With the fall of the Shang Dynasty in 1046 BC, the Zhou Dynasty was formed and with the new leaders came a new explanation for how events had unraveled. What they offered to the people was the “Mandate of Heaven”. Essentially, this theory posited the Emperor is the “son of heaven”, and was given the right to rule by divine grace. Hence the people should pay heed to this divinely anointed being, but such an assertion presented some problems.
Basically, this explanation raised a pretty thorny question: If the Emperor possesses a heavenly right to rule, what right did the Zhou Dynasty have to usurp this right from the last Shang Emperor, Di Xin. Answering this vital, intuitive follow up question formed the foundation of the “mandate of heaven” concept that persisted throughout Chinese culture for centuries to come. The explanation went thus: because Di Xin had not “reverently” attended to his virtue the mandate was revoked from him and given to the Zhou. Furthermore, the revoking of the mandate can be evidenced by natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, but gradually it was also associated with anthropocentric ones such as a successful rebellion. Essentially, the Zhou Dynasty argued that heaven had spoken, and placed them in a position of power. Such an argument would be rehashed repeatedly over the course of Chinese history in a finder’s keepers sort of race for legitimacy that would occupy propagandists and Chinese historians for nearly three thousand years.
Perhaps the most famous Chinese philosopher to justify the “Mandate of Heaven’s” linkage with social rebellion was the classical Chinese philosopher Mencius. Arguably the second most important Confucian philosopher next to Confucius himself, Mencius posited that the role of the government is to keep the masses satisfied. Asked how a king anxious to hold on to the throne could maintain his authority, Mencius simply replied “protect the people”, and with such logic Mencius placed a burden upon the Emperor with the intent of ensuring good governance. That is to say, this notion of the “Mandate of Heaven” essentially instilled a system of checks and balances upon the imperial court: they could hold all the benefits that come with leading a country provided that they cared for the masses, and if they didn’t the masses would rise up against the Emperor and his cohorts, and probably kill all of them.
Thus arose a sort of contract between the people and the government that would define most of Chinese politics. Interestingly enough, while Mencius’ political-philosophical musings have a very rational, utilitarian tone, the “Mandate of Heaven” retained a superstitious element: namely, natural disasters—what today in some ways may seem out of a governing bodies control—remained relevant in the discussion of whether a ruler was properly virtuous or not. In this way, natural disasters often inspired revolutionaries to pick up their arms: the mandate had been lost, their grievances and violent actions were subsequently justified.
Eventually the Zhou Dynasty to fell to be replaced by the short lived Qin Dynasty, the first government to fully unify the Chinese empire. Incessantly violent and unreasonably strict, the Qin Dynasty quickly fell. After the dust cleared from the ensuing squabbles over power Liu Bang—a commoner of peasant birth, formerly a low ranking patrol officer—emerged as the new Emperor and founded of the Han Dynasty. He was given the temple of Emperor Gaozu of Han and set the important precedent that the “Mandate of Heaven” is bestowed upon people regardless of prior social status. Thus nobility is not of great consideration—essentially the mandate naturally shifts between those worthy of its auspices and drifts away from those lacking in virtue. Eventually the Han Dynasty would fall, and others would clamor to grab possession of the amorphous right to rule in a manner not all that dissimilar from a fumble in American football.
Thus the “Mandate of Heaven” also passed to those from humble backgrounds, and in the future it was possessed by non-Han Chinese as well, such as during the Yuan (Mongolian) and Qing (Manchurian) Dynasties all the way to 1911 when the Qing Dynasty fell bringing an end to the Chinese dynastic tradition that had lasted for (allegedly) nearly 4,000 years. The power vacuum that ensued brought about the Chinese Communist Party as the new rulers of China. With the party came great change as the country tried to move away from previous dogmas and into a new era of leadership.
That said, perhaps due to the elusiveness of the concept, many still evoked the notion of the “Mandate of Heaven” in order to explain the shifting tide of political supremacy. For example, during his time working in postwar China, famous American sinologist John Fairbanks constantly used the concept to explain Chiang Kai-shek’s fall from grace and the rise to power of Mao Zedong and the CCP. Today, various news reports will also read into this supernatural notion. For example, the Gang of Four’s fall has been linked to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake and some also mentioned the mandate after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.
At the end of the day it seems likely that to some degree the concept is still in the minds of policy makers in Beijing. The truth is that it simply asks those in power to maintain their status by providing a good, comfortable life for their subjects, and with the CCP’s focus upon just that objective since the reforms implement by Deng Xiaoping, it appears the current leaders may not be so radical a break from their predecessors as they may seem at first glance.
Cover Image from Pixabay