Mandate of Heaven

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The Mandate of Heaven (天命 Pīnyīn: Tiānmìng) is a concept of political succession unique to the Chinese. Since the eleventh century BCE, rulers and many other political theorists in China have expounded a 'Mandate of Heaven' view of government, which would explain the 'dynastic cycle' model of government and past assimilation of foreign invaders, namely the Mongols and the Manchus. To understand almost any aspect of Chinese culture one must first grasp this concept.

These are the four basic principles of the Mandate of Heaven:

  1. The right to rule is granted by Heaven (天 Pīnyīn: Tiān).
  2. There is only one Heaven therefore there can be only one ruler.
  3. The right to rule is based on the virtue of the ruler.
  4. The right to rule is not limited to one dynasty.

A further explanation: A legitimate ruler, one sanctioned by Heaven as its incarnation on earth, enjoys the prosperity and the loyalty of the masses as long as he rules righteously and circumspectly. If he doesn't, he will lose his Mandate and therefore his right to rule, and the Mandate will be passed on to someone more deserving.

These ideas were first discussed in writings recording the words of the Duke of Zhou(周公旦 Pinyin: Zhōu Gōng Dàn) (regent, 1042-1036 B.C.), younger brother of King Wu of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 - 770 BCE) and regent for King Wu's infant son King Cheng of Zhou (r. 1042/35-1006 B.C.), and he is usually considered to be its first proponent.

The concept was first used by the Western Zhou dynasty to justify their overthrow of the Shang dynasty and was used by many succeeding dynasties to justify their rule. One consequence of the idea of the Mandate of Heaven was that it was not necessary for a person to be of noble birth to lead a revolt and become a legitimate emperor, and in fact a number of dynasties such as the Han dynasty and Ming dynasty were founded by persons of modest birth.

With the idea of the Mandate of Heaven there were no time limitations. It was a performance standard. The Duke of Zhou explained the Mandate to the people of the Shang dynasty, that if their king had not been so mean, his Mandate would not have been taken away. Eventually, as Chinese political ideas developed further, the Mandate was linked to the notion of dynastic cycle in which a dynasty started strong and vigourously but gradually would succumb to immorality and be replaced by a new stronger dynasty. The notion of the Mandate of Heaven was also invoked by Mencius (372–289 BCE) .

The idea was different from the European concept of Divine Right of Kings in that it legitimised the overthrow of a dynasty and it also put limits on the behaviour of the emperor. If the emperor ruled unwisely or failed to perform the proper rituals, the emperor could lose the Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown. On the other hand, it also promoted 'might is right' ideas, since any successful dynastic founder was considered to have the Mandate by virtue of his success, and any failed ruler was considered to have lost it, no matter how great his personal virtue. It also encouraged both Chinese unity and a disdainful attitude towards the outside world, since there was only one Mandate, and so only one true ruler of humankind — the Emperor of China. These attitudes made it very difficult for Chinese court officials in the Qing dynasty to understand the European multi-state system.