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The Mandate of Heaven

Dragon_and_phoenix 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when this obligation is met, Heaven supports the dynasty – but when the ruling power fails the people, the Mandate is withdrawn, allowing the dynasty to be overthrown.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 removed. 

In the United States, however, there often appears to be some misunderstanding as to the relationship between religious and political metaphysics. This largely seems to derive from the phrase “One nation under God”, which originated in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom”) but was ultimately added into the US Pledge of Allegiance. It is important to understand that when people before the twentieth century spoke of nations being “under God,” the point being made was that they were directly under God – that is to say, that they would be sovereign states. Remember that when the United States were a colony of the British Empire they were under the King who alone was ‘under God’, following the tradition of the Divine Right of Kings. To be a nation under God, therefore, was to be independent.

It is characteristic of the “religious cold war” between theists and atheists in the United States that political momentum has been expended on the issue of whether the two words “under God” belong in the Pledge of Allegiance, which most US school children recite daily. Yet little or no discussion has focussed on what it means to “pledge allegiance to the flag” (a metaphysical concept I personally find far more arcane) – and while people squabble over political minutiae, the “liberty and justice for all” promised at the end of the pledge has been thoroughly undermined.

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 United States tends to be dominated by intensely partisan entrenchment – many US citizens seem to believe that those with differing beliefs and views cannot be reasoned with, and that the political process is simply a voting war between opposing factions. When the people are unable to productively discuss issues among themselves, democracy itself is undermined.

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 United States) equate democracy with freedom, and thus believe that the installation of a democratic system is commensurate with the provision of freedom. But democracy does not and cannot in and of itself provide freedom – the phrase “freedom isn’t free” is substantially correct: democracy requires that the people stand up for their freedoms when they are threatened, and work towards greater freedom when necessary.

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 Poland (1980-1989), the peaceful overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines (1986), the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia (1989), the removal of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia (1996-2000) and the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine (2004-2005). The Mandate of the People belongs to the people – it is they themselves who must claim it, and under the democratic ideal freedom can (and perhaps must) be earned by the actions of the people, who need not resort to violence to do so.

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.


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I love the use of the passive voice all through the section on the Mandate of Heaven.

Politics is active. Politics is about individuals. Politics is about imposing one's will on others, through any and all available mechanisms. It is all very well that the overthrow of the Emperor is mandated, but who mandates it? More importantly, who gets shot by the army while leading the attempt to overthrow, if the army stays loyal? Which generals form a military government, if the army is in on the overthrowing? Or do the generals give orders to kill anyone who shows dissent if (as usual) opinion in the ranks is split? In short, who bells the cat?

"It is all very well that the overthrow of the Emperor is mandated, but who mandates it?"

Well, in ancient Chinese politics: someone with a large enough army to have a shot at overthrowing the ruling dynasty. ;) And not uncoincidentally, someone who some time shortly after victory will be founding the new ruling dynasty.

Pragmatically, during the times of stability, everyone remained loyal. When times got tough, if the ruling dynasty failed in their duty to the people, the nobles who were most distressed would be the one to take action. In this respect, having a hierarchical power structure was an asset; the "farmer on the street" rarely initiated a revolution - at least until the Communist revolution of 1912.

But it the modern world, democracy offers less violent solutions, of course, which I see as a positive step. :)

Nobles overthrowing the ruling dynasty work tolerably well where you have an area with several noble houses of roughly equal strength - the ruler has peers, and those peers come under the ruler's scope.

In most modern countries, including representative democracies, that is not the case. The ruling body is the single most powerful entity within the nation's borders, because they have control over the direction given to the single army and single police force, along with the laws detailing who can show dissent and in what forms. This body has no peers within national borders that can exert sufficient force to dislodge it, unless the army revolts.

Is democracy a solution? I'm not sure. It appears to be a meta-stable form of government, perched precariously at the top of a hill, assailed from all sides by special interests. The form that survives in most so-called democracies is a caricature of Democracy. Consider the UK as an example, where we are ruled by people chosen by a small fraction of the population. Those rulers then choose their own leaders, and those leaders have huge personal power due to the leaders carefully eroding the checks and balances on their use of governmental power, and get to choose the rewards for the cronies who put them at the top. This is democracy?


