The Mandate of Heaven, or T’ien Ming, is a
traditional Chinese political concept that was used to assert or deny the
legitimacy of the ruling dynasty. When an Emperor ruled justly, fairly and
wisely, it was said that the Mandate of Heaven was with him – but when an
Emperor was corrupt, cruel and oppressive, it was said that he had lost the Mandate.
“Heaven” in this context does not refer to a personal God in the style of the
Abrahamic traditions, but rather the cosmic all-pervading power that underlies
Taoism and other traditional Chinese beliefs.
When the ancient Chinese dynasty of Zhou overthrew the Shang in 1,115 BC, they faced the serious problem of how to legitimise their usurpation of power. If authority can be gained through conquest, what stops anyone with a sufficiently large army from seizing control? The political metaphysics of the Mandate of Heaven provided a resolution to this problem: the ruler has an obligation to the people, and when this obligation is met, Heaven supports the dynasty – but when the ruling power fails the people, the Mandate is withdrawn, allowing the dynasty to be overthrown. A successful insurrection was used as evidence that the Mandate had passed to a new dynasty, and this justification was employed even up to the fall of the last Empire in 1912 AD.
In connecting the welfare of the people to
the legitimacy principle of the ruling power, the Mandate of Heaven served as a
tremendous stabilising force in Chinese politics, and most dynasties lasted for
centuries under its remit. One version of the Chinese epic Romance of the
Three Kingdoms contains a notable political idea which emerged from this concept: “the Empire belongs to no one man, but to all in the Empire,” expressing
the essential idea that political legitimacy derives from virtue. However, a later editor of the book removed all six references to this phrase, probably because the claim that virtue could overrule lineage was not something the ruling dynasty of his time would accept. Nonetheless, the theme that virtue qualifies for rule remains central to the narrative.
In European nations, a similar concept can be found – the Divine Right of Kings. However, a key difference between the two ideas is that in the European metaphysics, the ruler drew his or her legitimacy directly from God, and subjects had no choice but to obey. Since in this system the monarch had no express obligation to the people, the welfare of the people did not emerge as a key political concept in Europe until the emergence of democratic ideals.
In democracy, the ruler does not derive
authority from a divine source but from the will of the people – what we could
call the Mandate of the People. Just as the populace provides the legitimacy
that installs a new leader, the populace can also withdraw its support for a
leader and have them removed. This process is usually referred to as
impeachment, although strictly speaking an impeachment is simply the bringing
of charges against a government official (equivalent to the term ‘indictment’
in law); a conviction on the charges is required before the official can be
It is characteristic of the “religious cold
war” between theists and atheists in the
It is a mistake for citizens of democratic
nations to believe that the extent of their political power begins and end with
the vote. Voting is the minimum contribution an individual can make, but
politics is a perpetual process that one can always participate in. The Mandate
of the People may be delivered initially by the electoral process, but the will
of the people can be expressed at any time, and when leaders fail to live up to
their obligations to the people, the Mandate can be withdrawn – provided there
is a broad consensus that this is necessary.
Sadly, politics in the
The Mandate of Heaven is a somewhat alien
concept to Western sensibilities, but underlying this principle was a
commitment to an essential relationship between ruler and ruled: bad leaders,
those who did not look out for the welfare of the people, could not stand. The
same should be true under the Mandate of the People – if and when it is not the
case, when the welfare of the people is neglected, this represents a
failure of the people to assert their democratic rights. One cannot expect
unjust rulers to bring themselves to account – the electorate must do it for them.
Perhaps the essential problem is that
people (and especially in the
This kind of freedom cannot be forced upon
others by violence, it can only be taken by those who are ready to assume the
responsibility inherent in the Mandate of the People. We have seen this happen
many times in the wake of the fall of Imperialism in the twentieth century – in the
Indian independence campaign (1930-1931), the self-liberation of
Political metaphysics are just as volatile
as religious metaphysics, and in our time the two collide with tremendous
force. To be ethical in such a world arguably requires that we endeavour to
understand perspectives that are not our own, that we comprehend that freedom
means different things to different people, and (for those of us who live in democratic
nations) to remember that the legitimate authority of government derives solely
from the Mandate of the People. When that government behaves unethically, the electorate are complicit in any offences: silence is tantamount to consent.
Just as the Mandate of Heaven dictated the overthrow of the Emperor when the welfare of the people was neglected, under democratic rule the only ethical response to dishonourable leadership is dissent.