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(DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE – continued)

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DYNASTIC RULE and the CHINESE (7 of 13)

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Failed Reform and Chaos

In 91 BCE, as Emperor Wu's fifty-four year reign neared its end, around the capital violent warfare erupted over who would succeed him. On one side was Wudi's empress and on the other was the family of one of Wudi's mistresses. The two families came close to destroying each other. Then, just before Emperor Wu's death, a compromise heir was chosen: an eight-year-old to be known as Emperor Zhao, who was put under the regency of Huo Guang, a former general.

Huo Guang sponsored a conference to inquire into the grievances of his emperor's subjects. Invited to the conference were government officials of the Legalist school and worthy representatives of Confucianism. The Legalists argued for maintaining the status quo. They argued that their economic policies helped maintain China's defenses against the continued hostility of the Xiongnu and that they were protecting the people from the exploitation of traders. They argued in favor of the government's policy of western expansion on the grounds that it brought the empire horses, camels, fruits and various imported luxuries, such as furs, rugs and precious stones. The Confucianists, on the other hand, made a moral issue of peasant grievances. Also they argued that the Chinese had no business in Central Asia and that China should stay within its borders and live in peace with its neighbors. The Confucianists argued that trade is not a proper activity of government, that government should not compete with private tradesmen, and they complained that the imported goods spoken of by the Legalists had found their way only into the houses of the rich.

Under Huo Guang's regency, taxes were reduced and peace negotiations began with the Xiongnu chieftains. Emperor Zhao died in 74 BCE at the age of twenty, and conflict erupted again at the palace. Zhaodi's successor was emperor for only twenty-seven days when Huo Guang replaced him with someone he thought he could control: Emperor Xuan, age seventeen. Six years later, the regent Huo Guang died peaceably, but palace rivalry led to charges of treason against Huo Guang's wife, son and many of Huo Guang's relatives and family associates, and they were executed.

Emperor Xuan ruled for twenty-six years, during which he tried to reduce the corruption that had crept into government, and he tried to provide help in eliminating the suffering among the peasants. But his attempts were ineffective, and his son and heir, Emperor Yuan (age 27) in 48 BCE became the first of a string of dysfunctional monarchs – the chance of an inept monarch inheriting power again manifesting itself. Emperor Yuan was a timid intellectual who spent much time with his numerous concubines. Rather than govern, he left power in the hands of his eunuch secretaries and members of his mother's family.

Emperor Yuan's son became emperor Cheng in 32 BCE at the age of nineteen, and he also had little enthusiasm for governing and was most concerned with personal pleasures, including visiting houses of prostitution at night. During Emperor Cheng's twenty-seven-year reign he sought guidance from omens, and to satisfy the jealousy of one of his women, he murdered two of his sons born to other women.

In 6 BCE, Emperor Cheng was succeeded by Emperor Ai, age twenty, who lived in the company of homosexual boys, one of whom, his fasvorite, Dong Xian, age twenty-two, he appointed commander-in-chief of his armies. With the decline in quality of monarchs following the reign of Wudi, some Confucian scholars declared that the Han dynasty had lost its Mandate from Heaven, and this became widely believed.

In the year 1 CE Emperor Ai was succeeded by a nine year-old, Emperor Ping. The mother of Emperor Cheng, the Grand Dowager Empress Wang, dominated the palace, and she made her nephew, Wang Mang, regent. Emperor Ping died in the year 6, and Wang Mang named his successor, Emperor Ruzi, the last of the dynastic chain of emperors created by Liu Bang 200 years earlier.

Wang Mang

Wang Mang. He didn't know how to make a revolution.

Wang Mang was a Confucianist, and many Confucianists looked to him with hope that China would be ruled again with moral purpose, and some looked to him to found a new dynasty. Encouraged by widespread support, in the year 9 CE Wang Mang declared himself emperor, ending rule by the Han dynasty. And Wang began a struggle for recognition of his legitimacy.

Wang Mang hoped that with reforms he could win more support. Like the Yawhist priesthood during the reign of king Josiah, Wang announced the discovery of important writings. These were books claimed to have been written by Confucius, supposedly discovered when Confucius' house had been torn down more than 200 years before. The discovered works contained declarations supporting the very kind of reform that Wang sought.

Wang defended his policies by quoting from the discovered works. Following what was portrayed as Confucian scripture, he decreed a return to the golden times when every man had his measure of land to till, land that in principle belonged to the state. He declared that a family of less than eight that had more than fifteen acres was obligated to distribute the excess to the landless. He moved to reduce the tax burden on poor peasants, and he devised a plan to have state banks lend money to whomever needed it at an interest of ten percent per year, in contrast to the thirty percent that was the going rate by private lenders. In order to stabilize the price of grain, he made plans for a state granary, hoping that this would discourage the wealthy from hoarding grain and profiting from price fluctuations. Wang also delegated a body of officials to regulate the economy and to fix prices every three months, and he decreed that critics of his plan would be drafted into the military.

Wang claimed that he was doing the will of Confucius. He announced that his rule was a restoration of the rule of the early Zhou kings – an age that the Confucian scholar Mencius had claimed was supposed to return every 500 years. It was about one thousand years since the beginning of Zhou rule and 500 years since Confucius had been at the peak of his powers.

Wang believed that his subjects would obey his decrees, but again gentry-bureaucrats gave less importance to their Confucianism than to their wealth. They and other owners of good-sized lands failed to cooperate in implementing Wang's reforms. Without newspapers or television, local people remained unaware of the reforms. Wealthy merchants that Wang Mang's government employed to pursue implementation of the reforms succumbed to bribery and proved interested mainly in enriching themselves. Wang needed a broad base of support and a force willing to move against those violating his land reform laws, but he didn't have it. The power of money was defeating Wang's reforms.

In the year 11 the Yellow River broke its banks, creating floods from Shandong north to where the river empties into the sea. The usual failure to store enough grain for hard times left people without food. In the year 14 came cannibalism. Believing that his reform program was a failure, Wang withdrew it. But already armed resistance to his rule had arisen. Rather than Wang having mobilized a peasant army to enforce his reforms, armies of peasants were mobilized against him.

In Shandong province, near the mouth of the Yellow River, Wang faced an organized movement of disciplined bands of peasants called the Red Eyebrows, led by a former brigand chief. In the neighboring province just to the north, another rebellion arose, and rebellion spread across China. In some places, rebel peasants were led by landlords. Some rebel groupings described Wang's rule as illegitimate. And one of the rebel groupings placed at its head a Han prince by the name of Liu Xiu.

Peasant armies murdered and plundered. They marched to the capital, killing officials as they went. The troops that Wang sent against the rebel armies joined the rebels or went on sprees of plundering, taking what little food they could find. The basic goodness of people that Confucianists had believed in appeared to have vanished. In the year 23, a rebel army invaded and burned China's great capital, Chang'an. Its soldiers found Wang Mang in his throne-room reciting from his collection of Confucian writings. He was silenced by a soldier cutting off his head.

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