Wang An-shih

Wang An-shih (1021-1086) was the most famous reformer in Chinese history, a poet, and a scholar. He developed a program of far-reaching reforms which was vigorously attacked in his own day and has been controversial ever since.

The 11th century in China was a period of rare intellectual brilliance, the most creative phase of the Confucian revival, which imparted new force and vitality to old values and produced lasting achievements in philosophy, history, and literature. Yet, China was troubled by the military threat of the Khitans and Tanguts in the North and Northwest, economic problems associated with the growth of population and increasing economic complexity, acute fiscal problems, an expensive and ineffective military establishment, and a bureaucracy which was far removed from the ideal of competent, devoted, and disinterested service. Concerned scholars widely supported the reform attempts undertaken by Fan Chung-yen in the 1040s, but the more extensive program of Wang An-shih in the 1070s in the end antagonized most of his illustrious contemporaries.

Wang An-shih was born on Dec. 18, 1021, in Ch'ing-chiang prefecture, Kiangsi, where his father, Wang I, was serving as an official. Originally from Shansi, the family had for several generations made its home in Lin-ch'uan, Fuchou prefecture, Kiangsi, where An-shih's great-grandfather prospered in farming. The family began producing officials when An-shih's granduncle Wang Kuan-chih succeeded in passing the highest civil service examination his chin-shih degree. Wang I received his chin-shih in 1015, and four members of Anshih's own generation were similarly successful. Wang I's family was a large one: An-shih was the third of seven sons, and there were also three younger sisters. During his youth Wang An-shih accompanied his family as his father moved from post to post and devoted himself to his books. He continued his studies after his father's death in 1038 and obtained his chin-shih 4 years later, placing fourth out of 435 successful candidates.

Early Career

From 1042 to 1060 Wang An-shih served mostly in local posts, although he was in the capital in 1046 and again in 1054-1056, when he held positions in the bureau charged with the maintenance and rearing of horses; he then spent a very brief period in a post in the capital prefecture. When feasible, Wang turned down opportunities for serving in the capital during these years, preferring provincial appointments, partly for financial reasons, since the death of his elder brother left him, in the early 1050s, responsible for the family.

Wang's service as a local administrator began in Yang-chou, Kiangsu (1042-1045), and included posts in Chenhsien, Chekiang (1047-1049), Suchou in Anhwei (1051-1054), another term in Kiangsu, this time in Ch'angchou (1057-1058), and an appointment as judicial intendant for Chiang-tung (1058-ca. 1060), an area including portions of modern Anhwei, Kiangsu, and Chekiang. His duties gave him insight into local economic and political conditions and allowed him to gain practical administrative experience, particularly in economic matters, including irrigation and finance. His literary ability and reputation for forthrightness won him important friends, including Ouyang Hsiu, who admired Wang's writings as early as 1044, recommended him for an important appointment even before meeting him in 1056, and did not allow later political disagreements to destroy their friendship.

This period saw Wang's marriage to a lady who, like his mother, belonged to the Wu family, and at least two of his five children were born during these years. Although he developed some close friendships, there are indications that he was not a sociable man but preferred the company of his books to the niceties of social life. The allegations that he did not wash his clothes and was careless in personal appearance and hygiene may have originated in this period, but there is no way of separating truth and fiction in dealing with various anecdotes. In any case, the image that has been passed down of his mature character is one of integrity, persistence carried to the point of stubbornness, lofty ambition, and personal eccentricity.

Ten Thousand Word Memorial

Even while serving in the provinces, Wang An-shih was deeply concerned over problems affecting the whole empire; it was as a provincial official that he submitted to Emperor Jen-tsung in 1058 his famous Ten Thousand Word Memorial, in which he urged the Emperor to return to the principles of the sage rulers of antiquity, and in which he concentrated on personnel policy, including especially the training of men for civil office and military command, the support and control of officials, and the selection and appointment of men to office. His advocacy of specialization and his insistence that the Emperor must be firm and vigorous in enforcing regulations demonstrated Wang's tough-mindedness and foreshadowed his later reforms.

From 1060 to 1064 Wang served in a number of positions in the capital: a very short term in the Finance Commission was followed by service in the Chi-hsien Library as well as an appointment as special drafting official, which ran concurrently with the other assignments from 1061 to 1063. During these years Wang was involved in several controversies, but his political activities were interrupted by the death of his mother in 1063 and the two years of prescribed mourning.

After the accession of Emperor Shen-tsung in 1067 and a brief stint as governor of Nanking, Wang was appointed Hanlin academician and called to the capital in 1068. The following year he became a second privy councilor and initiated his reform policies.

