Sang Hongyang (Chinese: 桑弘羊; c. 152–80 BC) was a prominent official of the Former Han Dynasty, who served Emperor Wu of Han and his successor Emperor Zhao. He is most famed for his economic policies during the reign of Emperor Wu, the best known of which include the state monopolies over iron and salt - systems which would be imitated by other dynasties throughout history. Due to political conflict, he was executed in 80 BC by Huo Guang (d. 68 BC).
Youth and Officialdom
Sang Hongyang was born in Luoyang, one of the Han Dynasty's major commercial centres, to a family of merchants. In youth he was known for his mathematical prowess, and when Emperor Wu ascended to the throne in 141 BC Sang came to his notice and was eventually invited to become an Attendant (侍中) - one of the means by which the Emperor kept talent in the palace, and by which many important officials began their careers. Sang would remain an Attendant for 26 years.
Rise to Importance
Sang's skill at economic policy would only come into play during the middle of Emperor Wu's reign. By then the ongoing campaigns against the Xiongnu had drained the wealth built up by Emperor Wu's predecessors, and the state had entered a financial crisis. in 120 BC, the Minister of Agriculture Zheng Dangshi first proposed the state monopolies on iron and salt, recommending two powerful salt and iron magnates to join the government and manage the industry on the national scale. Sang Hongyang was then assigned to aid the magnates in their planning. With the success of the monopolies in alleviating the financial situation Sang eventually rose to become Assistant Minister of Agriculture.
As the Assistant Minister Sang soon implemented several more measures to refill the national coffers. These included an asset tax, payable by artisans, loaners, merchants, and owners of carriages and boats, which was calculated according to the amount of assets. Smallholders only needed to pay half the official rate of tax. At the same time laws were enacted, under which false reporting and concealment of assets was punishable by confiscation of assets and exile to the borders for a year. People were encouraged to report cases of concealment, since half the confiscated assets were awarded to the reporters.
In 87 BC, Sang Hongyang became the Imperial Secretary (also known as Imperial Counselor and Grandee Secretary), one of the three most senior posts in government known as the Three Excellencies. In the wake of the death of Emperor Wu and the installation of the child Emperor Zhao of Han in that year, Sang became one of the key politicians in the age of the triumvirate formed by Huo Guang, Jin Midi, and Shangguan Jie. However, Sang was executed in 80 BC by the regent Huo Guang on charges of treason for his alleged involvement in the attempted coup of Liu Tan, King of Yan, to take over the throne of Han and have Huo Guang murdered. As a result, Sang's biography was not included in the Book of Han historical text.
- Loewe (1986), 180–181.
- Loewe, Michael. (1986). "The Former Han Dynasty," in The Cambridge History of China: Volume I: the Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C. – A.D. 220, 103–222. Edited by Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-24327-0.