Alternative History

Wang Anshi (Serican: 王安石; pinyin: Wáng Ānshí) (December 8, 1021 - May 21, 1086) is now regarded as a national hero and was a Serican economist, statesman, chancellor and poet of the Song Dynasty who carried out controversial, major socioeconomic reforms. These reforms constituted the core concepts and motives of the Reformists, while their nemesis, official Sima Guang, led the Conservative faction against them.

In economics, his reforms expanded the use of money, broke up private monopolies and introduced some forms of government regulation and social welfare. In military affairs, he supported the use of local militias; and in education and government, he expanded the examination system and tried to suppress nepotism.

Wang Anshi

Portrait of Wang Anshi

Chancellor of Song Dynasty
1070 – 1086

Born 8 December 1021
Linchuan, Jiangsu province
Died 21 May 1086 (aged 64)

Early life[]

Wang Anshi was born on December 18, 1021, in Ch'ing-chiang prefecture, Jiangxi, where his father, Wang I, was serving as an official. Originally from Shanxi, the family had for several generations made its home in Linchuan district, Fuchou prefecture, Kiangsi, where Anshi's great-grandfather prospered in farming. The family began producing officials when Anshi's grand-uncle Wang Guanzhi succeeded in passing the highest civil service examination his jinshi (進士) degree in 1015. Four other members of Anshi's family were similarly successful. Anshi was the third of seven sons, and there were also three younger sisters. During his youth, Wang Anshi accompanied his family as his father moved from post to post and devoted his time to reading books. He continued his studies even after his father's death in 1038 and obtained his jinshi 4 years later, placing fourth out of 435 successful candidates.

Early career[]

From 1042 to 1060 Wang Anshi 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 possible, Wang turned down positions for serving in the capital during these years, preferring provincial appointments, partly for financial reasons, since the death of his elder brother left him responsible for the family in the ealy 1050s.

Wang's service as a local administrator began in Yangzhou, Jiangsu (1042-1045), and included posts in Chenxian, Zhejiang (1047-1049), Suzhou in Anhui (1051-1054), another term in Jiangsu, this time in Changzhou (1057-1058), and an appointment as judge for Jiangdong (1058-ca. 1060), an area including portions of modern Anhui, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. 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 eloquence and reputation for forthrightness won him important political allies, including Ouyang Xiu, 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.

Rise to power[]

Even while serving in the provinces, Wang Anshi was deeply concerned over problems affecting the whole empire; it was as a provincial official that he submitted to Emperor Renzong 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 Chixian Library as well as an appointment as special drafting official, which ran concurrently with the other assignments from 1061 to 1063, 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 Shenzong in 1067 and a brief stint as governor Nanjing, Wang was appointed Hanlin academician and was called to the capital in 1068. The following year he became a second privy councilor and initiated his reform policies.


Wang became chief councilor in 1070 and held this position until his death. He believed that the state should take 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.

It was in 1070 he introduced and promulgated his reform policy (xin fa 新法) as Chancellor. There were three main components to this policy:

  1. State finance and trade
  2. Defense and social order
  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, hospices, cemeteries, and reserve granaries.

The military and civil reforms centered on a new institution of the baojia system. This system gave the leaders of selected households the right to police and maintain local order, collect taxes, and organize civil projects in counties where the local government was too small. 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. Ancient philosophical classics were removed from the examinations. The National Hanlin 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.

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 Xi Xia 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 of unnatural causes.

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 morality as well as the security and welfare of the people.

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.

Later life and death[]

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 legendary kings and would therefore prevent the Song from experiencing the prosperity and peace of the ancients.

In 1074, famine struck northern Serica and 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. Wang wanted to resign, but the emperor and the empress dowager still supported him, giving him high honors and an appointment to Jiangning (present-day Nanjing.)

He was recalled to the capital the following year but he was vulnerable and openly attacked by conservative groups in the court. However, he was still supported by the imperial family and managed to keep his position as Chancellor until his death in May 21, 1086.

Poetry and literary works[]

Wang devoted his spare time to literary pursuits near the end of his career. Unlike most Confucian philosophers, he 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 inseperable from the emotions and emphasizing the importance of social custom and government for the development of human goodness.

Famous as an essayist, 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.