Mandate of Heaven

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The Mandate of Heaven is an ancient Chinese belief and philosophical idea that god (天; Tian) granted emperors the right to rule based on their ability to govern well and fairly. According to this belief, heaven bestows its mandate to a just ruler, the Son of Heaven, and withdraws it from a despotic ruler, leading to the overthrow of that ruler. The Mandate of Heaven would then transfer to those who would rule best. The fact that a ruler was overthrown was taken by itself as an indication that the ruler had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

The Mandate of Heaven does not require that a legitimate ruler be of noble birth, and dynasties were often founded by people of common birth (such as the Han dynasty and Ming dynasty). The Mandate of Heaven had no time limitations, depending instead on the just and able performance of the ruler and his heirs. Throughout the history of China, 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 concept of the Mandate of Heaven was first used to support the rule of the kings of the Zhou Dynasty, and their overthrow of the earlier Shang dynasty. It was used throughout the history of China to support the rule of the Emperors of China, including 'foreign' (i.e. of non-Han ethnicity) dynasties such as the Qing Dynasty.

The Mandate of Heaven was a well-accepted and popular idea among the people of China, since it argues for the removal of incompetent or despotic rulers, and provided an incentive for rulers to rule well and justly. The concept was often invoked by philosophers and scholars in ancient China as a way to curtail the abuse of power by the ruler, in a system that otherwise offered few checks to this power.

The Right to Rule and the Right of Rebellion[edit]

Chinese historians interpreted a successful revolt as evidence that the Mandate of Heaven had passed. In China, the right of rebellion against an unjust ruler has been a part of political philosophy ever since the Zhou dynasty, and a successful rebellion was interpreted by Chinese historians as evidence of 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 still is 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" (chin.: ”成者为王,败者为寇“).

Transition between the Shang and the Zhou[edit]

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. The government was originally able to control most of its internal affairs due to the firm support provided by the people. 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 explained their right to assume rule as coming from the will 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.[citation needed]

After the Zhou became the ruling dynasty, they mostly appointed their own 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. As the empire continued to expand, intermarriage increased because the rulers believed that it was a method of forming strong alliances that enabled them to absorb more countries into the dynasty. In case of a war, the Zhou dynasty boasted an excellent military and technology mostly because of influence from annexed countries. They also excelled in shipbuilding, which, coupled with their discovery of celestial navigation, made them excellent mariners. Intellectually, the Zhou excelled in fields of literature and philosophy while many governmental positions were filled according to the intellectual ability of a candidate. A large amount of literature survives from the Zhou period, including the Book of Changes, Book of History, Book of Etiquette, Book of Song, Book of Odes, and the Book of Rites. Most of these works are commentaries on the progress and political movement of the dynasty. In philosophical terms, Confucius and his followers played an important role in shaping the mentality of the government as defined by the Five Confucian Relationships. These critical thinkers served as a foundation for the government. Their works primarily stressed the importance of the ruling class, respect and their relationship with the lower class. Due to the growing size of the dynasty, it became apparent that a centralized government would lead to a lot of confusion and corruption because the government would not be able to exert its influence or accede to the needs of everyone. To address this political barrier, the dynasty formed a decentralized government in which the empire was broken down into sections. Within these districts were administrators who were appointed by the government, in return, they had to maintain their allegiance to the main internal government. In effect, the Zhou dynasty became a collection of districts. Consequently this marked the fall of the dynasty as it became difficult for the central government to exert influence on all other regions of the empire.

Finally, when the Zhou dynasty's power waned, it was wiped out by the State of Qin, which believed that the Zhou had become weak and their rule unjust.[citation needed] This transition emphasizes the customary trend of the Mandate of Heaven, which provided leeway for the rise of a new power. The Qin initially attempted to capitalize on the errors made by the Zhou, either by eliminating the source of error or reforming it. During this reformation, administrative changes were made and a system of legalism was developed which stated that the law is supreme over every individual, including the rulers. Although significant progress was made during the Qin dynasty, the persecution of scholars and ordinary citizens led to an unstable state.

After the death of Qin Shihuang, first emperor of the Qin dynasty, a widespread revolt by prisoners, peasants, and unhappy soldiers inevitably led to the fall of the Qin dynasty due to its tyrannical practices.[citation needed] 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. Under the Han emperors, significant changes were made in which the government introduced entrance examinations known as civil service or imperial examinations for governmental positions. Additionally, the Han dynasty prospered economically through the Silk Road and other trading means.

