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A History of China by Wolfram Eberhard

Money for the emperor's exchequer


administration of provinces

and in the bureaucratic set-up in the capital; and even some of his economic measures were so highly regarded that they were retained or reintroduced, although this happened in some instances centuries later and without mentioning Wang Mang's name. But most of his policies and actions were certainly neither accepted nor acceptable. He made use of every conceivable resource in order to secure power to his clique. As far as possible he avoided using open force, and resorted to a high-level propaganda. Confucianism, the philosophic basis of the power of the gentry, served him as a bait; he made use of the so-called "old character school" for his purposes. When, after the holocaust of books, it was desired to collect the ancient classics again, texts were found under strange circumstances in the walls of Confucius's house; they were written in an archaic script. The people who occupied themselves with these books were called the old character school. The texts came under suspicion; most scholars had little belief in their genuineness. Wang Mang, however, and his creatures energetically supported the cult of these ancient writings. The texts were edited and issued, and in the process, as can now be seen, certain things were smuggled into them that fitted in well with Wang Mang's intentions. He even had other texts reissued with falsifications. He now represented himself in all his actions as a man who did with the utmost precision the things which the books reported of rulers or ministers
of ancient times. As regent he had declared that his model was the brother of the first emperor of the Chou dynasty; as emperor he took for his exemplar one of the mythical emperors of ancient China; of his new laws he claimed that they were simply revivals of decrees of the golden age. In all this he appealed to the authority of literature that had been tampered with to suit his aims. Actually, such laws had never before been customary; either Wang Mang completely misinterpreted passages in an ancient text to suit his purpose, or he had dicta that suited him smuggled into the text. There can be no question that Wang Mang and his accomplices began by deliberately falsifying and deceiving. However, as time went on, he probably began to believe in his own frauds.

Wang Mang's great series of certain laws has brought him the name of "the first Socialist on the throne of China". But closer consideration reveals that these measures, ostensibly and especially aimed at the good of the poor, were in reality devised simply in order to fill the imperial exchequer and to consolidate the imperial power. When we read of the turning over of great landed estates to the state, do we not imagine that we are faced with a modern land reform? But this applied only to the wealthiest of all the landowners, who were to be deprived in this way of their power. The prohibition of private slave-owning had a similar purpose, the state reserving to itself the right to keep slaves. Moreover, landless peasants were to receive land to till, at the expense of those who possessed too much. This admirable law, however, was not intended seriously to be carried into effect. Instead, the setting up of a system of state credits for peasants held out the promise, in spite of rather reduced interest rates, of important revenue. The peasants had never been in a position to pay back their private debts together with the usurious interest, but there were at least opportunities of coming to terms with a private usurer, whereas the state proved a merciless creditor. It could dispossess the peasant, and either turn his property into a state farm, convey it to another owner, or make the peasant a state slave. Thus this measure worked against the interest of the peasants, as did the state monopoly of the exploitation of mountains and lakes. "Mountains and lakes" meant the uncultivated land around settlements, the "village commons", where people collected firewood or went fishing. They now had to pay money for fishing rights and for the right to collect wood, money for the emperor's exchequer. The same purpose lay behind the wine, salt, and iron tool monopolies. Enormous revenues came to the state from the monopoly of minting coin, when old metal coin of full value was called in and exchanged for debased coin. Another modern-sounding institution, that of the "equalization offices", was supposed to buy cheap goods in times of plenty in order to sell them to the people in times of scarcity at similarly low prices, so preventing want and also preventing excessive price fluctuations. In actual fact these state offices formed a new source of profit, buying cheaply and selling as dearly as possible.


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