The Dynastic Cycle in China

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  • 0:00 Introduction: Shang vs. Zhou
  • 1:12 The Mandate of Heaven
  • 2:00 The Dynastic Cycle
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

The dynastic cycle in China was determined by the Mandate of Heaven. Learn what the Mandate of Heaven was and discover its relationship to the ruling family as you go through this lesson.

Introduction: Shang vs. Zhou

Once upon a time in a land far away, two families fought for control of a kingdom. The Shang family had ruled for many years, but the Zhou family wanted to take its turn. The nobles had grown tired of constant fighting between the Shang and the Zhou. They wanted to support the winning side, and the Zhou knew they needed the nobles on their side for a successful takeover.

When the time was right, the Zhou family met with the nobles. They told the nobles the Shang kings had become selfish and that the gods had chosen the Zhou family over them. The gods would continue to allow the Zhou to rule as long as they were good rulers. If they became selfish like the Shang, the gods would choose a new family to rule. They called this the 'Mandate of Heaven.'

This may sound like a mythological tale, but it is actually the true beginning of the dynastic cycle in China. We know that The Zhou Dynasty replaced the Shang Dynasty around 1046 BCE. What we don't know is if the Zhou really believed the Mandate of Heaven was true, or if it was simply a brilliant political maneuver. Regardless, the Mandate worked, and it continued to determine rule in China for many more years.

The Mandate of Heaven

The Mandate of Heaven had three major implications:

  1. The ruler of China has religious power since the right to rule was granted by the gods.
  2. The ruler has power over the people, but he must make unselfish choices or the gods will take away his right to rule.
  3. The gods do not limit the right to rule to one family. If a rebellion is successful, it is because the gods have chosen new rulers.

These implications created a way for the nobles to justify rebellion against the Shang family. The nobles agreed that the Shang had become selfish in their rule. They sided with the Zhou family and successfully removed the Shang family from power. It seemed the gods must have given the right to rule to the Zhou family because their rebellion was a success.

The Dynastic Cycle

Each period of time that was ruled by a particular family in China was called a dynasty. The acceptance of the Mandate of Heaven created a pattern to the rise and fall of these dynasties, called the dynastic cycle.

The dynastic cycle began again each time a new family received the Mandate of Heaven and took control. Often, this beginning era was marked by the same pattern of events. The new ruling family would bring peace and prosperity to China. The government would be rebuilt, land would be returned to the people, new roads would be built, and taxes would be lower.

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