Song Dynasty (960-1279): Wang Anshi Reform

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Song Dynasty (960-1279): Wang Anshi Reform


Financial Problems. Heavy financial burdens forced the Song (960-1279) government to reduce the salaries of its functionaries. Inadequate salaries may have contributed to corruption among the bureaucrats and factionalism in the government. The bureaucratic factions were deeply divided on all major issues of policy, which severely affected the efficiency of the governing machine. The young emperor Shengzong (Inspired Ancestor), who reigned from 1067 to 1085, came to the throne determined to tackle these financial problems. In 1067 he appointed Wang Anshi as his chief councilor, who initiated a series of economic, military, and educational reforms.

Reforms. On the economic front, Wang Anshi first installed the central economic manipulation policy, which had been known in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) as the “leveling” system. Under this policy the government bought specialized products from one region and sold them in other regions in order to stabilize prices and use the profits. This measure helped increase government revenues, but it conflicted with the interests of the larger inter-state merchants. Second, Wang provided government loans to peasants at a 20 or 30 percent interest rates, a comparably low figure. Some private moneylenders charged rates as high as 70 percent. This new policy helped poor farmers to maintain themselves, but it hurt the profits of the private moneylenders. It also reduced the dependency of the poorer farmers on their wealthier landlord neighbors. Third, Wang ordered a survey in order to correct existing inequities in the land tax. He eliminated the old system and in its place instituted a graduated scale of taxes based on the productivity of land rather than on the size of acreage.

He also abolished corvee service and commuted it into a monetary tax.

Military Reforms. Wang Anshi revived the collective responsibility system called bao-jia, which organized the peasant households into groups of bao (tens) and jia(hundreds) to maintain local peace and order. The bao-jia system also provided the government with a trained and armed militia, maintained at local expense, to assist the central army. Wang furthermore created a system that increased the breeding of horses for military use and assigned the stock to families in North China. The recipients in turn provided cavalry militia during wartime.

Educational Reforms. Wang Anshi increased the number of government schools to reduce the influence of the shuyuan (private academies), which had dominated academic training. The most important reform was related to drastic changes in the civil service examination system. Wang advocated more testing on practical problems and administrative skills than on a student’s knowl-edge of classical literature. He also suggested that the prefectural supervisory offices be turned into formal teaching institutions, and he redesigned the National Academy to function as a real school.

Opposition to Reform. Wang’s reform measures were highly controversial. While many of his reforms—such as the graduated tax, low-interest government loans, and price regulation—protected average farmers and increased tax revenues, they also hurt the interests of different social groups, particularly the large landlords, moneylenders, and merchants. His reforms of the civil service examinations antagonized most bureaucrats, whose privileges in education and official recruitment were threatened. Opposition forces vehemently attacked Wang, who lost his power upon the death of Shanzong in 1085. When the traditionalists returned to power, they overturned Wang’s measures, thus nullifying what-ever economic and military benefits the reforms had brought in.


John K. Fairbank and others, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

Herbert Franke and Denis Twitchett, eds., The Cambridge History of China, volume 6, Alien Regimes and Border States, 907-1368 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994). F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Witold Rodzinski, A History of China, 2 volumes (Oxford 6c New York: Pergamon, 1979, 1983).

John Winthrop Haeger, ed., Crisis and Prosperity in Sung China (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1975).