Shang Dynasty Mandate of Heaven Tian

Early Chinese monarchs were both priests and kings. The Chinese people believed that their rulers were chosen to lead with a "mandate of heaven" — the Chinese belief that a dynasty was ordained to rule, based on its demonstrated ability to do so. It was a kind of political legitimacy based on the notion that the overthrow of ruler was justified if the ruler became wicked, lost the trust of the people or double-crossed the supreme being.

The “mandate of heaven” was first adopted during the Zhou Dynasty (1100-221 B.C.) and was described as a divine right to rule. The philosopher Mencius (372-289 B.C.) wrote about it at length and framed it in both moral and cosmic terms, stating that if a ruler was just and carried out the prescribed rituals to the ancestors then his rule and the cosmic, natural and human order would be maintained.

Later the mandate idea was incorporated into the Taoist concept that the collapse of a dynasty was preceded by "Disapprovals of heaven," natural disasters such as great earthquakes, floods or fires and these were often preceded by certain cosmic signs. According to these beliefs on September 8, 2040 five planets will gather within the space of fewer than degrees "signaling the conferral of heaven's mandate." The legendary emperors did not need to govern at all because the moral certitude that emanated from them was enough to bring about peace and prosperity. One ruler is said to have done nothing but reverently face the south.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The Zhou people worshiped a supreme deity known as Tian; the name means “sky,” and is generally translated in English as “Heaven.” Tian possessed a number of anthropomorphic features. Tian was pictured as the supreme governor of all of China, and was believed to be both omnipotent and benevolent. It was Tian’s role to ensure that China was well ruled to the benefit of all. Soon after the conquest” of the Shang “the Zhou leaders began to employ their idea of Tian to rationalize their uprising and legitimize their succession to Shang overlordship. They claimed that as an all-powerful and benevolent god, interested in the welfare of China, Tian would not have allowed the conquest to happen unless it were just. Tian endowed the rulers of China with a “mandate” ("ming"), the Zhou claimed. This mandate was awarded not to individuals, but to clans, and was granted on the basis of outstanding virtue. The Shang had once been Tian’s mandated ruling clan, but their virtue had decayed and now the Zhou had been selected to replace them. The conquest was Tian’s doing, and the Zhou leaders, as Tian’s agents, were now the legitimate rulers of China. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Basis of the Mandate of Heaven

The mandate of heaven was something earned through "virtue and moral rectitude" by a ruler that had a divine, magical and natural affect on the natural and social order. If the sacred social contract between the people and the ruler was violated, according to Sinologist Orville Schell, "the all-knowing forces of 'heaven' from which an emperor drew his 'mandate' to rule...would be withheld and his dynasty would collapse” and “the mandate then would be passed on to a new leader or dynasty.”

Unlike Japan, whose emperor came from a family that descended from gods and therefore could not lose his power to rule, China was ruled by a dynasty whose mandate to rule could be taken away if the emperor violated his special relationship with the Chinese people. European monarchs traditionally had trouble claiming any kind of divine mandate.

Behind the mandate of heaven was the belief that royal ancestors became divinities after they died. If they and heaven itself approved the current rulers their approval would make sure the world was in order; ying and yang were in balance, the seasons appeared when they were supposed to, harvests were plentiful and there were no calamitous events. If the royal ancestors and heaven didn’t approve then bad things would happen.

Chinese history has traditionally been interpreted as a cyclical, astrologically-connected growth and decay of dynasties. The fuzzy, ambiguous aspect of the mandate known as the "right of rebellion" which allowed new dynasties to rise up and replace corrupt ones, has been instrumental in maintaining China's status as a state.

