Mandate of Heaven

The Mandate of Heaven (天命) was a principle used to justify the power of the emperor of China, as well as explaining suitability for the office. According to this belief, heaven bestows its mandate to a just ruler, the Son of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven depends on the virtue of the emperor; if he does not fulfill his obligations as emperor, then he loses the Mandate and thus the right to be emperor. The Mandate of Heaven would then transfer to whoever 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. In addition, it was also common belief that natural disasters such as famine and flood were other signs of heaven’s displeasure with the current ruler, so there would often be revolts following major environmental events as citizens saw these as signs of heaven's displeasure.[1]

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(1046-256 BCE), and their overthrow of the earlier Shang dynasty(1600-1046 BCE). It was used throughout the history of China to support the rule of the emperors of China, including non-Han ethnic monarchs such as the Qing dynasty. This concept was also applied to nearby countries like Korea and Vietnam.[2] A similar situation prevailed since the establishment of Ahom rule in the Kingdom of Assam of Southeast Asia.

The Mandate of Heaven was a well-accepted and popular idea among the people of China, since it argued 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

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 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" (Chinese: ”成者為王,敗者為寇“).

Due to the above, it is considered that Chinese historical accounts of the fall of a dynasty and the rise of a new one need to be handled with caution, since Chinese traditional historical compiling such accounts would tend to fit their account to the theory, emphasize aspects tending to prove that the old dynasty lost the Mandate of Heaven and the new one gained it, and de-emphasize other aspects.

Transition between the Shang and the Zhou

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.

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. 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. 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

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.

Enfeoffing members of Overthrown Dynasties

It was a custom in China for the new dynasty to ennoble and enfeoff a member of the dynasty which they overthrew with a title of nobility and a fief of land so that they could offer sacrifices to their ancestors, in addition to members of other preceding dynasties. This practice was referred to as 二王三恪.

When the Xia dynasty was overthrown by the Shang dynasty, Xia descendants were given a title and fiefs by the Shang King in the Qi (Henan), and Zeng (state). (The Kings of Yue (state) claimed to be a cadet branch of the Xia).

When the Shang dynasty was overthrown by the Zhou dynasty, the Zhou King granted a Shang descendant the title of Duke and fief in the Song (state), and the Zhou King also reconfirmed the titles of the Xia descendants in the Qi and Zeng. Confucius was a descendant of the Shang Kings via the Song Dukes and Confucius' descendants held the hereditary title Duke Yansheng right to 1935.

When the Yue (state) King Wujiang (無彊) was conquered by Chu (state), the Chu King enfeoffed Wujiang as Marquis of Ouyang Ting.

The title of Duke of Song and "Duke Who Continues and Honours the Yin" (殷紹嘉公) were bestowed upon Kong An 孔安 (東漢) by the Eastern Han dynasty because he was part of the Shang dynasty's legacy.[3] This branch of the Confucius family is a separate branch from the line that held the title of Marquis of Fengsheng village and later Duke Yansheng.

The Han dynasty bestowed the hereditary title 周子南君 upon the Zhou dynasty royal descendant Ji Jia 姬嘉 and his descendants.[4]

When the Han dynasty Emperor Xian of Han was dethroned by the Cao Wei Emperor Cao Pi, Cao granted Emperor Xian the title Duke of Shanyang (山陽公). His grandson Liu Kang (劉康) inherited his dukedom, which lasted for 75 more years and two more dukes, Liu Jin (劉瑾) and Liu Qiu (劉秋), until the line was exterminated by invading Xiongnu tribes in about 309, during the Jin dynasty.

The Emperors of Shu Han came from a cadet branch of the Han dynasty. When the Shu Han Emperor Liu Shan was defeated by Cao Wei, the Cao Wei enfeoffed Liu Shan as the "Duke of Anle" (安樂公; literally meaning "duke of peace and comfort") while his sons and grandsons became marquises. Liu Shan died in 271 in Luoyang, and was given the posthumous name "Duke Si of Anle" (安樂思公; literally "the deep-thinking duke of Anle"). His dukedom lasted several generations during Wei's successor state, the Jin Dynasty, before being extinguished in the turmoils caused by the Wu Hu.

