The Mandate of Heaven or Tian Ming (天命) is a Chinese political and religious doctrine used since ancient times to justify the rule of the King or Emperor of China.
According to this belief, heaven (天)—which embodies the natural order and will of the universe—bestows the mandate on a just ruler of China, the “Son of Heaven” of the “Celestial Empire”. If a ruler was overthrown, this was interpreted as an indication that the ruler was unworthy, and had lost the mandate. It was also a common belief among citizens that natural disasters such as famine and flood were signs of heaven’s displeasure with the ruler, so there would often be revolts following major disasters as citizens saw these as signs that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn.
The Mandate of Heaven does not require a legitimate ruler to be of noble birth, depending instead on the just and able performance of the rulers and their heirs. Dynasties such as the Han and Ming dynasties were founded by men of common origins.
The concept is in some ways similar to the European concept of the divine right of kings; however, unlike the European concept, it does not in theory confer an unconditional right to rule, despite this being exactly the case in practicality.
The Mandate would in theory be a preoccupation in a ruler’s lifetime, when he would hold onto the Mandate and live according to Heavens. Intrinsic to the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was the right of rebellion against an unjust ruler. Chinese historians interpreted a successful revolt as evidence that Heaven had withdrawn its mandate from the ruler.
Throughout Chinese history, times of poverty and natural disasters were often taken as signs that heaven considered the incumbent ruler unjust and thus in need of replacement.
The Mandate of Heaven was often invoked by philosophers and scholars in China as a way to curtail the abuse of power by the ruler. While each dynasty was not the same, they each had a lineage that passed on the prospective ruler by order of generational descent or their priority of birth.
In China, the right of rebellion against an unjust ruler has been a part of political philosophy ever since the Zhou dynasty, and the successful rebellion was interpreted by Chinese historians as evidence that divine approval had passed on to the successive dynasty.
The Right of Rebellion is not coded into any official law. Rather, rebellion is always outlawed and severely punished; but is still a positive right grounded in the Chinese moral system. Often, it is used as a justification for actions to overthrow a previous dynasty after a rebellion has been successful and a new dynastic rule has been established.
Since the winner is the one who determines who has obtained the Mandate of Heaven and who has lost it, some Chinese scholars consider it to be a sort of Victor’s justice, best characterized in the popular Chinese saying “The winner becomes king, the loser becomes outlaw”.
Many emperors during the imperial times would optimize to have many sons who could be candidates to fill the position after the current ruler has died. In addition Heaven was thought to be of how a ruler’s works and performance was, which reflected upon how favorable they would be to Heaven.
Mencius, a great philosopher who many thought was the successor to Confucius, said:
The people are of supreme importance; the altars of the gods of earth and grain come next; last comes the ruler. That is why he who gains the confidence of the multitudinous people will be Emperor… When a feudal lord endangers the altars of the gods of earth and grain, he should be replaced. When the sacrificial animals are sleek, the offerings are clean and the sacrifices are observed at due times, and yet floods and droughts come [by the agency of heaven], then the altars should be replaced. — Mencius
Although significant progress was made during the Qin dynasty, the persecution of scholars and ordinary citizens led to an unstable state, and there is a need in society that a change of government was inevitable.
After the death of Qin Shihuang, a widespread revolt by prisoners, peasants, and unhappy soldiers inevitably led to the fall of the Qin dynasty due to its tyrannical practices. The establishment of the Han dynasty marked a great period in China’s history marked by significant changes in the political structure of the country.
The concept of the Mandate of Heaven was first used to support the rule of the kings of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE), and legitimize their overthrow of the earlier Shang dynasty (1600–1069 BCE). It was used throughout the history of China to legitimize the successful overthrow and installation of new emperors, including non-Han ethnic monarchs such as the Qing dynasty (1636–1912).
We take the transition between the Shang and the Zhou as an example.
The prosperous Shang dynasty saw its rule filled with many outstanding accomplishments. Notably, the dynasty lasted for a considerable time during which 31 kings ruled over an extended period of 17 generations. During this period, the dynasty enjoyed a period of peace and tranquility in which citizens could make a good living.
As time went on, however, the rulers’ abuse of the other social classes led to social unrest and instability. The corruption in this dynasty created the conditions necessary for a new ruling house to rise —the Zhou dynasty.
Rebellion against the Shang was led by Zhou Wu. They created the Mandate of Heaven to explain their right to assume rule and presumed that the only way to hold the mandate was to rule well in the eyes of Heaven. They believed that the Shang ruling house had become morally corrupt, and that the Shang leaders’ loss of virtue entitled their own house to take over. The overthrow of the Shang Dynasty, they said, was in accordance with the mandate given by Heaven.
After the Zhou became the ruling dynasty, they mostly appointed their own officials. The Zhou Dynasty had their own way of assigning their officials. However, in order to appease some of the citizens, they allowed some Shang beneficiaries to continue governing their small kingdoms in compliance with Zhou rules and regulations.
By staff editor