What was the impetus for Wang Mang's political and social reforms and how successful were they?
Wang Mang’s rise in China’s imperial hierarchy was neither preordained nor smooth. While a member of a distinguished family, including Wang Mang’s status of nephew to the empress dowager, there was little about his career that suggested he was destined to one day sit on the emperor’s throne. Following years of unspectacular service to the throne, however, he was catapulted to a high level of government when his aunt, following her husband, the emperor, died in 1 BC. His political machinations resulted in his continued to rise in power through careful manipulation of the lines of succession, until he was able to appoint himself “acting emperor.” Opposition to his political maneuvers by the previously dominant Liu clan, which had dominated the Han Dynasty, was defeated, and he ascended to the throne as the self-designated head of the newly-established – and ultimately short-lived – Xin Dynasty.
During Wang Mang’s career, he had endeared himself with the general public and was seen as a more favorable alternative to the Liu, who tended to act, in Wang’s eyes, with minimal regard for the Confucian principles that most Chinese revered. Once designated emperor, Wang began to implement a series of reforms intended to weaken the ruling classes that opposed him and viewed his rule as illegitimate. Those reforms included institutionalization of Confucian principles and sought to redistribute land that ostensibly belonged to the wealthy but which Wang attempted to appropriate for the lesser classes. Another major reform effort involved the currency in use at the time, which Wang devalued at the expense of the wealthier segments of society, including the merchant classes, but which also adversely affected the very classes he had intended to help.
Wang Mang’s reform efforts succeeded in further alienating the most powerful segments in Chinese society, who already, as noted, viewed him as a false emperor. This political opposition, combined with natural disasters resulting from the Yellow River’s tendency to alter its course at the expense of those who lived among its banks, resulting in wide-spread homelessness and famine, undermined the emperor’s position even with the poor, who were the main victims of these disasters. With the value of everyone’s currency depleted, and anger over their plight creating a rebellious attitude among the peasantry, a newly formed militia called the “Red Eyebrows” emerged as a major military threat to the emperor and ultimately succeeded in forcing him from the throne.
With Wang Mang killed in a final battle, the Han Dynasty was restored and Wang’s reforms abolished.