Wednesday, November 23, 2011

China and the Heavenly Mandate

The Mandate of Heaven or Tian Ming was the divine authorization to rule upon which rested the power of most Chinese emperors throughout their very long history as well as influencing the political systems of neighboring countries as well. The idea first developed prior to the unification of China in the Kingdom of Zhou and was early on most associated with the Zhou kings who were the first to call themselves the ‘Sons of Heaven’ and to claim to exercise power by holding the heavenly mandate to do so. However, today most associate the heavenly mandate with the political teachings of later philosophers such as Mencius and, of course, the great Confucius. Confucian scholars elaborated on the idea of the Mandate of Heaven and it first began to be a major influence with the rise of the Han dynasty in China. The rise of Emperor Gaodi, first monarch of the western Han after the downfall of the Qin dynasty, was pointed to by Confucian scholars as an example of the mandate of heaven passing from one dynasty to another in the traditional way. Western minds have tried for a long time to understand and explain the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, comparing it to everything from the Divine Right of Kings to the social contract of the Enlightenment era. In truth, it is both and neither, like so much else in the history and culture of the Far East.

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.

Obviously, since the Mandate of Heaven is based on character rather than ancestry, anyone can theoretically “obtain” it by proving themselves worthy by their virtue and, usually, success in overthrowing the previous ruler and taking power for himself. The founding Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, for example, was a common peasant before leading the popular uprising that brought down the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. The fact that an Emperor has the mandate and rules as the ‘Son of Heaven’ means that those who rebel against him are traitors of the worst kind, even heretics to use a western point of reference. That is, of course, if the rebellion is unsuccessful. If a rebellion succeeds then it is taken as proof that the heavenly mandate had passed from the old dynasty to the rebels who would institute a new dynasty. Rebellion could be brought about by a lack of moral character on the part of an Emperor but, as often if not more so, by economic hardship, poverty, natural disasters, famines or plagues that were taken as signs that the heavenly mandate had passed from the ruling 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.

Some have tried to make the argument that Chairman Mao and the Communist Party, by defeating the nationalists and establishing the People’s Republic of China, demonstrated that they obtained the heavenly mandate to rule. They do not claim this as the source of their legitimacy of course, but the argument is still put out by some to encourage the more traditionally minded to support the Red regime. This sort of thinking is what I like to call, “crap”. The communists cannot legitimately claim something which they do not acknowledge to even exist. I am sure some might try to explain this away by arguing that it exists whether they acknowledge it or not but that holds no water either. The Communist Party is officially atheist and if they do not believe in Heaven they cannot very well even pretend to claim the heavenly mandate. Nor can this be something they simply believe privately as one of, if not the, most paramount duties of the emperor as the “Son of Heaven” was performing the rites on behalf of the Middle Kingdom at the Altar of Heaven, something which no Communist dictator has ever done. The last time these rites were performed was in 1915 by President Yuan Shihkai of the Republic of China who wanted to become the Emperor of China and founder of his own dynasty (which didn’t work out well).

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.

The basic fact is though that the communist regime is illegitimate and has been from day one. No one else needs to make the case that they represent a total rejection of traditional Chinese government and a firm break with the previous thousands of years of Chinese history. They have made that a boast from the very beginning of their existence. Today, becoming more “establishment” at home and accepted abroad, they might not be as stridently opposed to the Confucian order as they once were but, make no mistake about it, they are still opposed to it. One can no more apply the principle of the Mandate of Heaven to the current bandit government in Peking than one could apply it to the republic in Paris or the Castro regime in Cuba. The communist government in China has just as much about it that is “Chinese” as any of those governments, which is to say; none at all. Regardless of how far they have moved away in practice, at their core, they are a government based on the radical, utopian ravings of a self-hating German-Jew of Nineteenth Century Europe. It is totally foreign to China (and all of Asia for that matter) in every possible way and therefore traditional Chinese perspectives cannot be applied to it; it is totally alien.

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.


  1. China isn't even socialist anymore economically, in a sense it resembles more like a fascist or Nazi state. But Communism isn't simply an economic philosophy or a system of government- it's also a social and cultural ideal. While they abandoned socialist economics starting in 1979 (and introduced the worst kind of capitalism imaginable, where money is more important than human life), they didn't undo the barbaric vandalism of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution which, remember, likely killed more people than almost all wars did.

