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January 14, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright January 14, 2008. Used by permission.


We subscribe to an online encyclopedia to help one of my sons with homework, and because I placed the order, their “This Day in History” feature comes to my inbox. China rarely figures, which isn’t that surprising. After all, they need brief, punchy items that will catch readers’ attention, and that means items familiar enough to a general audience that a five word title is understandable, and that only three sentences are needed to remind us of what happened and why we should care. So I’m not crusading for “1644: Manchus enter Beijing with the help of Wu Sangui” to replace D-Day as the entry for June 6.

Still, anniversaries are good hooks for thinking about how history matters, and Chinese history has plenty of them. From that perspective, starting a blog in 2008 is less than ideal, because so many of the familiar modern anniversaries end in “9,” not “8”: the May 4th movement (1919), the founding of the P.R.C. (1949), Tiananmen (1989). Over the course of this year, I’ll be ruminating on a bunch of the “8” anniversaries, including some that may seem pretty obscure. The obvious ones are recent –The Great Leap Forward begins in 1958, Deng Xiaoping solidifies his power and launches his reforms in 1978, Disney releases Mulan in 1998 (OK, they may not all be world-historical events) – but I like the challenge of starting way back, especially since it’s not the period I research. So to begin with…

8 C.E. (2,000 years ago): Wang Mang usurps the throne, bans slavery, and institutes radical land reform – but still falls to peasant rebels.

The background to this is some horribly complicated court politics, but Wang Mang (45 BCE-23CE) was an official from a very elite family that had inter-married with the imperial lineage; the emperor Chengdi, who came to the throne in 32 BCE, was his first cousin. Chengdi was not much interested in governing and a succession of regents did so in his stead; Wang Mang was appointed regent in 8 BCE. The emperor then died without an heir two years later. Wang was up and down during political struggles over the next 15 years, but by 6 CE he had installed his daughter as empress, a one-year old as emperor and himself as regent and “acting emperor.” Two years later, after an intensive propaganda campaign that included the appearance of many engineered “portents,” considerable pressure mounted for him to assume the throne; after demurring a few times over the course of 8 C.E. (increasing his reputation for Confucian virtue) he finally accepted. He proclaimed that the Han had lost the mandate of heaven, and proclaimed himself first emperor of the Xin 新 (“New”) Dynasty on January 10, 9 C.E. (OK, it didn’t all happen in the year 8.)