After he passed the stringent imperial civil service exams, he became an official. Involved initially in government at the local level, he saw the hardships of the Chinese peasantry, and the exactions of the landlords who controlled their lives. Wang’s exposure to the life of the peasants had a profound influence upon his life.
Wang participated in the debate among Song scholar officials on the application of Confucianism in the ordering of society and as instrument of political reform that had begun earlier in the Song dynasty. He believed that the state existed in large measure to serve the needs of its citizens.
He said, “The state should take the entire management of commerce, industry, and agriculture into its own hands, with a view to succoring the working classes and preventing them from being ground into the dust by the rich.” In 1058 Wang took the momentous step of writing a memorial to the emperor to present his views. Unfortunately, the emperor at that time, Kenzong (Jen Tsung), was not interested in reforms.
Yingzong (Ying Tsung, r. 1063–67), the next Song ruler, was more receptive. The new emperor was intent on making reforms and made Wang his chief minister. Wang and a few other officials enacted the New Laws during the 15 years they were in power, aimed to encourage agricultural production by reducing the burdens of the common people.
Their New Laws also limited the privileges of high-ranking officials and landlords, who naturally hated the reforms. He realized that the landowning classes were shirking their fair burden of taxation, which was falling almost entirely upon the peasantry.
Also when peasant farmers needed seed or agricultural implements, they had to turn to moneylenders, who charged them usurious rates of interest. With Wang’s reforms, they were able to apply to the central government instead for agricultural loans. The officials’ ultimate goal was to make the government more efficient and effective to face the northern nomads.
Wang reinterpreted the Confucian Classics to support their program of an activist and interventionist state. The reformist credo was “The true scholar should be the first to become anxious of the world’s troubles and the last to enjoy its happiness.”
Their controversial reforms were opposed by the conservative Confucians, who accused them of being Legalists in disguise. Wang’s tactlessness as well as his policies contributed to his downfall.
His ideas enjoyed favor again after his death under Huizong (Hui-tsung) (r. 1110–25). However Huizong’s disastrous domestic and foreign policies would culminate in the fall of the Northern Song in 1127 and with it an era of vigorous policy debates in the Song court.
When Yingzong died in 1067, his successor, Shenzong (Shen-tsung), continued to support Wang and his reforming allies. However they had made important enemies, both in the country and at the imperial court, among conservatives and among the landowners. Eventually Shenzong succumbed to the conservatives and removed Wang as prime minister in 1074.
Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Chien), a renowned historian, became prime minister in his place and ended the reforms. Shenzong returned Wang to power in 1075, but by then his supporters had begun to desert him. In 1076 Shenzong dismissed Wang again, and he never returned to government service.