The Mandate of Heaven states that Heaven (Tian, 天) decides who rules the people in China, gaining the title as ‘Son of Heaven’ (or, in Empress Wu’s case, Daughter of Heaven). Ruling as an emperor/empress, the Chosen One has the duty of maintaning the Mandate – they would need to properly perform their duty to the people, such as showing righteousness and excellence. Through this, the dynasty will continue on, as long the ruler does not fail in his duty. However, should they fail, they lose the Mandate and also their authority over the country. The mandate will then be shifted over to the next person worthy of becoming the emperor of Imperial China.
From the information we’ve assembled, we found that the Mandate of Heaven does in fact play an important role in Imperial China (especially during the Zhou dynasty). The Mandate gave the emperors the right to rule, and also it gave the people the right to rebel against the monarchs.
The Right to Rebel
In order for this ‘new leader’ to take over the role as ruler of the land, the people would overthrow the current leader, paving the way for the new leader to take their rightful place. This idea gave a very limited form of democracy in a monarchist society. In fact, the legitimacy of a ruler’s authority over the country was judged by the people based on the ruler’s performance, which indicates that the Mandate of Heaven actually lies in the people’s hands. An example would be the King Wu of Zhou who led the uprisings against the King Di Xin of Shang. He accused King Di Xin of not fulfilling his responsibilities as a good ruler, thus claiming that he had lost the Mandate. King Wu used the excuse of “heavenly order” to justify his revolt against Shang, which means he was selected by the heaven to end the corrupted Shang dynasty and built a new dynasty. This explanation gained King Wu support from the majority which helped him to establish Zhou dynasty successfully. Moreover, the Mandate does not restrain anyone from being a new ruler. Thus, we can expect that every dynasty views uprisings and protests as a serious offence. The only punishment for this crime is death penalty for the whole clan because the liberal views become limited depending on each ruler.
This practice of rebelling against rulers was often used to overthrow a dynasty by claiming that the previous emperor was corrupted or cruel - showing no good qualities, thus losing the Mandate (pg 421) (and also favor among the people of the country). As mentioned earlier, the new candidate will take the leader’s place. This new candidate would have won the support of most people through their good virtues, which is within the means of the Mandate. With this, they will become the emperor/empress of a new dynasty, and the cycle starts all over again.
How can the people tell that the current monarch has lost the mandate? They did not hold elections during ancient times. Traditional China was an agriculture society, so massive crop failure and natural disasters were interpreted as signals of lost of the leader’s possession of the Mandate. In fact, it also relates to the will of people; poor crop turnover indicates that there is a need for change in planting technologies. And since the current ruler was not able to solve the problem, the people will need someone who is more capable of solving this problem. With this, the will of the people will shift over to the new candidate, thus indicating a birth of a new dynasty. Through this, the Mandate provided a ground for democracy to step in.
The Right to Rule
After the Zhou defeated the Shang, they built their own empire, however they still used the cultural constitution from Shang in 1100 B.C.E. This legitimized their claims to the Shang’s world of knowledge and culture. The Zhou used this and created the mandate of heaven for equality purposes. Due to the mandate we were able to see people outside the elite being able to access religion. This meant that religion and politics were separated and allowed religion to prosper into important philosophies. This idea served as the foundation for the rise to the ideas of Confucius later on, who developed a doctrine of duty and public service that became the most influential philosophy in China. He emphasized that societal harmony is dependent on everyone following prescribed rules of conduct and ceremonial behavior. Through this, his philosophy of harmony had taken stage and had become the main focus in China. This was all because of the way the Mandate of Heaven allowed secular religions to grow.
A quote from the Cambridge History of China (pg 736) states:
“All men, from the Son of Heaven in his nobility to the pauper in his distress, have their appointed destiny; it would be improper for anyone without the right destiny to be placed in the position of emperor. For the right material must be used for the right task, or disaster will ensue.”
As stated earlier, any kind of mutiny against the ruling emperor was viewed as a serious offence. In order for the emperor to prove that he still has the Mandate with him, he would need to prove himself to the people in order to win back their favor. He can exercise his authority through the death penalties sentenced to anybody involved in the instigation of any revolt. The people of the land would view this action as an act under the Mandate, thus the ruling monarch would have proven that he has does in fact have the right to rule.
From the sources we’ve found, the Mandate of Heaven warranted a lot of actions that took place in Imperial China – from the various uprisings to the new appointed leadership. The influence of this Mandate did not remain behind in history... Well, that’s another story.