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The Mandate of Heaven (Chinese: 天命; pinyin: Tiānmìng; Wade–Giles: T'ien-ming; lit. 'Heaven's will') is a Chinese political philosophy that was used in ancient and imperial China to legitimize the rule of the King or Emperor of China. According to this doctrine, heaven (天, Tian) – which embodies the natural order and will of the universe – bestows the mandate on a just ruler of China, the "Son of Heaven". If a ruler was overthrown, this was interpreted as an indication that the ruler was unworthy and had lost the mandate. It was also a common belief that natural disasters such as famine and flood were divine retributions bearing signs of Heaven's displeasure with the ruler, so there would often be revolts following major disasters as the people saw these calamities as signs that the Mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn.[1]

A brief flow chart depicting the flow of auctoritas in the transfer of the Mandate of Heaven at the transition of dynastic cycles.[citation needed]
A brief flow chart depicting the flow of auctoritas in the transfer of the Mandate of Heaven at the transition of dynastic cycles.[citation needed]

The Mandate of Heaven does not require a legitimate ruler to be of noble birth, depending instead on how well that person can rule. Chinese dynasties such as the Han and Ming were founded by men of common origins, but they were seen as having succeeded because they had gained the Mandate of Heaven. The concept is in some ways similar to the European concept of the divine right of kings; however, unlike the European concept, it does not confer an unconditional right to rule. Retaining the mandate is contingent on the just and able performance of the rulers and their heirs.

Intrinsic to the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was the right of rebellion against an unjust ruler. The Mandate of Heaven was often invoked by philosophers and scholars in China as a way to curtail the abuse of power by the ruler, in a system that had few other checks. Chinese historians interpreted a successful revolt as evidence that Heaven had withdrawn its mandate from the ruler. Throughout Chinese history, 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 (1046–256 BC), and legitimize their overthrow of the earlier Shang dynasty (1600–1069 BC). It was used throughout the history of China to legitimize the successful overthrow and installation of new emperors, including by non-Han Chinese dynasties such as the Qing (1636–1912).


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Transition between the Shang and the Zhou

The prosperous Shang dynasty saw its rule filled with multiple 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 created the Mandate of Heaven to explain their right to assume rule and presumed that the only way to hold the mandate was to rule well in the eyes of Heaven. They also stated that the Shang came into power because the Xia had lost their mandate. The mandate had then been bestowed upon the Shang, leading to the fall of the Xia and the rise of the Shang.[2] 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.[3]

After the Zhou became the ruling dynasty, they mostly appointed their own officials. The Zhou Dynasty had its own way of assigning its 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 the case of a war, the Zhou dynasty boasted 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 decreased, it was wiped out by the State of Qin, which believed that the Zhou had become weak and their rule unjust.[3] 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, the 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.[4] 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

Main article: Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period

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. When the Mandate of Heaven gave Zhou the ruling authority they had to figure out how to govern.

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.

Qing invasion

Main article: Transition from Ming to Qing

In previous dynasties; the Song, Jin, and Yuan dynasties reigned for much of the beginning three centuries where the mandate of heaven was questioned heavily between dynastic councils among each emperor. Some emperors were not entirely sure of their validity when it came to claiming the mandate, for it was ambiguous. Especially for the case of the Jurchen Jin, where much of the council was not sure how to discern the validity of their rulers. From Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty to the Kangxi Emperor much of the chosen emperors contemplated much of this when they became a contender for the mandate. The reason for this was because of the ambiguity of the Mandate and overwhelmingly unofficial formality when declaring the Mandate of Heaven. However, Kublai Khan was the only indifferent ruler when he claimed the Mandate of Heaven over the Yuan Dynasty since he had a sizable military and was part of the Khitan people, as with many others from the same background since they did not have the same traditions and culture as their Chinese adversaries.[5]

It was said that the peasant group of the Ming dynasty were the real selectors which allowed for the Mandate of Heaven to be claimed by the ruler. As a prospective candidate to the Mandate, they could please the peasantry group in order to win favor amongst the dynasty. It was solely politics from beginning to end and an attempt from the emperor to maintain a favorable act towards Heaven. Many emperors within the Qing dynasty looked immensely within themselves trying to come to terms with their ruling if natural disasters occurred within their time. This was interpreted as a warning of Heaven's displeased wrath towards an emperors ruling, such that the Mandate under their rule was unstable. Furthermore, Qing emperors would take their advisors feedback very seriously when pertaining to ruling and take it upon themselves to reflect on their current decisions of the dynastic overview in hopes that it favors Heaven.