    Recent incidents- food safety, the appalling handling of a high-speed rail crash, the case of the little girl being run over and nobody noticed- and the fact that the Chinese internet community is becoming more sophisticated, could contribute to the corrosion of the acceptance or tolerance of the regime by the majority of people.

    Can China and Vietnam have their own version of the "Arab Spring" soon?

  2. If you'd asked me that before the "Arab Spring" I would have said no, and I still think it unlikely, but their reaction to it has made me think they are at least somewhat concerned about the possibility as they have consistently been the last to drop their support for the regimes in power and seek to 'make nice' with the rebels. Still though, I think it unlikely, especially in light of how the western world continues to bow and scrape to China in return for loans and trade agreements. They see themselves as the rising new world power more than anyone else does.

    Vietnam is a unique case (always). Centuries of history have left in them a deep-seated distrust of China, however, since their Soviet sugar-daddy collapsed they have been forced to more or less fall into the Chinese camp. They don't like it, but as the only other officially communist major power in the region, they go along to get along.

  3. It is really sad to think of traditional China and then remember that it is not like that anymore because of the Commies.

    How do you pronounce 'Qing'?

  4. I do not predict that any popular uprisings in China will occur spontaneously in the near future.

    Or thats what I did say before China bought out both America's and Europe's debts. China as it stands as far as I am concerned is a time bomb, and the worst kind of one at that. It is horrendously over populated, treats its peasentry (and it most certainly does have peasentry) as commodities for the state to use, has poor legal and judicial practices (it has been widely speculated that the little girl being ignored as she lay dieing was the result of Legal conventions where 'Rescuers', ordinary citizens aiding their fellow citizens when they are injured, where considered liable for the injury to begin with in some backwards logic my common law mind cannot fathom), and now Bond holder for the world.

    Only a fool would not believe it highly likely that Chinese Bankers, in their astonishing economic success in the 21st century, had been just as reckless as us westerners have proven to be, and it is likely that China may indeed hit economic difficulties in the near future, although I couldnt begin to predict when, and we will see a recalling of debts. And then shit will hit the proverbial fan. If China goes, so goes the Western Econemies and God only knows how the fall of the biggest power in the Asian markets will affect countries there.

    When that occurs I really do not expect the communist regime to last anything close to five years after initial riots, if even that. I would not hold out for a Qing restoration, at all. But it is likely that however comes next may not be as stringently anti-confucion as the current regime is and likely use the Mandate of Heaven as their base. However, again, I could not begin to predict who that could possibly be.

    My concern in China has always been for the Christian Minority, a stubborn thing that the Current regime has tried desperately to suppress and control like it has done to Buddhist temples. Can't say much for the Protestants there but the Catholic Minority has shown heroic yet peaceful resistance to the current illegitimite regime. My hope is that should any counter-revolution come to fruition there that the Catholics would support the restoration of an Emperor, and in turn the Emperor would grant them leniency. Probably even more of a Pipe dream then the actual restoration of the Empire but one can hope.

  5. Servant, I'd agree but, we live in the Age of Democracy. Democracy is seen as a value in and of itself, and the going trend is, if a Government is one we don’t' like, then even if its freely elected like in Tunisia, its not a Democracy.

    Even if the New Government uses the mandate of Heaven, it will still claim popular Sovereignty and at least try to pass itself off as a Democracy. Anyone mentioning restoration will be told that the Age of Monarchy has passed, and Mankind has matured past that need.

    Monarchic Restorations won't commence until the idea that Democracy is more advanced than Monarchy is itself overturned, along with the Universal praise for Democracy. If the Communist Regime falls in China, it'll be a new Republic of China that replaces it.

    I think Monarchy will eventually make a comeback. After all, things tend to be cyclical, and even the Roman Republic fell. However, if this were to happen within the next 50-100 years, the best bets right now for Monarchy are Russia, Portugal, Romania, Brazil, Egypt, and Nepal. Each has strong Monarchist movements and none seem to care about appearing Modern to a contemporary, Western dominated audience. China, as Eastern as it is and critical of Western ideals, still holds to the Imagine of “Progress” that leads them to think of the Superiority of Democracy over the Old Order. They haven’t had their fill yet like the Russians, and have a decidedly different history. Heck, the Communists didn’t even overthrow their Emperor like the Tzar’s in Russia were; they overtook the Republic of China instead.

    However, if Russia ever Restored the Tzars, it may begin debate in the East about such things, and thus lend credibility to the idea of a new Chinese Emperor.

