Wang Anshi

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Wang Anshi
Duke of Jing (Jīngguógōng) 荊國公[1]
Wang Anshi.jpg
Chancellor of Song Dynasty
In Office1070-1074;1075–1076
MonarchEmperor Shenzong
Born8 December 1021
Linchuan, Song
Died21 May 1086(1086-05-21) (aged 64)
Family name: Wáng 王
Given name: Ānshí 安石
Courtesy name: Jièfǔ 介甫
Art name: Bànshān Lǎorén 半山老人
Posthumous name
Wén 文[2]
FatherWang Yi
OccupationEconomist, philosopher, poet, politician
Wang Anshi
Wang Anshi (Chinese characters).svg
"Wang Anshi" in Chinese characters

Wang Anshi [wǎŋ ánʂɨ̌]; Chinese: 王安石; December 8, 1021 – May 21, 1086), courtesy name Jiefu (Chinese: 介甫), was a Chinese economist, philosopher, poet, and politician during the Song dynasty. He served as chancellor and attempted major and controversial socioeconomic reforms known as the New Policies.[3][4] These reforms constituted the core concepts of the Song-Dynasty Reformists, in contrast to their rivals, the Conservatives, led by the Chancellor Sima Guang.

Wang Anshi's ideas are usually analyzed in terms of the influence the Rites of Zhou or Legalism had on him.[5] 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.

Early career[edit]

Wang Anshi was born on 8 December 1021, to a family of jinshi degree holders in Linchuan (Fuzhou, Jiangxi province). He placed fourth in the palace exam and obtained a jinshi degree in 1042. He began his career in the Song bureaucracy as a secretary (qianshu) in the office of the assistant military commissioner (jiedu panguan tinggonshi) of Huainan (Yangzhou, Jiangsu province). He was then promoted to district magistrate (zhixian) of Yinxian (Ningbo, Zhejiang province), where he reorganized hydrological projects for irrigation and gave credits to the peasant. Later he was promoted to controller general (tongpan) of Shezhou (Qianshan, Anhui province). Afterwards, he was sent to Kaifeng as assistant in the herd office (qunmusi panguan) and then prefect (zhizhou) of Changzhou, commissioner for judificial affairs (tidian xingyu gongshi) in Jiangnan East, assistant in the Financial Commission (sansi duzhi panguan), and finally editor of imperial edicts (zhi zhigao).[6]

New Policies[edit]

Illustration of Wang Anshi from the Wan Xiao Tang, 1743.


During his time in the local administration, Wang gained an understanding of the difficulties experienced by local officials and the common people. In 1058, he sent a letter ten thousand characters long (Wanyanshu/Yanshishu/Shang Renzong Huangdi yanshi shu) to Emperor Renzong of Song, in which he suggested reforms to the administration in order to solve financial and organizational problems. In the letter he blamed the downfall of previous dynasties on the refusal of their emperors to deviate from traditional patterns of rule. His letter was ignored for ten years until Emperor Shenzong of Song succeeded the throne. The new emperor faced declining taxes and an increasingly heavy burden of taxation on commoners due to the development of large estates, whose owners managed to evade paying their share of taxes.[7] This led him to seek advice from Wang. Wang was first appointed vice counsellor (can zhizheng shi), and a year later was made chancellor ('zaixiang).[7]


The primary objectives of Wang Anshi's New Policies (xinfa) were to cut government expenditure and strengthen the military in the north. To do this, Wang advocated for policies intended to relieve the peasantry from distress and to prevent the consolidation of large land estates which would deprive small peasants of their livelihood. According to Wang, "good organization of finance was the duty of the government, and the organization of finance was nothing else than to fulfill public duties,"[8] and "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."[9]

Above all, Wang saw himself as the defender of family farms and small shopkeepers against rapacious rentier landowners and the great merchant houses, whom he castigated as “aggrandizers.” Wang feared that unbridled market exchange created imbalances in the distribution in wealth and was vulnerable to manipulation by merchant cartels. To forestall such inequities he advocated state intervention in commerce and moneylending. Wang created new state agencies to manage wholesale trade at the capital and provide credit for retail businesses, turned private brokers into government agents, tightened the state’s control of foreign trade, and extended the existing monopoly on salt production to include much tea cultivation as well.[10]

— Richard von Glahn


Wang Anshi was promoted to vice counselor in 1069.[11]

He introduced and promulgated a series of reforms, collectively known as the New Policies/New Laws. The reforms had three main components: 1) state finance and trade, 2) defense and social order, and 3) education and improving of governance.