The right to rule and the right of rebellion

Mencius stated that:[6]

The people are of supreme importance; the altars of the gods of earth and grain come next; last comes the ruler. That is why he who gains the confidence of the multitudinous people will be Emperor... When a feudal lord endangers the altars of the gods of earth and grain, he should be replaced. When the sacrificial animals are sleek, the offerings are clean and the sacrifices are observed at due times, and yet floods and droughts come [by the agency of heaven], then the altars should be replaced.

— Mencius

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 the successful rebellion was interpreted by Chinese historians as evidence 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 is still 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" (Chinese: “成者爲王,敗者爲寇”). Due to this, it is considered that Chinese historical accounts of the fall of a dynasty and the rise of a new one must be handled with caution. Chinese traditional historical compilation methods produce accounts that tend to fit their account to the theory, emphasizing aspects tending to prove that the old dynasty lost the Mandate of Heaven and the new one gained it, and de-emphasizing other aspects.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, Confucianist elements of student rebellions often claimed the Mandate of Heaven has been forfeited, as demonstrated by their large-scale activism, with notable instances including the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan and the 2014 Hong Kong protests.[7][8]


Because of China's influence in medieval times, the concept of the Mandate of Heaven spread to other East Asian countries as a justification for rule by divine political legitimacy.[9] In Korea, the kingdom of Goguryeo, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, adopted the Chinese concept of tianxia which was based on Mandate of Heaven, however in Goguryeo it was changed to be based on divine ancestry. The kingdom of Silla is also said to be adopted the Mandate of Heaven,[10] but the earliest records are from Joseon Dynasty, which made the Mandate of Heaven an enduring state ideology.[11]

The ideology was also adopted in Vietnam, known in Vietnamese as Thiên mệnh (Chữ Hán: 天命). A divine mandate gave the Vietnamese emperor the right to rule, based not on his lineage but on his competence to govern.[12] The later and more centralized Vietnamese dynasties adopted Confucianism as the state ideology, which led to the creation of a Vietnamese tributary system in Southeast Asia that was modeled after the Chinese Sinocentric system in East Asia.[13]

In Japan, the Japanese government found the concept ideologically problematic, preferring not to have divine political legitimacy that was conditional and that could be withdrawn. The Japanese Taihō Code, formulated in 703, was largely an adaptation of the governmental system of the Tang dynasty, but the Mandate of Heaven was specifically omitted. In later times, this need 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 shōguns 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 in the modern era is a political figurehead and not a ruling sovereign.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is the Mandate of Heaven in China?". About Education. Retrieved December 4, 2015.
  2. ^ Zhao, Dingxin (November 2009). "The Mandate of Heaven and Performance Legitimation in Historical and Contemporary China". American Behavioral Scientist. pp. 416–433. doi:10.1177/0002764209338800.
  3. ^ a b Tignor, Robert L., et al. (2014).Worlds Together, Worlds Apart. 4th ed., vol. 1, W.W. Norton & Company
  4. ^ "Qin Dynasty".
  5. ^ Porter, Jonathan (2016). Imperial China. Rowland & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1442222922.
  6. ^ Mencius. (2004). Mencius. Lau, D.C. (Dim Cheuk) (Rev. ed.). London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0140449716. OCLC 56648867.
  7. ^ Ming-sho Ho, Challenging Beijing's Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan's Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement (Temple University Press, 2019).
  8. ^ Thomas B. Gold, "Occupy Central/Sunflower: Popular Resistance in Greater China." Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Notes (Oct. 2014) online
  9. ^ Jenkins, Brian. "Why the North Vietnamese will keep fighting" (PDF). RAND. Retrieved December 5, 2015.
  10. ^ Korea's Ancient Koguryŏ Kingdom: A Socio-Political History. Brill. 13 March 2014. ISBN 9789004262690.
  11. ^ "South Korea's President Lost the 'Mandate of Heaven'".
  12. ^ Woodside 1971, p. 9.
  13. ^ Woodside 1971, pp. 234–237.