Portents and the Mandate of Heaven

Dr. Eno wrote: “In ancient China, there was a widespread interest in supernatural portents that foretold great events to come – flaming birds appearing atop walls, prophetic texts being eaten into leaves by worms, unicorns wandering into the fields, two-headed cows being born to nanny goats (not a good sign) and so forth. A late commentary work tells us that in this case, the omen was a crimson sparrow bearing in its beak a cinnabar text with a long, unusually dull, inscription. It landed at Chang’s family gate. Whenever we may be tempted to think that the Chinese imagination was dry, something like this seems to turn up. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Mandate of Heaven cycles

“The doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven forms the principal rationalization of the Zhou conquest of the Shang. In brief, the affairs of China, as the center of the civilized world, were viewed as being under the loose protection of a benevolent deity, Tian “V, a title which translates well as “Heaven.” Heaven exercises its benevolent influence by bestowing a mandate to rule upon the most virtuous clan in the land. /+/

“If the moral quality of the descendants of that ruling house declines beyond a critical point, and governance ceases to benefit the people and to accord with basic norms, Heaven shifts the mandate, a change which takes the form of military conquest by the new recipient of the mandate, who would naturally receive enthusiastic support from the people. Sima Qian’s narration assumes that this doctrine predated the Zhou conquest. Zhòu, however, seems to understand the mandate as an "unqualified" grant of perpetual hereditary power from Heaven, precisely the opposite of the doctrine that the Zhou founders elaborated to legitimize their conquest of the Shang.” /+/

Imperial Legitimacy, the “Mandate of Heaven” and the Qing Dynasty

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “When the conquering Manchus overthrew the reigning Ming dynasty and established the Qing dynasty in 1644, they announced that the Ming had lost the Mandate of Heaven. However they also continued to worship the Ming emperors throughout the 268-year duration of the Qing dynasty. Why did the Manchu Qing rulers do this? Because the Mandate of Heaven was centered on the principle of legitimacy — meaning that the Ming (and others before the Ming) had legitimately held the Mandate at one point in time, but no longer. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“The Qing buttressed their own claim to the Mandate by acknowledging the Ming’s legitimate claim to it in the past. In continuing to worship the Ming emperors as they did, the Qing were asserting the legitimacy of the entire system that dictated who could “rightfully” be an emperor of China, because in fact it was this system that allowed them to present themselves to the populace as “Sons of Heaven” rather than as conquering foreigners who had no legitimate claim over China.

In other domains, however, the Qing decided to maintain their Manchu ethnicity, and even linked their own political power to this separation. This contradiction — of acting as “Chinese” emperors at the same time that they were maintaining their separate Manchu identity — was something that the Qing never successfully resolved. And it could be argued that, in the end, this was a mistake that cost the Manchus their dynasty, for anti-Manchu sentiment was at its height toward the end of the Qing and certainly contributed to the dynasty’s collapse in 1911.

Tianxia: the Mythical Confucian Golden Age

Tianxia (literally: "under heaven") is a Chinese language word and an ancient Chinese cultural concept that denoted either the entire geographical world or the metaphysical realm of mortals, and later became associated with political sovereignty. In ancient China, tianxia denoted the lands, space, and area divinely appointed to the Emperor by universal and well-defined principles of order. The center of this land that was directly apportioned to the Imperial court was called Huaxia, Xia, Hua, Zhongxia, Zhonghua, or Zhongguo, among other names, forming the center of a world view that centered on the Imperial court and went concentrically outward to major and minor officials and then the common citizens, and finally ending with the fringe "barbarians". The center of this world view was not exclusionary in nature, and outer groups, such as ethnic minorities and foreign people, who accepted the mandate of the Chinese Emperor were themselves received and included into the Chinese tianxia. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In classical Chinese political thought, the Emperor of China, having received the Mandate of Heaven, would nominally be the ruler of the entire world. Although in practice there would be areas of the known world which were not under the control of the Emperor, in Chinese political theory the rulers of those areas derived their power from the Emperor. The larger concept of tianxia is closely associated with civilization and order in classical Chinese philosophy, and has formed the basis for the world view of the Chinese people and nations influenced by them since at least the first millennium B.C.. Tianxia has been independently applied by other countries in the East Asian cultural sphere, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. +

Tanxia is associated with a mythical golden age of Chinese virtue that Confucius summed up as: “To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue … gravity generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness and kindness.” June Teufel Dreyer wrote in YaleGlobal: “In this narrative, the benign emperor maintained a pax sinica and ruled tianxia, all under heaven. This was symbolized by the tribute system, under which rulers of lands surrounding the Celestial Kingdom visited the imperial court, performed ketou, or obseisance, and presented gifts of local produce. In return, their legitimacy as rulers was affirmed. They were presented with the dynasty’s calendar and received costly items emblematic of the superior Sinitic civilization. The result was datong, or great harmony. [Source: June Teufel Dreyer, YaleGlobal, from a longer paper to be published by The Journal of Contemporary China, October 20, 2014 /]

