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Detail of ‘The Emperor depicted as a Taoist magician.’ From ‘Album of the Yongzheng Emperor in Costumes,’ by anonymous court artists, Yongzheng period (1723—35). One of 14 album leaves, colour on silk. The Palace Museum, Beijing.

The Mandate of Heaven: Morality Influenced the Rise and Fall of Chinese Emperors

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The Mandate of Heaven is a philosophical concept found in the ancient Chinese civilization. It suggests the emperor’s authority came from Heaven itself and gave him a divine right to rule. The Chinese Emperor was considered the ‘Son of Heaven’, but if he could not fulfill his duties he would lose his holy lineage.

The Mandate of Heaven may be conferred upon any individual, regardless of social standing. The requirement, however, is that this person must be fit to rule. Therefore, it follows that an emperor deemed unfit to rule may lose the Mandate of Heaven, and revolts to remove such rulers are deemed not only as just, but also necessary.

What Was the Mandate of Heaven?

The concept of the Mandate of Heaven is recorded to have been first used during the Zhou Dynasty. The first ruler of this dynasty was King Wu of Zhou, and it was this Chinese monarch who first claimed that his authority was bestowed upon him directly from Heaven.

The Zhou Dynasty succeeded the Shang Dynasty, whose last ruler, King Zhou of Shang, was a tyrannical ruler. Additionally, it is believed that thanks to the merit accumulated during the reign of King Wen of Zhou, King Wu’s father, the latter was able to overthrow the Shang Dynasty.

When the Zhou Dynasty was established, King Wu of Zhou needed to find a way to legitimize his rule. Thus, the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was formulated. According to historical records, King Wu of Zhou was a benevolent ruler who became a model for subsequent emperors. Thus, his revolt against King Zhou of Shang was just, and conducted with divine endorsement, in accordance to the Dao.

Left: King Wu of Zhou (Public Domain) Right: King Zhou of Shang. (Public Domain)

Left: King Wu of Zhou ( Public Domain ) Right: King Zhou of Shang. ( Public Domain )

Rules of the Mandate

Whilst the Mandate of Heaven may be gained, it can also be lost. An unjust ruler is often said to have lost the Mandate of Heaven, and the population may overthrow him, hence allowing a new ruler who has Heaven’s favor to be installed. The ancient Chinese believed that when a ruler was becoming unjust, Heaven would send signs in the form of natural disasters, so as to rebuke his behavior.

If these warnings were not heeded, more severe disasters would follow. These disasters include floods, droughts, and plagues. When life became too unbearable for people, they may revolt against a ruler, as such disasters are a sign that he forfeited the Mandate of Heaven through his behavior.

A larger-than-life Wanli Emperor enjoying a lavish boat ride on a river with a large entourage of guards and courtiers. (Public Domain)

A larger-than-life Wanli Emperor enjoying a lavish boat ride on a river with a large entourage of guards and courtiers. ( Public Domain )

The concept of the Mandate of Heaven was further strengthened by the teachings of the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius, and one of his followers, Mencius, who lived during the Spring and Autumn Period, and the Warring States Period respectively. Both these periods of Chinese history are characterized by political turmoil and a weakening of the authority of the Zhou kings. It is perhaps due to these prevailing circumstances that the idea of the Mandate of Heaven was so appealing to these two ancient thinkers.

Confucius. (Public Domain)

Confucius. ( Public Domain )

The Warring States Period came to an end when China was unified under the Qin Dynasty. Its first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, favored the philosophical school of Legalism, and is recorded to have been opposed to Confucianism. In fact, Qin Shi Huang did not base his legitimacy to rule on divine will, but on his military supremacy and fate.

Qin Shi Huang's imperial tour across his empire. Depiction in an 18th century album. ( Public Domain )

Qin Shi Huang's imperial tour across his empire. Depiction in an 18th century album. ( Public Domain )

The status of Confucianism improved during the succeeding dynasty, as the Han emperors promoted this school of thought. Hence, the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, as expounded by Confucius and Mencius, received imperial approval.

From then onwards, the concept of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ would play an important role in the rise and fall of various Chinese dynasties. This concept was in action at various points of Chinese history, for instance, during the establishment of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, or when the Ming Dynasty was toppled by the rebel leader Li Zicheng.

A painting of Shizu, better known as Kublai Khan, as he would have appeared in the 1260s (although this painting is a posthumous one executed shortly after his death in February of 1294, by a Nepalese artist and astronomer Anige). (Public Domain)

A painting of Shizu, better known as Kublai Khan, as he would have appeared in the 1260s (although this painting is a posthumous one executed shortly after his death in February of 1294, by a Nepalese artist and astronomer Anige). ( Public Domain )

Top Image: Detail of ‘The Emperor depicted as a Taoist magician.’ From ‘Album of the Yongzheng Emperor in Costumes,’ by anonymous court artists, Yongzheng period (1723—35). One of 14 album leaves, colour on silk. The Palace Museum, Beijing. Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren

References

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