CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


On Wang Anshi | China Heritage Quarterly

On Wang Anshi 王安石

Wang An-shih and China Today

The China Critic

This editorial was published in the pages of The China Critic, X:1 (4 July 1935): 9-10.—The Editor

Wang An-shih, a Chinese statesman of the eleventh century, is so modern in his economic conception that many of his reforms still have a significance for China today. He was fortunate enough to enjoy the confidence of his emperor and to put his ideas into practice, but he also lived long enough to see most of his reforms abolished by the new prime minister appointed by the Empress Dowager. Though in the centuries that followed his death, there were scholars who recognized his greatness, yet it is the twentieth century China that gives him the full credit for his statesmanship. Not only Liang Chi-chao, the scholar-statesman, painted him a full-length portrait, but General Chiang Kai-shek, a military man and a realistic political leader of present day China also pays a high tribute to him by ordering General Hsiung Shih-hui, governor of Kiangsi, where Wang An-shih was born nine centuries ago, to institute and encourage the study of his reforms.

Fig.1 Wang Anshi, from the Wanxiang Tang Zhuzhuang Huazhuan(晩笑堂竹荘畫傳), first published in 1743, and reprinted in 1921.

This is nothing to be wondered at, for there are certain similarities between the conditions of the Sung dynasty and those of China today. For one thing, China was, then as now, weak and menaced by foreign encroachments. Another similarity between these two periods of Chinese history is the untold suffering of the farmers, who form the backbone of the country and who were bled white by the shrewd traders and money lenders. China's government finances in both the eleventh and the twentieth centuries, cannot give one too much optimism, and, above all, it takes a realist to appreciate a realist. Many Chinese scholars of old were too much hampered by their traditional political philosophy which is idealistic rather than realistic to be able to appreciate Wang An-shih's reforms in proper light. For instance, Chu Hsi who tried to be as fair to Wang as possible, criticised him for wasting his talent and energy in attempts to improve the national economy and the military machine of the state, instead of leading the emperor, as old Chinese political philosophy demands, along the path of loving kindness, righteousness, morality and virtue and thereby setting the country aright. In the twentieth century the old political philosophy has been exploded, and we are in position to appreciate Wang's reforms according to their intrinsic worth.

It would be impossible to give a fair estimate of Wang An-shih's achievements in so short a space. His plans for improving the national economy were both numerous and varied in nature. Best known among this group of reforms were government loans to the farmers from sowing to harvest at twenty percent interest, as compared with the private loans usually at one hundred percent interest. It may be noted here that the government loans to the farmers through the farmers' bank are becoming more and more popular today, so much so that the Postal Remittances and Savings Bank is also going into the field. The irrigation and river conservancy works of the Nanking government are not unlike what Wang An-shih undertook for the farmers. Neither is there the least doubt that the farm taxes need radical revision today as in Wang An-shih's time, if the farmers are to be relieved of the almost unbearable burden of taxation. However, General Chiang's recent order for the conscription of labor to speed up national reconstruction runs counter to one of Wang's reforms. Although Wang An-shih tried to do a great deal for the farmers, he did not go as far as Dr Sun Yat-sen in advocating that the tillers of the ground shall own the farms.

Wang An-shih's attempt at the improvement of national economy did not stop with those having a direct bearing on rural problems. He also tried to turn the government into an export and import house, buying goods where or when they were cheap and transporting them to where, or keeping them till when, they were dear. This was an attempt to save money in buying what government needed, and also to break the monopoly of some of the traders. Due to the strong opposition from both the officialdom and the rich merchants, the plan never had a fair trial. In this aspect, Wang An-shih was quite modern, though he did not go as far as Dr Sun Yat-sen in advocating government ownership and operation of the key industries. Wang An-shih not only tried to curb the power of the influential merchants, he also tried to help them, should they be in need of help. Any one who could not dispose of his goods on hand might sell them to, or mortgage them with, the government. The recent government loans to the Shanghai manufacturers bear certain resemblance to the government mortgages of Wang An-shih's time.

Wang An-shih's attempts at improving the national strength of defence were three in number. The paojia system which served both as mutual guarantee that no members of the community should become lawless elements, and as local militia has already been adopted by order of General Chiang at different places recovered from the communists. The system has proved as success, though in all its essentials, it does not differ from the original as formulated by Wang An-shih nine centuries ago. His system of keeping the war horses has little value for us today, in view of the necessity of mechanization of the army. Wang An-shih's attempt to strengthen the fighting strength of the army by making the commanders more attached to troops is impractical in view of the present conditions in China. Today our trouble lies in the troops being too much attached to the commanders. What we need is rather the opposite, that is to make the armies less attached to their commanders so that warlordism, which is a curse to contemporary China, may in time be removed.

The above are but some observations of the significance Wang An-shih's reforms have for China in the present age, and the reasons why we devote this special number to a study of this great statesman of yore.