Mandate of Heaven: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Chinese emperors had a unique way to legitimize their absolute power. In this lesson, we'll explore the Mandate of Heaven and see how it impacted China.

Ancient Chinese Cosmology

For those of us who are familiar with the Judeo-Christian religion, we're used to a fairly straightforward set of spiritual beliefs: there is a single God, morality can be divided into strict categories of right and wrong, and Heaven and Earth are different places. Not all religious systems are quite so defined. For example, the cosmology, or the complete set of spiritual and moral beliefs, of the ancient Chinese was pretty complex. There were gods, who were sort of like great spiritual forces but not necessarily forces of nature or physical beings. There were moral systems, but right and wrong were defined by relationships and could change based on the situation. Chinese cosmology was complex, and it defined every aspect of Chinese society, including the role of the emperor. In ancient China, the emperor's authority, his right to rule, was divinely granted; it was a cosmological right called the Mandate of Heaven.

The Mandate of Heaven legitimized the right of the emperor to rule
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The Mandate of Heaven

So what exactly was the Mandate of Heaven? It all starts with understanding the role of the emperor in Chinese society. Ancient Chinese life was defined by relationships between people. Everybody in society had a role that was characterized by the obligations a person had with other people. The basis of this system was the family unit. Everybody was both a parent and a child in terms of social relationships--the peasant was a child to the lord, thereby owing the lord obedience. But the lord was the parent, meaning he was responsible for the wellbeing of the peasants. In turn, the lord was the child of the emperor, who was the parent of all of China. The emperor himself was the Son of Heaven. This was a serious title. As the Son, he was responsible for following the laws of heaven and maintaining order and harmony between the human world and heaven.

The Chinese emperor was known as the Son of Heaven
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It was this role as the Son of Heaven that defined the role of emperor and gave him his power. In order to fulfill his duties, the emperor was given the Mandate of Heaven, the divine authority of the gods to rule over all of China. In this system of relationships, the ruler only had authority as long as he upheld his responsibilities to his 'children.' So if the emperor became tyrannical or abusive or failed to maintain harmony in China, the mandate could be revoked and given to someone else. How did the Chinese people know if the emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven? Basically, if he was overthrown, an emperor with the Mandate of Heaven could never be deposed. However, once he lost the divine right to rule, the Mandate of Heaven was given to someone else. For example, at the end of the 19th century, a group of rebels who were protesting the emperor's new industrialization campaign claimed they had received the Mandate of Heaven. They tried to overthrow the government in what was called the Boxer Rebellion, but when the rebellion failed the Chinese people assumed that the emperor still had the Mandate.

So, being in power was an important sign that one still had the Mandate, which in turn means that revolutions were dangerous. If you didn't have the Mandate, your revolution would fail, as with the Boxers, and there was no way to know if the Mandate of Heaven had transferred until the revolution either succeeded or failed. So, how did you know if it was time to revolt? Most citizens believed there were signs that would show if the emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven. One of the biggest signs was if the Yellow River, the center of ancient Chinese civilization, overflowed its banks. This natural disaster was a sign that the Mandate of Heaven had been granted to someone new.

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