Wang Mang (Chinese: 王莽) (c. 45 BC – 6 October 23 AD), courtesy nameJujun (Chinese: 巨君; pinyin: Jùjūn), was the founder and the only emperor of the short-lived Chinese Xin dynasty.[note 1] He was originally an official and consort kin of the Han dynasty and later seized the throne in AD 9. The Han dynasty was restored after his overthrow, and his rule marked the separation between the Western Han dynasty (before Xin) and Eastern Han dynasty (after Xin). Some historians have traditionally viewed Wang as a usurper, while others have portrayed him as a visionary and selfless social reformer. Though a learned Confucian scholar who sought to implement the harmonious society he saw in the classics, his efforts ended in chaos.
In October 23 AD, the capital Chang’an was attacked and the imperial palace ransacked. Wang Mang died in the battle. The Han dynasty was re-established in either 23 AD when the Gengshi Emperor took the throne, or in 25 AD when Emperor Guangwu of Han took the throne after defeating the Red Eyebrows who deposed the Gengshi Emperor.
Born in 45 BC, Wang Mang was the son of Wang Man (王曼), the younger brother of Empress Wang Zhengjun, and his wife Qu (渠, family name unknown). His lineage can be traced back to the kings of Qi, whose descendants changed their surname to Wang (lit. ‘king; royal’) as Qi locals referred to them as the “royal family”. Wang Man died early when Wang Mang was still young, before Emperor Cheng took the throne and his mother Empress Wang became empress dowager. Unlike most of his brothers, Wang Man did not have the opportunity to become a marquess. Empress Wang took pity on his family, and after she was widowed, she had Qu moved to the imperial palace to live with her.
While Wang Mang was well-connected to the imperial family, he did not have the luxuries that his cousins enjoyed. Indeed, unlike his relatives who lived expensively and competed with each other on how they could spend more, Wang Mang was praised for his humility, thriftiness, and desire to study. He wore not the clothes of young nobles but those of a young Confucian scholar. He was also praised on how filial he was to his mother and how caring he was to his deceased brother Wang Yong (王永)’s wife and son Wang Guang (王光). Wang Mang befriended many capable people and served his uncles conscientiously.
When Wang Mang’s powerful uncle, Wang Feng (王鳳, commander of the armed forces (33–22 BC) grew ill, Wang Mang cared for him day and night and attended to his medical and personal needs. Wang Feng was greatly touched, and before his death, he asked Empress Dowager Wang and Emperor Cheng to take good care of Wang Mang. Wang Mang was therefore given the post of imperial attendant (黃門郎) and later promoted to be one of the subcommanders of the imperial guards (射聲校尉).
In 16 BC, another of Wang Mang’s uncles, Wang Shang (王商) the Marquess of Chengdu, submitted a petition to divide part of his march and to create Wang Mang a marquess. Several well-regarded officials concurred in this request, and Emperor Cheng was impressed with Wang Mang’s reputation. He therefore created Wang Mang the Marquess of Xindu and promoted him to the Chamberlain for Attendants (光祿大夫). It was described by historians that the greater the posts that Wang was promoted to, the more humble he grew. He did not accumulate wealth, but used the money to support scholars and to give gifts to colleagues which gained him much praise.
Wang Mang had only a single wife, Lady Wang, and no concubines. (She had the same family name as Wang Mang which is seen as strong evidence that at this point the taboo against endogamy based on the same family name was not firmly in place in Chinese culture.) However, as later events would show, Wang was not completely faithful to his wife, even at this time.
Emperor Cheng appointed his uncles, one after another, to be the commander of the armed forces (the most powerful court official), and speculation grew as to who would succeed Wang Mang’s youngest surviving uncle, Wang Gen (王根, commander 12–8 BC). Wang Mang was considered one of the possibilities, while another was his cousin Chunyu Zhang (the son of Empress Dowager Wang’s sister), who had a much closer personal relationship to Emperor Cheng than Wang Mang. Chunyu also had friendly relations with both Emperor Cheng’s wife Empress Zhao Feiyan and his deposed former wife Empress Xu.
To overcome Chunyu’s presumptive hold on succeeding Wang Gen, Wang Mang took action. He collected evidence that Chunyu, a frivolous man in his words and deeds, had secretly received bribes from the deposed Empress Xu and had promised to help her become “left empress”, and that he had promised his associates important posts once he succeeded Wang Gen. In 8 BC, he informed Wang Gen and Empress Dowager Wang of the evidence, and both Wang Gen and Empress Dowager Wang were greatly displeased with Chunyu. They exiled Chunyu back to his march. Chunyu, before he left the capital, gave his horses and luxurious carriages to his cousin Wang Rong (王融), the son of his uncle Wang Li (王立), with whom he had a running feud. Wang Li, happy with Chunyu’s gift, submitted a petition requesting that Chunyu be allowed to remain at the capital. However, this request was treated with suspicion by Emperor Cheng because he knew of the feud between Wang Li and Chunyu. He ordered Wang Rong to be arrested, and Wang Li, in his panic, ordered his son to commit suicide. This dramatic action only made Emperor Cheng more suspicious. He therefore had Chunyu arrested and interrogated. Chunyu admitted to deceiving Empress Xu and receiving bribes from her, and he was executed.
In 8 BC, Wang Gen, by then seriously ill, submitted his resignation and requested that Wang Mang succeed him. In winter 8 BC, Emperor Cheng made Wang Mang the commander of the armed forces (大司馬), at the age of 37.