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Mandate of Heaven as their justification for their rule, and it served as proof of their theory that Heaven (Tian) had withdrawn the mandate to rule from the Shang dynasty and had bestowed it instead on the Zhou dynasty because of the misrule of the Shang rulers.4 Historians have found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. Avatar
    Nathan Hudson

    This was a well-written article, it went in to much depth about what we learned in Dr. Whitener’s class. I enjoyed this article because Chinese history has always been fascinating to me, and for a civilization to use some sort of “divine agenda” to aid someone to take the throne, it just makes me wonder how the Zhou really made people believe them. Nowadays it is someone’s opinion and no one else’s because these days, people only hear what their brain wants to hear and nothing else.

  2. Avatar
    Oceane Roux

    Thank you for this article! I didn’t know much about the Zhou dynasty before I read this article and I found it interesting! It is fascinating how a group comes and takes power and use a text to justify it to their people. Moreover, I loved the view that they have on the history cycle, I feel like they could have meant that Humans would commit the same mistakes over and over.

  3. Avatar
    Josemaria Soriano

    I welcome the redaction of this article because it talks about a political strategy widely used by demagogues.For the Zhou dynasty, it seemed to be impossible to overthrow the great Shang dynasty. However, they used the most effective method to change the thinking of an entire country: a sentimental thought, as I call it, or religion, as everyone calls it. It is easy for human beings to refute human mandates; but who would dare to refute the decision of god? That is why many politicians used religion or divinity as the perfect argument to justify their power and supposed “superiority.” The Babylonian emperors received the full support of their priests, who defended their heavenly provenance, in exchange for an enviable social status. The emperors in the Middle Ages used the argument of papal investiture as sustenance of their divine provenance. As an anecdote, Napoleon was criticized for his investiture largely because his crown was not delivered by the Pope. Like these examples, many other political leaders used religion to deceive people. That is why I am happy to read this article, because it reminds us that our ancestors fell into the religious excuse to support a coup. Moreover, if you forget the history of your past, it will become the history of your future.

  4. Avatar
    Megan Barnett

    We talked a little bit about The Mandate of Heaven in class but not into much detail, so reading this article really helped me understand what it was about. However, it still does not make sense on why the people continued to believe in The Mandate of Heaven if it was obvious that the Zhou rulers were just using it as a means of justification for overpowering the last rulers.

  5. Avatar
    Brianda Gomez

    Before reading this article, I had never heard about “the mandate of heaven” or the different dynasties that once were in China. I really enjoyed reading this informative article. It is amazing, how China had these different rulers and the people were fine with it because according to the “mandate of heaven” they were chosen by heaven. In my opinion, the mandate was also an advantage for the people of China because it would require the rulers to be good and be worthy of acting the correct way.

  6. Maria Callejas
    Maria Callejas

    Again, this article brought amazing new knowledge for me! So thank you for that. I had no idea the Zhou Dynasty was so crucial for the early development of Chinese civilization. It is amazing to see how the Mandate of Heaven, had so much power to convince people and even over throw rulings. Great evidence and information. The Mandate of Heaven can actually be compared with the “divine right”. However, it is clear that rulers in they took advantage of its powers, instead of serving its original purpose which was to be a good leader.

  7. Avatar
    Rebekah Esquivel

    I really liked the intro to this article and how she goes about beginning her article about the Shang Dynasty. I have never heard of the Mandate of Heaven and really do not know much about the Chinese history. I learned from this article that the Mandate of Heaven was one of the most important statements in the political side of the Zhou Dynasty. It gives the people reason of how they come into power and also provides a set of rules or ways of becoming a good leader. This Mandate of Heaven helps to show how early Chinese society functions and felt about their ways of living.

  8. Avatar
    Alexandria Martinez

    This was a very insightful and well written article, I had learned a bit about the Mandate of Heaven in high school but there were still things that I did not know that I learned in your article. It is interesting that the Zhou dynasty actually followed through with being good leaders because sometimes rulers say one thing based on their ideals but when it comes time to rule they do the opposite.

  9. Avatar
    Alexis Renteria

    Earlier today I was reading a chapter about the early Chinese dynastys and I learned a lot about the Shang dynasty, the Mandate of Heaven and just how much of a role it played in the dynastys. I even learned about one of the Shangs king who succumbed to drinking lots of wine and grew obsessed with women that many of the towns and political districts transferred their loyalties to the Zhou dynasty. This just goes to show how much the Mandate of Heaven meant to both the rulers and the people being ruled.

  10. Avatar
    Liam Gillooly

    This article is thoroughly researched and knowledgeable. The methods by which a society assume control are often ingenious, and convincing the masses of a divine right is interesting to say the least. Sometimes I wonder why commoners would never question this bizarre mandate. It gives a better insight into the daily lives of Zhou people, and the way they thought. Overall, great article.

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