Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086), courtesy name Jiefu 介甫, style Banshan 半山 or Linchuan xiansheng 臨川先生, posthumous title Wang Wengong 王文公 or Wang Jinggong 王荊公, was an important politician, writer, calligrapher and thinker of the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126). He is most famous for his reform policy carried out under Emperor Shenzong 宋神宗 (r. 1067-1085).
Wang hailed from Linchuan 臨川 (today's Fuzhou 撫州, Jiangxi) and obtained his jinshi degree in 1042. His career started with a post as secretary (qianshu 簽書) in the office of the assistant military commissioner (jiedu panguan tinggongshi 節度判官廳公事) of Huainan 淮南 (today's Yangzhou揚州, Jiangsu), and he was then promoted to district magistrate (zhixian 知縣) of Yinxian 鄞縣 (moden Ningbo 寧波, Zhejiang), and afterwards controller-general (tongpan 通判) of Shezhou 舒州 (Qianshan 潛山, Anhui). He was then sent to the capital Kaifeng 開封 (today in Henan) as assistant in the herds offics (qunmusi panguan 群牧司判官) and then became prefect (zhizhou 知州) of Changzhou 常州, commissioner for judicial matters in the circuit of Jiangnan-dong 江南東 (tidian xingyu gongshi 提點刑獄公事), and finally assistant in the Financial Commission (sansi duzhi panguan 三司度支判官), and editor of imperial edicts (zhi zhigao 知制誥).
His long experience in the local administration helped him to understand the difficulties of the lower level of government and also the problems of the common populace. The problems he saw inspired him to present a memorial to the throne. In 1058 he sent his famous "ten-thousand words letter" (known as Wanyanshu 萬言書, but actually called Yanshishu 言事書 "Letter speaking out [important] matters" or Shang Renzong Huangdi yanshi shu 上仁宗皇帝言事書) to Emperor Renzong 宋仁宗 (r. 1022-1063) in which he suggested some reforms in the administration, in order to solve financial and organizational problems. In this letter he used some negative examples of history to demonstrate that dynasties would fall if not reforms would be undertaken when necessary. The rule of the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) had thus been fragile from the beginning when it was founded by Emperor Wu 晉武帝 (r. 265-290), and the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907) was critically shaken because Emperor Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) refused to deviate from the old patterns of rule. It was not a good way to use tradition as a model for the present time. Yet for nearly ten years his letter remained unnoticed. Only when the young Emperor Shenzong mounted the throne, Wang Anshi's suggestion found an ear. He was first appointed vice counsellor (can zhizheng shi 參知政事), and a year later was made Counsellor-in-chief (zaixiang 宰相).
The main objective of the reform project of Wang Anshi was to cut government expenditure and to strengthen the military against the enemy in the north, the Kitans, whose Liao empire 遼 (907-1125) included northern China. In Wang's words, the "good organization of finance (li cai 理財) was the duty of the government, and the organization of finance was nothing else than to fulfill public duties (yi 義)." Yet the support of the economy was an important precondition of the arrangement of finances. The right application of the empire's forces would bring about wealth, and this wealth could be used to benefit the country. The reason why hitherto many projects had not been realized was the lack of sufficient funds, or, the wrong allocation of those available. The main source of government revenue were of course taxes, and therefore agriculture had to be boosted. A precondition of this was to relieve the peasantry from distress (qu jiku 去疾苦) and to prevent the consolidation of latifundia (yi jianbing 抑兼并) by which small peasants would be deprived of their own land.
The solution of all the financial and social problems was a series of reform initiated under his counsellorship. These reforms were known as the "new laws" (xinfa 新法). Most of them focused on the economy, like the equal-tax law (fangtianfa 方田法 or junshuifa 均税法), by which land was surveyed in a better way, the hydraulic labour law (shuilifa 水利法), which strengthened the organization of irrigation works, the labour recruitment law (muyifa 募役法), by which peasants were freed from labour duty, the balanced-delivery law (junshufa 均輸法), by which the court secured acceptable prices for commodities purchased by the central and local governments, the market exchange law (shiyifa 市易法 or "guild-avoidance law" mianhangfa 免行法), by which the power of market monopolies was curtailed, or the system of the taxation of mining products (kuangshui difen zhi 礦稅抽分制). Some other measures of the "new law project" tried to strengthen the military or to cut military expenditure. With the law on the creation of army commands (zhijiangfa 置將法) military units were reorganized to establish more effective fighting power, and with the "Law on security groups" (baojiafa 保甲法) villages were obliged to organize local self-defence. Wang Anshi also reorganized the colleges (she 舍) in the National Academy (taixue 太學, see three-colleges law sanshefa 三舍法) and thus created a more stringent education for future state officials, based on a set of commentaries on the Confucian Classics, including Wang's own Sanjing xinyi 三經新義.
The law reform alienated landowners, high officials, merchant guilds, and those who had benefited from the conventional system with its intricate ways of benefits and embezzlement. Even two Empresses Dowager and many princes argued against the new system. In 1074 therefore Wang Anshi was forced to retire, but returned to the office of Counsellor, before he was finally ousted in 1076. His new laws nevertheless remained valid until 1086, when Emperor Zhezong 宋哲宗 (r. 1085-1100) mounted the throne. Of Wang Anshi's political opponents, Sima Guang 司馬光 (1019-1086), author of the history book Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑒, is the most famous.
From this commentaries Shiyi 詩義 (on the Shijing 詩), Shuyi 書義 (on the Shangshu 尚書) and Zhouli yi 周禮義 (on the Zhouli 周禮), two collections of fragments survive, namely Zhouguan xinyi 周官新義 and Shiyi gouchen 詩義鉤沉. Wang Anshi had also written commentaries on the book Mengzi 孟子, the Daoist book Laozi 老子 and the chapter Hongfan 洪范 in the Classic Shangshu 尚書, yet these are lost barring a few fragments found in Peng Si's 彭耜 (b. 1185) Laozi Daodejing jizhu 老子道德真經集注.
Wang Anshi also wrote numerous essays and poems, and is counted as one of the eight great writers of the Tang 唐 (618-907) and Song periods (Tang-Song ba da jia 唐宋八大家). His collected writings are called Linchuan xiansheng wenji 臨川先生文集 or Wang Wengong wenji 王文公文集. Quite notable are his (fragmentary) commentaries on Chinese characters, Zishuo 字說, and his notes on politics, Xining zoudui rilu 熙寧奏對日錄 (partially preserved in Li Tao's 李燾 Xu zizhi tongjian changbian 續資治通鑒長編). As a real literate man of his time, Wang Anshi also engaged in painting and calligraphy.
Wang Anshi was also inspired by the cosmological interpretations of Confucianism in a thoroughly new branch of philosophy later called "Song learning" (Songxue 宋學), "teaching of the universal order" (lixue 理學) or Neo-Confucianism. The basic substance of the Way (dao 道) was immovable "originary breath" or matter (yuanqi 元氣), whose movements and dispersion (chong qi 沖氣) in the cosmos brought about the original of nature and all beings. Human nature was characterized by the potential to move between the extremes "wise" (good) and "stupid" (bad), which means that each human could change for the better. Based on this assumption, and following a similar, earlier idea of the thinker Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 (1007-1072), Wang also assumed that societies and states could advance to better conditions as well. Yet this would only be possible when literati and state officials would not be content with just analyzing the Classics. They had also to study the real conditions of society and state. Such a method was incompatible with the pretension of the Neo-Confucians who were satisfied with a deep analysis of the ancient writings. Politics and philosophy could not be separated, neither could literature become an end in itself.