When the Eastern Wu was defeated by the Jin Dynasty, the Jin Emperor granted the Eastern Wu Emperor Sun Hao the title of "Marquis of Guiming". Sun Hao's sons were made junior officials in the Jin government.

When the Jin Dynasty Emperor Gong of Jin was overthrown by the Liu Song Emperor Wu of Liu Song, Emperor Wu enfeoffed Emperor Gong as Prince of Lingling. However Emperor Gong was ordered killed. Sima Guang was a Jin Imperial family descendant who became a chancellor in the Song dynasty hundreds of years after the fall of the Jin.

When the Liu Song Emperor Shun of Liu Song was overthrown by the Southern Qi Emperor Gao of Southern Qi, Emperor Gao enfeoffed Emperor Shun as Prince of Ruyin. However Emperor Shun was killed.

When the Southern Qi Emperor He of Southern Qi was overthrown by the Liang dynasty Emperor Wu of Liang, Emperor Wu enfeoffed Emperor He as Prince of Baling. However Emperor He was killed.

When the Liang dynasty Emperor Jing of Liang was overthrown by the Chen dynasty Emperor Wu of Chen, Emperor Wu enfeoffed Emperor Jing as Prince of Jiangyin. However Emperor Jing was killed.

The Xianbei Tuoba royal family of Northern Wei started to arrange for Han Chinese elites to marry daughters of the royal family in the 480s.[5] Some Han Chinese exiled royalty fled from southern China and defected to the Xianbei. Several daughters of the Xianbei Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei were married to Han Chinese elites, the Han Chinese Liu Song royal Liu Hui 刘辉, married Princess Lanling 蘭陵公主 of the Northern Wei,[6][7] Princess Huayang 華陽公主 to Sima Fei 司馬朏, a descendant of Jin dynasty (265–420) royalty, Princess Jinan 濟南公主 to Lu Daoqian 盧道虔, Princess Nanyang 南阳长公主 to Xiao Baoyin 萧宝夤, a member of Southern Qi royalty.[8] Emperor Xiaozhuang of Northern Wei's sister the Shouyang Princess was wedded to The Liang dynasty ruler Emperor Wu of Liang's son Xiao Zong 蕭綜.[9]

When the Eastern Jin dynasty ended Northern Wei received the Jin prince Sima Chuzhi 司馬楚之 as a refugee. A Northern Wei Princess married Sima Chuzhi, giving birth to Sima Jinlong 司馬金龍. Northern Liang King Juqu Mujian's daughter married Sima Jinlong.[10]

When the Northern Qi Emperor Gao Heng was overthrown by Northern Zhou Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou, Emperor Wu enfeoffed Emperor Gao Heng as Duke of Wen. However Gao Heng was killed.

When the Northern Zhou Emperor Jing of Northern Zhou was overthrown by the Sui dynasty Emperor Wen of Sui, Emperor Wen enfeoffed Emperor Jing as Duke of Jie. However, he had all of close male clansmen of the duke—all grandsons of Emperor Jing's great-grandfather Yuwen Tai—put to death, as well as Emperor Jing's brothers Yuwen Kan (宇文衎) the Duke of Lai and Yuwen Shu (宇文術) the Duke of Yan. About three months later, Emperor Wen had the Duke of Jie secretly assassinated as well, but pretended to be shocked and declared a mourning period, and then buried him with honors due an emperor. The dukedom was passed to a distant relative, Yuwen Luo (宇文洛).

When the Western Liang (Southern and Northern Dynasties) (西梁) Emperor Jing of Western Liang was overthrown by the Sui dynasty Emperor Wen of Sui, Emperor Wen enfeoffed Emperor Jing as Duke of Ju (莒公) and then as Duke of Liang (梁公). His nephew Xiao Ju (蕭鉅) inherited the title of Duke of Liang.

When the Chen dynasty Emperor Chen Shubao was overthrown by the Sui dynasty Emperor Wen of Sui, Empeor Wen enfeoffed Chen Shubao as Duke Yang of Changcheng (長城煬公).

