Home > Chinese culture > Confucianism – and the mandate of heaven (part 1)

Confucianism – and the mandate of heaven (part 1)

Confucianism and The Mandate of Heaven

Confucianism has a strong focus on the leader as the chief means for bringing about peace and harmony. And one important dynamic that shapes the Confucian leaders’ understanding of their place in all things is the concept of the Mandate of Heaven (tianming, 天命). And this concept continues to influence how Chinese leaders understand their role today …

In Confucianism, the ruler does not come to legitimately hold his position because he has triumphed in battle, or because he inherited the throne from his father. No, it is on account of his virtue: heaven has recognised his virtue, and so has bestowed onto him the Mandate of Heaven. And it is this Mandate of Heaven by which they rule.

The following passage from the Classic of Rites illustrates how rulers are recognised for their virtue:

The Master said, “How greatly filial was Shun! His virtue was that of a sage; his dignity was the throne; his riches were all within the four seas. He offered his sacrifices in his ancestral temple, and his descendants preserved the sacrifices to himself. Therefore having such great virtue, it could not but be that he should obtain the throne […]

In the Book of Poetry, it is said, ‘The admirable amiable prince displayed conspicuously his excelling virtue, adjusting his people, and adjusting his officers. Therefore, he received from Heaven his emoluments of dignity. It protected him, assisted him, decreed him the throne; sending from Heaven these favors, as it were repeatedly.’ We may say therefore that he who is greatly virtuous will be sure to receive the appointment of Heaven.”

The Classic of Rites, Zhong Yong.17.

By contrast, officials are merely appointed by the ruler – they do not come to their position from their own divine appointment. No, there is only one person in the whole kingdom who receives the Mandate of Heaven: the ruler, who is sometimes referred to as the Son of Heaven. And so the Mandate of Heaven leads to the deep reverence and loyalty shown towards the ruler.

The Master said, ‘It is only the son of Heaven who receives his appointment from Heaven; officers receive their appointments from the ruler. Therefore if the ruler’s orders be conformed (to the mind of Heaven), his orders to his ministers are also conformed to it; but if his orders be contrary (to that mind), his orders to them are also contrary to it. […]

The Classic of Rites, Bao Ji.43.

That quote also hints that there is a great responsibility on the ruler to exercise proper rulership as the Son of Heaven. Because it is possible for a ruler to lose the Mandate of Heaven if he strays far from the path of virtue!

This could come about by him behaving in a way inappropriate for a ruler, thereby showing himself unfit for the role (cf. rectification of names). It could come about by laying heavy burdens on the people and ignoring their cries. Or perhaps by obscenely increasing his own wealth and that of his ministers at the expense of the people. If that happens, a rebellion may arise, overthrowing his rule – showing that he has lost the Mandate of Heaven. You can see this in the following passage from the Classic of Rites:

In the Book of Poetry, it is said, “Before the sovereigns of the Yin dynasty had lost the hearts of the people, they could appear before God. Take warning from the house of Yin. The great decree is not easily preserved.” This shows that, by gaining the people, the kingdom is gained, and, by losing the people, the kingdom is lost. […]

In the Announcement to Kang, it is said, “The decree indeed may not always rest on us”; that is, goodness obtains the decree, and the want of goodness loses it. […]

The Classic of Rites, Da Xue.13.

And there are passages (such as Yangzi Fayan 11.11 and Mencius 4.I.1) which illustrate the kinds of things that lead to the ruler losing the Mandate of Heaven – ruling by force, feuding quarrelsomely, terrorizing and attacking other states, not observing the rules of propriety.

The will of Heaven and the will of the people

How then does the Mandate of Heaven make itself known? Does Heaven … speak? The following dialogue from Mencius explains that Heaven does not show its will in a propositional form:

Wan Zhang said, ‘Was it the case that Yao gave the throne to Shun?’
Mencius said, ‘No. The sovereign cannot give the throne to another.’
Yes – but Shun had the throne. Who gave it to him?’
‘Heaven gave it to him,’ was the answer.
‘” Heaven gave it to him:” – did Heaven confer its appointment on him with specific injunctions?’
Mencius replied, ‘No. Heaven does not speak. It simply showed its will by his personal conduct and his conduct of affairs.

When pressed further, Mencius explains how it works:

Mencius replied, ‘He caused him to preside over the sacrifices, and all the spirits were well pleased with them; thus Heaven accepted him. He caused him to preside over the conduct of affairs, and affairs were well administered, so that the people reposed under him; thus the people accepted him. Heaven gave the throne to him. The people gave it to him.

Mencius explains how this works with the example of Shun, who did not take power from Yao. Instead, the people recognised Shun’s virtuous qualities – and rulership came to him. And from this you can see that the proper way to receive kingship is not to fight viciously for it, or argue for it in debate (like in the West) – but to humbly accept the overwhelmingly clear appointment of Heaven, made obvious in the desire of the people.

After the death of Yao, when the three years’ mourning was completed, Shun withdrew from the son of Yao to the south of South river. The princes of the kingdom, however, repairing to court, went not to the son of Yao, but they went to Shun. Litigants went not to the son of Yao, but they went to Shun. Singers sang not the son of Yao, but they sang Shun. Therefore I said, “Heaven gave him the throne.”

It was after these things that he went to the Middle Kingdom, and occupied the seat of the Son of Heaven. If he had, before these things, taken up his residence in the palace of Yao, and had applied pressure to the son of Yao, it would have been an act of usurpation, and not the gift of Heaven.

This sentiment is expressed in the words of The Great Declaration: “Heaven sees according as my people see; Heaven hears according as my people hear.”

Mencius, 5.I.3

That last line there indicates that Heaven’s will is ultimately found in the critical mass of people’s opinion about the ruler. It is a kind of slow-burning democracy that exalts the decision of the people into the spiritual realm, and which at moments of crisis functions to depose unworthy tyrants and enthrone a sage-king who is recognised widely for his virtue.

Implications of the Mandate of Heaven

Does the Mandate of Heaven exert an influence in leadership today? It might. Here are some ways it might show itself:

  • People do not push themselves forward to become a leader – that is unseemly. Instead it is better to wait for people to recognise it in you, and for them to push you forward.
  • What makes someone worthy of leadership is not necessarily their skills or vision – but their gravity, their correctness of their behaviour and humility.
  • Leaders feel a hesitancy about offending many and creating great disharmony in their exercise of leadership – out of fear that they may lose the support of people and in particular be seen as unfit to lead.
  • Being appointed the role of the leader is seen as a divine trust, laden with a supernatural weight, which those in other roles do not have.

What are the implications for Chinese Christianity? How does this background shape the way Chinese Christians make decisions? How do Chinese Christian leaders view themselves and others? Stay tuned for the next post!

Categories: Chinese culture
  1. 21 March 2012 at 4:08 pm

    “He who is grealy virtous will be sure to recieve the appointment from” in fact let me share it wit ma facebook friend!

    • 21 March 2012 at 4:11 pm

      lol slow down – Confucianism, while it has similarities with Christianity at a number of points, is quite alien to Christianity at many more points… ;)

  1. 4 April 2012 at 1:34 pm
  2. 31 May 2012 at 5:35 pm
  3. 21 February 2013 at 10:04 am
  4. 6 June 2013 at 4:34 pm
  5. 4 November 2014 at 1:45 am

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