In feudal China, the arrangement of the Empire was such as to always ensure a division of power between many families - the geography covered was so vast there was no other way to proceed. This also helped with the overall political stability.

I appreciate your objection to the way that the situation in the UK is called "democracy" - but we as the electorate could work influence if we could reach some agreement as to what the point-of-change would be.

One of the problems is that many people do not want to be involved in politics, which thus yields most of the power to the professional politicians.

The real problem, in my opinion, is not domestic policy (as one can make the electorate care deeply about this) but foreign policy - where an attitude of "what do I know about country X" often leads to people 'giving way' to whatever politicians ask for. This is when it is important to have other politicians dissent.

I don't have an answer for how to resolve this, as it is unreasonable to expect every member of the electorate to understand global politics (a subject severely open to interpretation anyway). The media could certainly help with this - in fact, those that hold the greatest influence over the media arguably hold the greatest influence altogether.

Remember when Tony Blair had to get the blessing of Rupert Murdoch before he could be elected...?

Alas, I'm out of time. We will doubtless talk more of such things. ;)


The Japanese had a similar system - directly influenced by at-the-time superior Chinese culture. Their Mandate of Heaven was, however, framed as a direct lineage from Ameratsu. This turned an early power-grab by a large clan into a legitimate dynasty, and established a tripartite power system - Emperor, samurai and monks.
Because the Japanese, not least the samurai, were very religious this was fairly stable - until the advent of Buddhism. Buddhism was embraced by the Emperors near the end of the first millenium (Gregorian), and Buddha was conflated with the Shinto kami. So the mandate was maintained.
UNTIL certain Chinese educated monks started Buddhist schools that rejected synergy with Shintoism. Political turmoil ensued, fueled by a kind of Buddhist socialist movement (Ikko Ikki) that saw military power wielded by peasants for the first time. The 'police' of the state, the samurai families, eventually produced a warlord, Oda Nobunaga, who 'pacified' the country. However, he used the defeated purist Buddhist sects to legitimise a direct grab for power by circumventing the Shinto-based Mandate of Heaven - it was still recognised, but held no weight. So was established the Shogunate, sidelining the Emperors for hundreds of years until the resurgence of Shintoism fueled the Meiji restoration, prompted by the opening of Japan by the Yanks.

The point of the story is that Mandate from Heaven is really a mandate from the belief system of the people. When one side or another swayed this in favour of their cause, they gained the upper hand.
So I disagree that rulers need to seek the best for their people to maintain their mandate. They instead need to supply or subvert a belief about what is best, and serve that. The War on Terror, that old chestnut.
The problem then is that people may not even know that they need to assert their rights, they may become willing partners. And in any issue of truth, how do we seek the true answer to enlighten the deceived? Isn't majority rule the name of the game? Once they get most people believing something, it has become their truth, and your truth is just a (probably crazy) lone voice of dissent.

zenBen: thanks for sharing this parallel story about the Japanese "mandate"; I'm broadly familiar with Japanese history, but you paint a neat account here.

"The point of the story is that Mandate from Heaven is really a mandate from the belief system of the people."

I don't disagree; the same is true of any mandate - the democratic mandate of the people is also underlain by a belief system.

"So I disagree that rulers need to seek the best for their people to maintain their mandate."

Well in the Chinese system (and in India) this forms part of the belief system! :) I don't know that your historical account of the Japanese system necessarily contradicts this element either.

As a practical matter, any ruler who abuses their people will not last in the long term, irrespective of how they acquire their mandate.

Best wishes!

"As a practical matter, any ruler who abuses their people will not last in the long term, irrespective of how they acquire their mandate."

So you are roundly rejecting the possibility of an Orwellian state where the greater good and individual liberty are both quashed, ostensibly in the name of higher state concerns (like national security)?

Because that is what I am talking about when I say that a government can obtain a mandate by offering the people intangibles, rather than a clear effort to improve their lot.

zenBen: I take your point - this subtlety was lost on my reading your first comment. Of course, this does happen - Orwell was fictionalising Stalin's Russia, after all.

Yet, I still believe: one cannot maintain a mandate through such methods for long. China maintained long dynasties precisely because the care of the people was a de facto part of their mandate. A mandate achieved through manipulation does not, I believe, weather so well.

Of course, this belief expresses an optimism that no-one else need share. ;)

Thanks for the clarification!

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