Wednesday, November 23, 2011
China and the Heavenly Mandate
The principle behind the heavenly mandate is that anyone can attain virtue, that virtuous leadership will cause a country to prosper and a prosperous country will be secure and content with such happiness and contentment serving as proof that the leader in question had obtained the heavenly mandate to rule. This principle can, and has, been stretched pretty far on certain occasions. However, the idea was never supposed to be about simply the ability to take and maintain power (though at times it became that and we cannot deny that) nor was it traditionally about popularity with the people. The Emperor, who the Chinese traditionally recognized as the legitimate ruler of the world, not simply China, even if other barbarian nations were too backward to recognize it, was to govern with moderation and virtue, not to be popular, but because this was his moral duty toward Heaven and as a pious believer in Confucian morality. He also had religious duties to perform that went along with the heavenly mandate, as the Emperor was the “Son of Heaven”; the pontiff between the Middle Kingdom and the Kingdom of Heaven. The most important of these came at the Winter Solstice when the Emperor would go to the Altar of Heaven to present offerings and pray on behalf of his people and to, as we might say, give Heaven a progress report on the reign of his dynasty.
When the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Manchu coalition of forces, establishing the Qing dynasty, it was accepted that the Ming had lost the Mandate of Heaven and that the Manchu Emperor had acquired it. This was reinforced by the extent to which the Manchus adopted Chinese traditions and emphasized Confucian ethics and social order. Over the centuries, the heavenly mandate of the Qing began to be questioned as rebellions became more serious and foreign nations gained stronger footholds in China. The wave of nationalist, republican revolutionaries rejected the whole concept of the Mandate of Heaven, officially, while unofficially arguing that if such a thing did exist the Qing had lost it anyway. When the Qing dynasty was overtaken by the 1911 Revolution the act of abdication which brought an end to the ancient imperial system stated that the dynasty was bowing to, “the Mandate of Heaven as expressed through the will of the people” which was quite a novel concept in and of itself. Since that time, the successive nationalist and communist regimes have been a little uncomfortable dealing with the principle of the Mandate of Heaven. Again, they officially scoff at such a traditional belief but also would like to use it to legitimize their own positions. So, most effectively say that, one shouldn’t believe in the mandate but, if you do, believe that they hold it.
Given the number of natural disasters that have befallen China in recent years, some might suggest that this be taken as evidence that the CCP has lost the heavenly mandate and therefore that rebellion against them is justified. As stated, I think rebellion has always been justified because they never even claimed the mandate in the first place nor have they ever shown the slightest interest in ruling according to Confucian morality. This is the same regime, after all, that even in its youth enacted programs which caused the deaths of tens of millions of people and even as millions were dying Chairman Mao took it as no great tragedy, seeing it simply as so many less mouths to feed. If one wanted to argue the case, I am sure the communist sympathizers would in any event point to the higher levels of public education, the growing power of China and the burgeoning middle class (which only emerged after they started to wise up and cut back on the communist economic policies) as “proof” that, now more than ever, they hold the mandate.
In my view (though of course they can not claim it now even if they wanted to) the heavenly mandate still rests with the Qing dynasty by default, simply as the last traditional dynasty to have held it. This has always been my position, both because of my admiration for the culture of the Qing Empire as well as the unalterable fact that no one since has even claimed the Mandate of Heaven. From the fall of the Qing the history of modern China has been unprecedented in every way. Yes, I readily admit, it could be argued (obviously, given the disasters that overtook them and the fact that they were forced to renounce power) that the Qing lost the mandate but, as I see it, if so, it remains right where they left it. Certainly no government that came immediately after could claim the mandate, the country fell into utter chaos and ruin. Whether the communists desire to or not, they could never claim to hold it as that would undermine their very foundation. Will the Qing be restored? The lessons of history say “no” (though they had some very real opportunities in the past). That is why I say the mandate resides with the Qing only by default, waiting to be picked up again or claimed by another. Obviously, I very much hope that day will come and come soon, but the China of today is a totally different animal from the China of history. They have imported something formerly unknown; mass politics and ideological fanaticism, into China and that alone, even without all the power they have accumulated recently, is sufficient to mean that any future change in “dynasty” will likely be a very, very traumatic and violent affair.