The Tang dynasty Emperors claimed descent from the Dukes of Western Liang (Sixteen Kingdoms) (西涼) and posthumously gave them Imperial titles.

When the Tang dynasty Emperor Ai of Tang was overthrown by the Later Liang Emperor Zhu Wen, Zhu Wen enfeoffed Emperor Ai as Prince of Jiyin. However Emperor Ai was killed.

There were Dukedoms for the offspring of the royal families of the Zhou dynasty, Sui dynasty, and Tang dynasty in the Later Jin (Five Dynasties).[11]

When the Wuyue King Qian Chu surrendered to the Song dynasty the Song Emperor Taizong of Song raised the prefecture of Yangzhou to the nominal state of Huaihai, and installed Qian Chu as King of Huaihai. In 984, Qian Chu was made King of Hannan (a smaller nominal feoff) instead, and in 987 reduced again to King of Hanyang, with the right to take up residence in Hanyang, but then immediately additionally created Prince of Xu, with an enlarged fief. In 988, Qian Chu lost his title as king and was made Prince of Deng instead, with a larger nominal fief and actual income.

When the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) defeated the Liao dynasty and Northern Song Dynasty Emperor Tianzuo of Liao and Emperor Qinzong of Song were first enfeoffed with derogatory titles by the Jin, with Emperor Tianzuo becoming the Prince of Haibin 海滨王 ("Seashore Prince") and Emperor Qinzong becoming the Marquess of Chonghun (重昏, "Doubly muddled"); his father received a similarly derogatary-sounding title. In 1141, as the Jin relations with the Southern Song were about to normalize, Qinzong's captors granted him a neutrally-sounding title of the Duke (公, gong) of Tianshui Jun, after a commandery in the upper reaches of the Wei River (now in Gansu), while his father (who had died in 1135) was posthumously styled the Prince of Tianshui Jun; a few months later he started receiving a stipend due to his rank.[12] Liao royal family members who stayed in the Jin state like Yelu Lu and his son Yelü Chucai served the Jin and then the Yuan dynasty as officials. Other members of the Khitan Liao royal family like Yelü Dashi and Song Imperial family like Emperor Gaozong of Song both survived to rule the Kara-Khitan Khanate and Southern Song dynasty respectively.

When the Kingdom of Dali was conquered by the Yuan dynasty, King Duan Xingzhi of Dali was then enfeoffed as Maharaja by the Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan. The Southern Song dynasty Emperor Gong of Song was enfeoffed as the Duke of Ying (瀛國公) by Kublai Khan, however, the Emperor Yingzong of Yuan ordered him to commit suicide. The Song Prince Zhao Yurui was enfeoffed with the title Duke of Pingyuan Canton (平原郡公) by Emperor Kublai Khan. Other Song Imperial family members like Zhao Mengfu and Zhao Yong were left alive by the Yuan. Zhao Yiguang was a Song Imperial family descendant who was a writer during the Ming dynasty.

When the Ming dynasty fell and the Qing dynasty took over, the Qing Emperors granted a Ming descendant the title Marquis of Extended Grace and gave him a stipend to perform sacrifices to his ancestors, the Ming Emperors at the Ming Imperial Tombs. The Qing granted Zheng Keshuang of the Kingdom of Tungning the title of "Duke of Haicheng" (海澄公) after he surrendered to the Qing.

When the Northern Yuan Chahar Borjigin Mongol Khan Ejei Khan surrendered to the Qing, he was given the title of Prince of the first rank (Qin Wang, 親王), a title he held until his death in 1661, and inherited by his younger brother Abunai (阿布奈). Abunai openly showed his discontent toward the Manchu and he was put under house arrest in Shenyang by the Kangxi Emperor in 1669 and his imperial title / rank was given to his son Borni (布尔尼) in September of that same year. Borni (布尔尼) was careful to not show any sign of disrespecting the Qing Dynasty, but finally in 1675, he suddenly rebelled along with his younger brother Lubuzung (罗布藏), capitalizing on the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. However, they had made a serious miscalculation in wrongfully believing that other Mongols would join them, when in reality only three thousand Chahar (Mongols) joined the rebellion. It only took a single decisive battle on April 20, 1675 to defeat Abunai (阿布奈) and his followers, who were all killed subsequently in their retreat. The Qing Dynasty's punishment of the rebellion was very harsh: all royal males of Chahar (Mongols) were executed, including infants born to Qing / Manchu princesses, and all royal females of Chahar (Mongols) were sold to slavery except these Qing / Manchu princesses.