“The late Harvard sinologist Yang Lien-sheng stated flatly that “the sinocentric world order was a myth backed up at different times by realities of varying degree, sometimes approaching nil.” As other Chinese scholars have pointed out, force was needed, both to keep the empire together and protect it from external enemies. In Wang Gungwu’s formulation, the reality of empire was that of a hard core ofwei, or force, surrounded by a soft pulp of de, virtue. Astute statecraft lay in finding the right balance. Although court records praise the Confucian wisdom of emperors, they in fact behaved like Legalists, who suggested that the well-ordered society depended on clear rules and punishment for violators rather than benevolence. Others have noted that the superiority of the Chinese model in preventing war is ludicrous to anyone familiar with the details of Chinese history replete with conflict.” /

“In yet another dissonance between theory and reality, those who accepted the status of vassal to the Chinese empire did not necessarily accept the notion of their inequality and conducted negotiations much as equals. In the mid-15th century, the ruler of Ayudhya refused the Ming dynasty envoy’s demand that he ketou to show respect to the emperor. For this ruler and others, recognition served a utilitarian purpose – in this case, obtaining the dynasty’s backing to counterbalance other aspiring hegemons. Confucius’ views on subordination of women and diminution of entrepreneurs would find little resonance today. /

“Differences in power between the Chinese ruler and the rest could even result in role reversal: In 1138, the founder of the Southern Song dynasty, accepted vassal status to the barbarian Jin dynasty.(8) In the 18th century, in response to pressure from Japan, the Ryukyus sent tribute to both the Tokugawa shogun and to Beijing.(9) Even the Koreans, the most faithful of those professing allegiance to tianxia, repeatedly balked at Ming Emperor Hongwu’s requests to send horses, apparently because they wanted to reserve their stock for use in possible conflicts with the Ming in Manchuria. During the Qing dynasty, though continuing to send tribute, Korean rulers looked down on the Qing and pointedly retained the rival Ming dynasty calendar.” /

Sinocentrism, Tianxia

Tianxia and Modern China

According to YaleGlobal: “Shorthand versions of history suggest that the arrival of explorers from the West, along with exploitive capitalism, commercialism and expansionism, ruined a potentially idyllic system. Even China’s President Xi Jinping has referred to tianxia in speeches and some conjecture that a supreme, benevolent arbiter could bring harmony to a contentious world – or at least Asia.” [Source: June Teufel Dreyer, YaleGlobal, from a longer paper to be published by The Journal of Contemporary China, October 20, 2014 /]

June Teufel Dreyer wrote in YaleGlobal: “With China reemerging as a dominating economic and military power in the world, some Chinese scholars have wistfully harkened back to another era, circa the 5th century B.C., when under a virtuous and benign Confucian emperor, all was well under heaven. The implicit suggestion in this historical retrospective – under a virtuous China one could return to the golden age. However, this idyllic setting was purportedly destroyed by the arrival of rapacious capitalist powers who were eager to expand their commercial empires and imposed the trading system and the Westphalian notion of sovereignty, with its notion of the equality of nation states answering to no higher authority. Since this leaves states free to act according to their perception of their own best interests, the result has been a Hobbesian war of all against all and a failed world. The solution to this baleful situation, suggest scholars like Zhao Tingyang,, is to reinstate tianxia, presumably with Chinese leadership performing the role of adjudicator for all under heaven. The problem is that the golden age never existed and is likely to prove ineffective for the modern era. /

“Nor is Confucianism a suitable paradigm for a cosmopolitan world. The Great Wall, one of the glories of ancient Sinitic civilization, is also a symbol of the empire’s isolationism: It was built to keep the barbarians out. Moreover, nowhere in the Confucian canon does one find that ties to others should be as strong as ties to kinfolk. In Confucius’ conception of the well-ordered kingdom, relationships should be extended from family members outward, with progressively diminishing intensity. The concept of filial piety has little meaning if one is expected to treat everyone as a sibling. As well, his views on the subordination of women and diminution of the entrepreneur would find little resonance today. /

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University/+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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