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Wang Anshi - The Mandarin

Episode 8 of 10

Duration:
15 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 17 October 2012

The behaviour and competence of China's bureaucrats have defined the state for 2,000 years. But in the 11th Century came a visionary who did something almost unheard of - he tried to change the system.

For the first 50 years of his life, everything Wang Anshi touched turned to gold. To begin with, he came fourth in the imperial civil service exam - quite an achievement in a country with such a large population.

The successful Wang Anshi was sent off to administer a southern entrepreneurial city, as the Chinese economy became far more commercialised than it had ever been before,

But all this created problems. As large land-owning estates grew, so did the number of people who were unwilling to pay their taxes - and the more rich people evaded tax, the more the burden fell on the poor.

There were also problem with the neighbours and the dynasty plunged into crisis.

But cometh the hour, cometh Wang Anshi, and his programme for a new style of government. The civil service had a way of doing things, and in the 11th Century Wang Anshi was turning it upside down, asking mandarins to roll up their sleeves and manage every corner of the economy.

He wanted state loans for farmers, more taxes for landowners, centralised procurement. But he was not watching his back. He was too sure of himself and too focused on the big picture.

Then events such as drought and famine overtook him - and it was just the opportunity his rivals had been waiting for.

Presenter: Carrie Gracie
Producer: Neal Razzell.

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