Equal tax law[edit]

The equal tax law (junshuifa), also known as the square field law (fangtianfa) was a land registration project meant to reveal hidden land (untaxed land). Fields were divided into squares 1,000 paces in length on each side. The corners of the fields were marked by earth piles or trees. In the autumn, an official was dispatched to supervise the surveying of the land and to place the soil quality in one of five categories. This information was written in a ledger declared legally binding for the purposes of sale and purchase, and the taxation value assessed appropriately. The law was highly unpopular with land owners, who complained that it restricted their freedom of distribution and other purposes (avoiding tax). Although the square field system was only implemented around the region of Kaifeng, the land surveyed made up 54 percent of known arable land in the Song dynasty. The project was discontinued in 1085. Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125) tried to revive it but the implementation was too impractical and gave up after 1120.[12]

The system of taxation for mining products (kuangshi difen zhi) was a similar project to the equal tax law, except for regulating mining projects.[8]

Green sprouts law[edit]

The green sprouts law (qingmiaofa) was a loan to peasants. The government loaned money to buy seeds, or seeds themselves from state granaries, in two disbursements at an interest rate of 2 percent calculated at an average of ten years. Recollections occurred in the summer and winter. Public officials abused the system by forcing loans on the peasants or extracting more than 2 percent interest.[13]

Hydraulic works law[edit]

The hydraulic works law (shuilifa) was meant to improve local organization of irrigation works. Instead of using corvée labor, each circuit was supposed to appoint officials to loan money to the people using the local treasury, so that they could hire laborers. The government also encouraged planting mulberry trees to increase silk production.[14]

Labor recruitment law[edit]

The labor recruitment law (muyifa) aimed at replacing corvée labor as a form of tax service with hired labor. Each prefecture calculated the funds needed for official projects in advance so that the funds could be distributed appropriately. The government also paid a premium of 20 percent in years of crop failures. Effectively, it transformed labor service to the government into a monetary payment, increasing tax revenue. However, people who were previously exempt from corvée labor were forced to pay taxes for labor on official projects, and thus protested the new law. Although officially abolished in 1086, the new labor recruitment system existed in practice until the end of the Northern Song dynasty in 1127.[15]

Balanced delivery law[edit]

The balanced delivery law (junshufa) was meant to curb the prices of commodities purchased by the government and to control the expenditures of the local administration. To do this, circuit level financial institutions in southeast China were made responsible for government purchases and their transport. The central treasury provided funds for the purchase of low cost goods wherever they were available, their storage, and transport to areas where they were expensive. Critics claimed that Wang was waging a price war with merchants.[16]

Market exchange law[edit]

The market exchange law (shiyifa), also called the guild avoidance law (mianshangfa), targeted large trading companies and monopolies. A metropolitan market exchange bureau was set up in Kaifeng and 21 market exchange offices in other cities. They were headed by supervisors and office managers who dealt with merchants, merchant guilds, and brokerage houses. These institutions fixed prices for not only resident merchants but also itinerant traders. Surplus commodities were purchased by the government and stored for later sale at a lower price, disrupting price manipulation by merchant monopolies. Merchant guilds that cooperated with the market exchange bureau were allowed to sell goods to the government and buy commodities from government storehouses using money or credit at an interest rate of 10 percent for six months. Small or mid-sized companies and groups of five merchants could provide guarantee with their assets for credit. After 1085, the market exchange bureau and offices became profit making institutions, and bought cheap goods and sold at higher prices. The system stayed in place until the end of the Northern Song dynasty in 1127.[17]

Baojia law[edit]

The baojia system, also known as the village defense law or security group law, was a project to improve local security and relieve local government of administrative duties. It ordered groups of ten, fifty, and five hundred men security groups to be organized. Each was to be led by a headman. Initially each household with more than two male adults had to provide one security guard, but this unrealistic expectation was decreased to one per five households later on. The security groups exercised police powers, organized night watches, and trained in martial arts when no agricultural work was required. Essentially it was a local militia with the main effect being a decrease in government expenditures, since the local population was responsible for its own protection.[18]

General and troops law[edit]

