The Mandate of Heaven

Chinese symbols meaning
Chinese symbols meaning "Mandate of Heaven" | Courtesy of Viewshare.org

According to historians, the Shang Dynasty in China lasted from 1766 to 1122 B.C.E., and it had a big impact on setting the fundamental characteristics of early Chinese society, which we know today thanks to the written records and material remains that they left after their dynasty came to an end.1 Immediately following the Shang Dynasty was the rule of the Zhou. Much of those records and remains have given us insight into the cultural features of Chinese society during the Shang Dynasty; however, methods of law, justice, and administration under the Shang rulers is not well known. The Zhou Dynasty has provided us better and clearer information regarding the way that Zhou rulers ran their society.2 One excellent example of Zhou Dynasty ruling practice is their ideological pronouncement known as the Mandate of Heaven.

The Mandate of Heaven was a set of principles that the Zhou dynasty outlined that would have a relevant influence on the way the Chinese thought about government and politics until the twentieth century.3 The Zhou rulers put forward the Mandate of Heaven idea as a way to display their theory of politics. This theory is interesting, and quite different from that of most ancient world dynastic rulers. The Zhou rulers used the Mandate of Heaven as their justification for their rule, and it served as proof of their theory that Heaven (Tian) had withdrawn the mandate to rule from the Shang dynasty and had bestowed it instead on the Zhou dynasty because of the misrule of the Shang rulers.4 Historians have found evidence that the Zhou dynasty’s overthrow of the Shang rulers was largely justified by the claim that they had received a mandate from Heaven to do so.5 Because the Zhou dynasty rested its justification for overthrowing the Shang rulers on this supposed mandate, that Mandate subsequently came to be seen as the primary justification for all new dynasties throughout China’s long history.

Illustration depicting the cyclical nature of the Mandate of Heaven | Courtesy of Pinterest.com
Illustration depicting the cyclical nature of the Mandate of Heaven | Courtesy of Pinterest.com

The major message of the Mandate of Heaven was one that explained the politics of the time; the concept behind the Mandate of Heaven was that political leaders were given their power by a divine Heaven, a divine consent without which a man could not be considered a legitimate ruler.6 This message is obviously very powerful, and upon closer examination of the mandate and its relationship to the Zhou dynasty, it becomes quite evident that the Zhou rulers used the mandate as a novel means to justify their overthrow of the previous rulers of China. The message outlined in the Mandate also served another purpose, as observed by historians: the mandate issued a message to the Chinese people about the importance of being a good ruler.7  Many believe that the mandate existed with the sole purpose of reminding the people in ancient China that the Zhou had been chosen by Heaven to be rulers because they were worthy of acting in the right way.8 In other words, the Zhou practiced what they preached; they told their people that Heaven believed them to be the most fit to rule China, and they proved that to be accurate by acting as good rulers, at least for a time.

The Mandate of Heaven can easily be seen as the most important political statement made by the Zhou dynasty because of its ability to justify their coming to power and the fact that the early Zhou leaders followed through on the claim.  Moreover, the Mandate of Heaven provided a certain view of Chinese history, that is, the view that Chinese history is cyclical. Once the Mandate of Heaven was first issued, it became a norm for each new dynasty to claim they had received the mandate, begin their rule by acting in the right way, but ultimately become complacent and fail as a dynasty. Overall, the mandate was an important idea to the people of ancient China who lived under the rule of the Zhou, or under the rule of all the subsequent dynasties that claimed to have been bestowed with the same Mandate of Heaven.

  1. Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditons & Encounters: A Brief Global History From the Beginning to 1500, Fourth, vol. 1 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 55.
  2. Bentley, Ziegler, and Streets-Salter, Traditons & Encounters, 55.
  3. Bentley, Ziegler, and Streets-Salter, Traditons & Encounters, 55.
  4.  Dingxin Zhao, “The Mandate of Heaven and Performance Legitimation in Historical and Contemporary China,” American Behavioral Scientist 53, no. 3 (November 1, 2009): 419.
  5. Dingxin Zhao, “The Mandate of Heaven and Performance Legitimation in Historical and Contemporary China,” American Behavioral Scientist, 419.
  6. Bentley, Ziegler, and Streets-Salter, Traditons & Encounters, 55.
  7. Dingxin Zhao, “The Mandate of Heaven and Performance Legitimation in Historical and Contemporary China,”American Behavioral Scientist, 419-20.
  8. Dingxin Zhao, “The Mandate of Heaven and Performance Legitimation in Historical and Contemporary China,”American Behavioral Scientist, 419-20.

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This Post Has 31 Comments

  1. Davis Nickle
    Davis Nickle

    The mandate of heaven became an essential part of ancient Chinese culture, as it was their way of justifying why the current dynasty had the right to rule China. This was not unique to China we see very similar justifications in Europe where a ruler will say that their rule is decreed by God and the Pope. this is a very interesting connection between the two culture.

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