic policy seems to be antihumanist from a distributist or conservative view.

    Thanks for the help.

  2. Hi idrian!

    No trouble at all! I'm merely sorry that it has taken so long for me to reply to you - my internet has been finicky the last few days, not to mention my VPN.

    I think that is a fair assessment of the economic policies of Japan, Korea, the PRC and so forth - at least in the long run. But I would also note that in each of these countries, the success these policies met with in producing wealth domestically was a direct result of their having spent the previous decades 'priming the pump' by protecting and publicly investing in fledgling industries. I believe John at EifD and Lord Keynes at SDft21C have posts on this policy in Meiji-era Japan.

    Hope this answers your question somewhat!

    All the best,

  3. Hi Matt

    Thanks for the reply.