October 7, 23 A.D. The imperial Chinese army, 420,000 strong, has been utterly defeated. Nine “Tiger Generals,” sent to lead a corps of 10,000 elite soldiers, have been swept aside as rebel forces close in. The last available troops—convicts released from the local jails—have fled. Three days ago, rebels breached the defenses of China’s great capital, Chang’an; now, after some bloody fighting, they are scaling the walls of the emperor’s private compound.
Deep within his Endless Palace, Emperor Wang Mang waits for death. For 20 years, ever since he first contemplated the overthrow of the dissolute remnants of the the Han Dynasty, the usurper Wang had driven himself to keep to an inhuman schedule, working through the night and sleeping at his desk as he labored to transform China. When the rebellion against him gained strength, however, Wang appeared to give up. He retreated to his palace and summoned magicians with whom he passed his time testing spells; he began to assign strange, mystical titles to his army commanders: “The Colonel Holding a Great Axe to Chop Down Withered Wood” was one.
Such excesses seemed out of character for Wang, a Confucian scholar and renowned ascetic. The numismatist Rob Tye, who has made a study of the emperor’s reign, believes that he succumbed to despair. “Frankly, my own assessment is that he was high on drugs for most of the period,” Tye writes. “Knowing all was lost, he chose to escape reality, seeking a few last weeks of pleasure.”
When the rebels broke into his palace, Wang was in the imperial harem, surrounded by his three Harmonious Ladies, nine official wives, 27 handpicked “beauties” and their 81 attendants. He had dyed his white hair in order to look calm and youthful. Desperate officials persuaded him to retire with them to a high tower surrounded by water in the center of the capital. There, a thousand loyalists made a last stand before the armies of the revived Han, retreating step by step up twisting stairs until the emperor was cornered on the highest floor. Wang was slain late in the afternoon, his head severed, his body torn to pieces by soldiers seeking mementos, his tongue cut out and eaten by an enemy. Did he wonder, as he died, how it had come to this—how his attempts at reform had inflamed a whole nation? And did it strike him as ironic that the peasants he had tried to help—with a program so seemingly radical that some scholars describe it as socialist, even “communistic”—had been the first to turn against him?