    Other than this, I think your analysis is spot on. And I know you didn’t say an Imperial Restoration would happen, I’m just adding to it.

  6. I love your posts about Asian History. Far too few people know about this.

    Thanks again.

  7. I'm glad you covered this issue. The communist regime definitely is not legitimate, and the Qing dynasty is just waiting to be restored, or some other monarchical dynasty. Unfortunately, whenever someone talks about replacing communist regime, it always seems to be replaced with a Western republic style government (Russia for example). Even in Korea they talk about if the whole peninsula was ever united, it would take the form of the South Korean republic. Ugghh. The whole republican ideologies were the very reason why Korea was separated in the first place! I don't know if people will ever look back on monarchy and remember it as anything but an oppressive social pyramid that made slaves out of everybody while republics bring democracy and freedom to all people (as if democracy was a good thing) :/

    However, China is a bit different only because their whole entire nation depended on a leader, which is why the single-party state, however oppressive and destructive it is, is somehow acceptable to them. I don't think a republic fits China at all. Only the Middle Kingdom that existed in the past will do what is best for the Chinese, but people have to discard the idea that republicanism is the superior.

  8. The reason the traditional system lasted so long was that it was organic and it *worked*. Even the Manchus and the Mongols (for the most part) realized that when it came to governing China. As for Korea, the monarchy would be the only way the country could be reunited in a way that truly brings both sides together. The north would be a much bigger problem if it seemed to everyone that the south simply "won" over the north. The system may be mostly the same as in the south, but the forms and symbols of the monarchy would allow both sides to come together, putting the division behind them, to return to the natural state of Korea.

  9. Couldn't have said it any better mate.

    If North was won over by the South, there'd be a lot of problems indeed, and only the internal system of monarchy can bring back a unified Korea. Difficult? Yes, but that's the only way Koreans can set aside their ideological differences and bring back what was.

    I just hope people would stop and realise the western democracy is simply not the way every nation should conform to. With democracy came this ugly form of standardisation and the discarding of unique traditions. I think I hate that aspect the most... look at China for crying out loud! Here in Korea we used to give to give them tributes (along with other nations who invariably visited the Forbidden City)! :/

  10. The issue with Mandate of Heaven and the Qing appears to be historical legacy. The "Dynasty" in China and Korea doesn't just refer to the royal house (the name of the royal family being different from the dynasty) but to the state and its formal name. Hence "Qing Empire", "Ming Empire", "Kingdom of Joseon", etc.

    The Taiping Rebellion was an attempt to replace one monarchy with another. Which was the case throughout Chinese history. The name "China" was first formally used by the Republic of China in 1911, hence "Emperor of China" (as opposed to "Qing Emperor", "Ming Emperor" et al) was used by Yuan Shikai in 1915-16 and certain leaders thought of making themselves emperor after then.

    Is it plausible there are direct descendants of the Ming, Song and Tang emperors today? And of other old royal houses?

    Different from Japan or Vietnam, where the name of the state ("Japan" and "Vietnam" or "Dai Viet") remained the same through the change of ruling house.

  11. To be fair, Asian societies like Singapore, Japan and South Korea are preferable in many ways to modern Western societies. They still remain (even in Japanese and Korean democracies) hierarchical and even authoritarian in their social and cultural norms, and have evaded the cultural and moral destruction of the West since the 60s.

  12. @ David: That's true. The Eastern culture are comparatively very conservative compared to the current neo-Western which is now pretty much far removed from its noble roots. However, I fear for my generation in Korea (I'm 22 to give you an idea) because we are all into the modern culture that pretty much defines America and the west, such as K-POP and other things mimicking the west. They spread like virus amongst young children (it even targets them)! The same trash that happened in America and Europe where the children are taught the new counterculture is superior and that adults need to be "re-educated" to fit into the times is happening here in Korea today! But yes, I've noticed many people would look into the east to find more conservative views... but I think the cultural and moral destruction is occurring as we speak. :(

    Taiping Rebellion... yikes. I wonder what would have happened if that heretic succeeded. Even the communists and nationalists to this day seem to admire Hong Xiuquan, which pretty much tells us a lot.

  13. The mandate evolves with the culture. Consumerism is legitimized by the material mandate$$$$. Remove the mandate and the peasants have no way to consume their identity and must revolt, even against the secular mythology of democracy.


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