The general and troops law (jiangbingfa), also known as the creation of commands law (zhijiangfa) targeted improving the relationship between high officials and common troops. The army was divided into commands units of 2,500 to 3,000 men that incorporated a mixed force of infantry, cavalry, archers, as well as tribal troops, instead of each belonging to their own individual unit. This did not include the metropolitan and palace army. The system continued until the end of the Song dynasty.[19]

Three college law[edit]

The three college law (sanshefa), also called the Three Hall system, regulated the education of future officials in the Taixue (National University). It divided the Taixue into three colleges. Students first attended the Outer College, then the Inner College, and finally the Superior College. One of the aims of the three-colleges was to provide a more balanced education for students and to de-emphasize Confucian learning. Students were taught in only one of the Confucian classics, depending on the college, as well as arithmetics and medicine. Students of the Outer College who passed a public and institutional examination were allowed to enter the Inner College. At the Inner College there were two exams over a two-year period on which the students were graded. Those who achieved the superior grade on both exams were directly appointed to office equal to that of a metropolitan exam graduate. Those who achieved an excellent grade on one exam but slightly worse on the other could still be considered for promotion, and having a good grade in one exam but mediocre in another still awarded merit equal to that of a provincial exam graduate.[20]

In 1104, the prefectural examinations were abolished in favor of the three-colleges system, which required each prefecture to send an annual quota of students to the Taixue. This drew criticism from some officials who claimed that the new system benefited the rich and young, and was less fair because the relatives of officials could enroll without being examined for their skills. In 1121, the local three-college system was abolished but retained at the national level.[20]

Wang’s downfall[edit]

Modern statue of Wang Anshi

Wang Anshi's reforms alienated landowners, high officials, and merchant guilds. In 1074, Wang was forced to resign due to a famine in northern China. The famine stricken farmers owed debts to the government due to loans under Wang's New Policies. The local officials insisted on collecting the debts despite the farmers' hardships, exacerbating the crisis, and Wang was blamed for this. He was reinstated a year later by the emperor, but he found the environment to be highly hostile due to open attacks by the conservatives, and resigned soon after. He spent his remaining years in Jiangning, where he contributed to the local scholarship, and died in 1086. His reforms were ended in the same year when Emperor Zhezong of Song (r. 1085–1100) came to the throne.[21][7]


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.[22]


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
the south bank of the Yangtse
When will the bright moon
light my journey home?

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.


Modern depiction of Wang Anshi and five scholars

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.[23] 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.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ hence referred to as Wáng Jīnggōng 王荊公
  2. ^ hence referred to as Wáng Wéngōng 王文公
  3. ^ D.B. Boulger (1881). History of China. pp. 388–.
  4. ^ Man and the universe. Japan. Siberia. China. Carmelite House. 1907. pp. 771–.
  5. ^ Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Paul Jakov Smith 2016 p.237. State Power in China, 900-1325.
  6. ^ Mote ch. 6
  7. ^ a b c "Wang Anshi 王安石 (".
  8. ^ a b "Reforms of Wang Anshi (".
  9. ^ Nourse, Mary A. 1944. A Short History of the Chinese, 3rd edition. P.136
  10. ^ von Glahn 2016, p. 366.
  11. ^ "Wang Anshi | Chinese author and political reformer |". Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  12. ^ "junshuifa 均税法 (".
  13. ^ "qingmiaofa 青苗法 (".
  14. ^ "shuilifa 水利法 (".
  15. ^ "muyifa 募役法 (".
  16. ^ "junshufa 均輸法 (".
  17. ^ "shiyifa 市易法 (".
  18. ^ "baojia 保甲 (".
  19. ^ "zhijiangfa 置將法 (".
  20. ^ a b "Sanshefa 三舍法 (".
  21. ^ Mote p. 141-42
  22. ^ Jaroslav Průšek and Zbigniew Słupski, eds., Dictionary of Oriental Literatures: East Asia (Charles Tuttle, 1978): 192.
  23. ^ Gillin 42
  24. ^ 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.

Works cited[edit]

  • Mote, F.W. (1999). Imperial China: 900-1800. Harvard University Press. pp. 122, 138–142.
  • Gillin, Donald G. Warlord: Yen Hsi-shan in Shansi Province 1911–1949. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1967. LCCN 66-14308
  • von Glahn, Richard (2016), The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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