Five Dynasties Period[edit]

During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, there was no dominant Chinese dynasty that ruled all of China. This created a problem for the Song Dynasty that followed, as they wanted to legitimize their rule by claiming that the Mandate of Heaven had passed on them. The scholar-official Xue Juzheng compiled the Old History of the Five Dynasties (五代史) during the 960s and 970s, after the Song Dynasty had taken northern China from the last of the Five Dynasties, the Later Zhou. A major purpose was to establish justification for the transference of the Mandate of Heaven through these five dynasties, and thus to the Song Dynasty. He argued that these dynasties met certain vital criteria to be considered as having attained the Mandate of Heaven despite never having ruled all of China. One is that they all ruled the traditional Chinese heartland. They also held considerably more territory than any of the other Chinese states that had existed conterminously in the south.

However, there were certain other areas where these dynasties all clearly fell short. The brutal behavior of Zhu Wen and the Later Liang was a source of considerable embarrassment, and thus there was pressure to exclude them from the Mandate. The following three dynasties, the Later Tang, Later Jin, and Later Han were all non-Han Chinese dynasties, all having been ruled by the Shatuo ethnic minority. There is also the concern that though each of them was the most powerful Chinese kingdom of its respective era, none of them ever really had the ability to unify the entire Chinese realm as there were several powerful states to the south. However, it was the conclusion of Xue Juzheng that the Mandate had indeed passed through each of the Five Dynasties, and thus onto the Song Dynasty when it conquered the last of those dynasties.


In Japan, the concept of a divine political legitimacy that is conditional and could be withdrawn was ideologically problematic. In Japan this problem was obviated because the Imperial House of Japan claimed to be descended in an unbroken line from the Japanese sun goddess, Amaterasu. Nevertheless, while maintaining this role, the Japanese emperor became politically marginalized in the Nara and Heian periods by powerful regents of the Fujiwara clan who seized executive control of state. Even though the Japanese imperial line itself remained unbroken after the eighth century, actual political authority passed through successive dynasties of regents and shoguns which cycled in a manner similar to that of Chinese dynasties. Even after the Meiji restoration in 1868, when the emperor was placed back in the center of the political bureaucracy, the throne itself had very little power vis-à-vis the Meiji oligarchy. Actual political power has passed through at least four systems since the Meiji restoration: the Taishō democracy, the militarists, the Occupation of Japan, and postwar democracy. The emperor today is a political figurehead and not a ruling sovereign. It could be said the imperial line of Japan survived for so long precisely because it did not have control over the state, and that the turmoil of succession was projected onto a series of proxy rulers.

Divine right in other countries[edit]

The Mandate of Heaven is similar to the European notion of the Divine Right of Kings in that both sought to legitimize rule using divine approval. However, the Divine Right of Kings granted unconditional legitimacy, whereas the Mandate of Heaven was conditional on the just behavior of the ruler who was guided divinely by his dreams. Revolution is never legitimate under the Divine Right of Kings, but the philosophy of the Mandate of Heaven approved of the overthrow of unjust rulers.

The greatest theologians of Europe, from John Calvin and John Knox to Thomas Aquinas, Robert Bellarmine, and Juan de Mariana, were closer in their beliefs to the Mandate of Heaven than to the Divine Right of Kings. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published in 1536 and the foundational document of Calvinism, Calvin argued that legitimate governments are those ruling with the consent of the governed and in covenant with God and the people. When ordinary citizens are confronted with tyranny, he wrote, ordinary citizens have to suffer it (whereas in the Mandate of Heaven and in the theology of the Jesuits Bellarmine and Mariana, they have the right to rebellion and tyrannicide), but magistrates have the duty to "curb the tyranny of kings," as had the Tribunes in ancient Rome, the Ephori in Sparta, and the Demarchs in ancient Athens[1]—and indeed the Censorate of China.

In Arabic nations, the analogue is Salat al-Istikharah or Istikhara, meaning divinely-guided decisions, which are often done via dreams.

In Persian, the term is Farr-e-Izadi without which there is no true kingship, only mere power, and little or no inspiration.

Its equivalency is found in Celtic societies, Judaism's kings, and numerous societies.[citation needed]

See also[edit]