The Republic of China allowed the last Qing Emperor to stay in the Forbidden City and keep his title, treating him as a foreign monarch until 1924. The descendants of Confucius were maintained in the title of Duke Yansheng until 1935 when the title was changed to Sacrificial Official to Confucius (大成至聖先師奉祀官), which remains as a position to this day, currently held by Kung Tsui-chang.


In Japan, the concept of a divine political legitimacy that is conditional and could be withdrawn was ideologically problematic. For example, the Japanese Taihō Code, formulated in 703, was largely an adaptation of the governmental system of China's then Tang Dynasty - but the Mandate of Heaven was specifically omitted. Then as in later times, this 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.


According to Ahom tradition, Sukaphaa was a descendant of the god Khunlung, who had come down from the heavens and had ruled Mong-Ri-Mong-Ram. During the reign of Suhungmung, which saw the composition of the first Assamese chronicles and increased Hindu influence, Sukaphaa's origin was traced to the union of god Indra (identified with Khunlung) and Syama (a low-caste woman), and he was declared the progenitor of the Indravamsa kshatriyas, a lineage created for the Ahoms by the Hindu Brahmins.[13]

See also


  1. Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is the Mandate of Heaven in China?". About Education. Retrieved December 4, 2014.
  2. Jenkins, Brian. "Why the North Vietnamese will keep fighting" (PDF). RAND. Retrieved December 5, 2015.
  3. Rafe de Crespigny (28 December 2006). A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23-220 AD). BRILL. pp. 389–. ISBN 978-90-474-1184-0.
  4. 《汉书·杨胡朱梅云传》:初,武帝时,始封周后姬嘉为周子南君,至元帝时,尊周子南君为周承休侯,位次诸侯王。使诸大夫博士求殷后,分散为十余姓,郡国往往得其大家,推求子孙,绝不能纪。时,匡衡议,以为“王者存二王后,所以尊其先王而通三统也。其犯诛绝之罪者绝,而更封他亲为始封君,上承其王者之始祖。《春秋》之义,诸侯不能守其社稷者绝。今宋国已不守其统而失国矣,则宜更立殷后为始封君,而上承汤统,非当继宋之绝侯也,宜明得殷后而已。今之故宋,推求其嫡,久远不可得;虽得其嫡,嫡之先已绝,不当得立。《礼记》孔子曰:‘丘,殷人也。’先师所共传,宜以孔子世为汤后。”上以其语不经,遂见寝。
  5. Rubie Sharon Watson (1991). Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society. University of California Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-520-07124-7.
  6. Wendy Swartz; Robert Campany; Yang Lu; Jessey Choo (21 May 2013). Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook. Columbia University Press. p. 157. ISBN 978-0-231-15987-6.
  7. Papers on Far Eastern History. Australian National University, Department of Far Eastern History. 1983. p. 86.
  8. China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2004. p. 30. ISBN 978-1-58839-126-1.
  9. Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature (vol.3 & 4): A Reference Guide, Part Three & Four. BRILL. 22 September 2014. p. 1566. ISBN 978-90-04-27185-2.
  10. China: Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2004. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-58839-126-1.
  11. Ouyang, Xiu (5 April 2004). Historical Records of the Five Dynasties. Richard L. Davis, translator. Columbia University Press. p. 76. ISBN 978-0-231-50228-3.
  12. pp. 233-234. Herbert Franke, Denis Twitchett. Alien Regimes and Border States, 907–1368 (Cambridge History of China, vol. 6). Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-521-24331-9.
  13. S.L. Baruah, A Comprehensive History of Assam, p. 227


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