Wang Anshi was a prominent reformer of the Northern Song Dynasty. He served as Chief Councillor from 1070-1073, and again from 1075-1076; his policy attitudes remained influential, however, through his death in 1086.
Wang headed a classicist faction at Court rivalling that headed by Sima Guang; unlike Sima, who advocated gradual reforms and policies based on the more recent Tang Dynasty and Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, Wang sought a restoration of the ways of the Sage Kings of old. He emphasized his own interpretation of the Confucian classics, and sought to have the civil examinations be based specifically on that line of interpretation. He also oversaw the implementation of an empire-wide "public" school system, in which the curriculum and interpretations chosen by Wang were then taught.
Regarding the Song's financial crisis, Sima Guang's faction argued that economies cannot grow - that the amount of wealth that exists is finite - and that traditional statuses and disparities between rich and poor were in accordance with the Tao, i.e. that this was the way things should be. Wang Anshi disagreed dramatically, believing that economic development was possible, that the economy could grow, and that the relationships between rich and poor ought to be drastically altered. He established a new finance planning commission in 1069, and a trade system in 1072 aimed at breaking the monopolies of strong merchant houses, in order to lower prices and save the government money. He enacted a new tax in 1071 to help pay for the hiring of local government officials, and ended tax payments in kind in 1073, believing that monetary transactions were superior for a healthy economy. Yet, even as the Song minted billions of new coins every year, the increasingly monetized economy continued to face an insufficient supply of coins in circulation.
Wang attempted a series of programs to reduce government costs by delegating responsibilities to the people. Groups of ten, thirty, and three hundred households were organized for mutual collective responsibility, and one program had farmers take care of the government's horses, using them for their own purposes, but then turning them over to the military when called upon to do so; farm horses made poor military steeds, however.
Wang's extensive reform efforts brought him into tension with many officials, whose personal profit was harmed, or simply whose status quo patterns of work were shaken up. By 1076 he was pushed out of power. Emperor Shenzong maintained some of Wang's systems of reforms until his death, and some were revived under Emperor Huizong, and other later reigns, but many of his reforms were also, gradually or more immediately, reversed.
- Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Co (2000), 269-270.
- Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 197-198.
- A post roughly similar to prime minister.