Wang in Power: The Reforms

Wang became chief councilor in 1070 and held this position until 1074, when Cheng Hsia's dramatic portrayal of famine conditions in the Northwest and discontent in the capital caused the Emperor to waver in his support for Wang, who resigned and became governor of Nanking. During these years he initiated major irrigation projects near the capital and scored military successes in the Northwest and Southwest, but of greatest importance were his reforms. When he resigned, the reform policy was continued by his associates, and Wang himself returned as chief councilor in 1075. He remained in office until his permanent retirement in 1076, but during this second term in power his position was weaker than before. His last year in office also saw a victory in the South against an Annamese invasion.

Wang was greatly interested in finance and economics; one of his first acts, in 1069, was the creation of a finance planning commission to investigate and recommend changes in fiscal matters and to administrate many of the subsequent innovations. Another measure initiated in the same year was to reform the system under which certain provinces were responsible for contributing and shipping to the capital particular commodities under a schedule of fixed quotas. This inflexible arrangement had become out of date and proved burdensome to the provinces and the central government alike, benefiting only a group of wealthy merchants who took advantage of the shortage of some items and a surplus of others. The new plan called for the collection of these goods in the area close to the capital when possible and a general rationalization of the procurement of these products. An active government role in the economy was also called for in the state trade system of 1072, under which the government purchased goods directly from small merchants and extended loans, thus again depriving wealthy guild merchants of a lucrative source of profit.

Similarly concerned with trade was the guild exemption tax of 1073, substituting cash payments for the hitherto customary deliveries of supplies to the palace. This illustrates Wang's positive acceptance of the increased use of money and contrasts sharply with the attitude of his conservative opponents. His confidence in money also appeared in the hired service system, begun as an experiment in the capital in 1069 and applied to the whole country in 1071. Hired personnel were employed to perform duties in local government previously assigned on a rotating basis to relatively well-off families, and a service exemption tax was instituted. In the specific area of monetary policy, the reformers rescinded a prohibition against private dealing in copper and on several occasions expanded the volume of the bronze currency, but not sufficiently to prevent a currency shortage created by the increased demand for money brought on by the reform policies.

Wang shared the general Confucian belief in the primacy of agriculture. To relieve the small farmer of the burden of interest rates of 60 to 70 percent for the period from spring sowing to autumn harvest, he devised, in 1069, the farming loans, whereby the government itself, through its district granaries, extended loans in the form of "young shoots money" to farmers at a maximum interest rate of 20 percent for the season. In 1072, in order to assist peasants and government alike by providing for more equitable and efficient taxation, Wang initiated a program of land survey and equitable taxation involving a resurvey of landholdings with the land to be measured in squares, classified under one of five categories of productivity, and taxed accordingly.

These reforms demonstrate the importance Wang attached to financial and economic policies as positive aspects of government, and beyond that they reflect his belief that the government could and should encourage productivity even if this meant increased government spending. This conflicted with the conventional view of his opponents, which, predicated on a static economy, held that the less the government spent, the more would remain for the people.

Many of Wang's reforms which were not primarily economic in intent nevertheless had important economic aspects and implications. For example, Wang's paochia system, which organized people into groups of 10, 50, and 500 families, was primarily intended to ensure collective responsibility for local policing and tax collecting and was further used to guarantee repayment of loans under the farming loans program. Forces composed of men conscripted through the system were given military training and helped to supply at least internal military security when they were stationed in the capital region and certain sensitive border areas, a program financed by the transfer of funds released when retiring regular army personnel were not replaced. Later these forces were also used as army reserve units.

Other military measures included the establishment of a directorate of weapons in 1073 and the horse breeding system in 1072 to deal with the problem caused by the Liao and Hsi Hsia horse export embargo. In the North and Northwest the state now provided a horse and fodder, or the equivalent in money, to a family, allowed it the use of the horse in peacetime, and exempted it from certain taxes in return for raising the animal and supplying it to the army when needed. A system of annual inspection controlled the operation of the system, and households were fined if the horse died.

Since farm horses do not make good war horses, the horse breeding system was faulty in its basic conception and would have failed even if it had been faithfully administered by officials devoted to the reform program. However, the fate of many reforms lay ultimately in the hands of the officials charged with their implementation. Wang realized that reform of the bureaucracy was crucial. Furthermore, despite his belief in regulatory systems, he shared the traditional Confucian conviction that the quality of officials was the determining factor in government, which was responsible for the moral edification as well as the security and welfare of the people.

Wang's Ten Thousand Word Memorial had already discussed matters of personnel policy, and he gave top priority to the reform of the civil service. He was not the first to object to the emphasis placed on poetry in the examinations or to demand that candidates be judged on their understanding of the principles of the classics rather than on their literary abilities or the sheer power of their memories, but he went beyond his predecessors in insisting that the criteria of the examinations be relevant to a man's future career as an official, and he emphasized examination questions dealing with policy matters, included the new field of law among the topics for the lesser degree, and in 1073 decided to administer a test in law to men who had obtained their chin-shih and to others awaiting official appointments.

Most controversial as well as indicative of Wang's intellectual orientation was his treatment of the classics in the examinations. Like other Chinese reformers, he was attracted to the idealized social, political, and economic order depicted in the Rituals of Chou (Chou Li), which provided classical justification for his emphasis on institutional reform. For the purpose of the examinations, Wang assigned his own commentary to this classic as the official interpretation. Compounding the outrage of his opponents, he removed from the examinations the Spring and Autumn Annals (Ch'un-ch'iu), widely revered as containing the moral judgments of Confucius himself and used to support the absolute primacy of ethics in government.

Wang also influenced education by establishing additional prefectural schools and founding a medical and a law school. In 1071 he reorganized the university into three consecutive "colleges" and excused graduates of the top "college" from the chin-shih examination.

Wang also concerned himself with the reform of the clerical subbureaucracy, which was responsible for much of the routine work of government. Underpaid, low in status, and generally corrupt, the clerks were extremely influential since they constituted the permanent staff of local government and were often more familiar with local conditions than the regular civil service official serving his tour of duty. In addition to the hired service system, which dealt with one aspect of local government service, Wang provided for a reduction in the number of clerks, improvement in their pay, and close supervision and control, and he gave the most capable clerks an opportunity for promotion into the regular bureaucracy. Since the details of the system involved the local government storehouses, it was called the granary system.

Wang's reforms did something to improve the standards of the subbureaucracy but ultimately fell far short of their goal. The dishonesty of clerks did much to damage the execution of such major reforms as the farming loans, the land survey and equitable tax system, and the state trade system. Nor could Wang rely on the honesty, let alone the devotion, of the regular bureaucracy. Furthermore, he was faced with continual criticism encouraged by illustrious elder statesmen, such as Han Ch'i, Fu Pi, and Ou-yang Hsiu, and led by such capable leaders as the historian Ssu-ma Kuang and the more moderate Su brothers, Su Shih the great poet and Su Ch'e. Wang's firm conviction that he was right helped him to continue his program despite opposition, but his intolerance of criticism and tendency to overreact to it lost him valuable support. In 1185, after the death of Emperor Shen-tsung, Ssu-ma Kuang came into power and proceeded to rescind Wang's measures.

Retirement and Death

In retirement near Nanking from 1076 until his death on May 21, 1086, Wang devoted himself to literary pursuits. His book on etymology, the Tzu Shuo, and some essays and commentaries on the classics date from this period. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Wang had great respect for Mencius, whose political and economic views he admired, but he disagreed with Mencius on the much-disputed thesis of the goodness of human nature, arguing instead that human nature is neutral and inseparable from the emotions and emphasizing the importance of social custom and government for the development of human goodness.

Famous as an essayist and included among the traditional Eight Prose Masters of the T'ang and Sung dynasties, Wang is also famous as a poet. Some of his poetry shows signs of Buddhist influence, an inclination also revealed in some of his friendships and the donation of property to a Buddhist temple after recovery from an illness in 1083 during which he was treated by a doctor especially sent from the court. His poems are marked by their lyricism and their concern for the common man, qualities Wang admired in the poetry of Tu Fu.

Further Reading on Wang An-shih

James T. C. Liu, Reform in Sung China: Wang An-shih and His New Policies 1021-1086 (1959), is a modern interpretative study incorporating valuable Chinese and Japanese scholarship. The most extensive treatment in English remains Henry R. Williamson, Wang An-shih: A Chinese Statesman and Educationalist of the Sung Dynasty (2 vols., 1935-1937). A range of modern and traditional assessments is presented in John T. Meskill, ed., Wang An-shih: Practical Reformer? (1963). A section on Wang's poetry is in Kojiro Yoshikawa, An Introduction to Sung Poetry, translated by Burton Watson (1967). Recommended for general background are Edward A. Kracke, Jr., Civil Service in Early Sung China (1953), and James T. C. Liu and Peter J. Golas, eds., Change in Sung China: Innovation or Renovation? (1969).