Sterling K. Brown
Angela Bassett

Mandate of Heaven research paper

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China’s history is arguably the richest and longest of all countries, fortunately for the scholars, this whole stretch of history was charted into different periods called dynasties. If China’s history was like a storybook and the dynasties were the chapters, then the “Mandate of Heaven” is definitely the essential concept to link the chapters together. However, the “Mandate of Heaven” model, like most philosophical concepts, actually provides a utopian representation of China’s historical reality due to its over-simplicity.

This is not, of course, to completely reject the “Mandate of Heaven” model as a way of understanding imperial succession and dynastic transmission. Originating in the Zhou dynasty (1045-256BC), the Mandate of Heaven is the philosophical “notion that the supreme ruler earn or lose the Mandate to rule based upon his virtue or lack thereof”1 (Miyamoto, 2011). Basically, Heaven bestow upon an honorable man the right to rule and the dynasty will prosper under his righteous rule, which often includes expanding into foreign lands, gaining economic wealth and a flourishing of culture. However, decadence of rulers or natural disasters would mark the decline of the dynasty, and another individual (who have received the Mandate of Heaven) will then lead a successful rebellion and declare a new dynasty. This is how one dynasty pass the “baton” to the next dynasty. This concept of Mandate of Heaven has become “fundamental to the legitimacy of every subsequent dynasty”2 (Keay, 2009) after its invention.

One of the most famous examples is perhaps the transition between Sui and Tang dynasty. Sui dynasty (598-618) saw the progress of Chinese society with implementation of a system of land distribution, civil service examinations and a legal code. Yet all good things come to an end, the last ruler Sui Yangdi was not a virtuous ruler. He built a very luxurious palace and filled it with beautiful concubines, and also led three large scale invasions of Korea, which ended in failure3 (Ong, 2005). His exploits led to many sufferings, and the Sui dynasty was overthrown by a rebellion led by Li Yuan, who then established the Tang dynasty (618-907).

The decline and end of the Sui dynasty illustrated how “Mandate of Heaven” played a part in the dynastic transmission. This is also evidence of how “dynastic decline went hand in hand with the increasing inefficiency of the ruling house”4 (Fairbank and Goldman, 2006).

Throughout the 500 years of China history, dynastic transmission was not always so simple like the turning of a page in a book. In fact, most of time it was a messy and prolonged affair with no exact date or even year of “passing the baton”. Dynasties were often established before the overthrow of an existing regime or existing states, or continued for a period of time after they have been defeated, therefore the “Mandate of Heaven” model is unrealistic and inaccurate to assume China changed suddenly and all at once.

Sui Wudi assumed the Mandate and declared a new Sui dynasty in 581 (after the Northern and Southern Dynasties period). However, this dynasty was established before unification of China, and it overlook the fact that someone else had declared a Chen dynasty in South China as early as year 5575 (Cotterell, 2008). Thus, if the Sui dynasty declared in 581 only have authority and rule over North China, does the model of “Mandate of Heaven” still applies? Or does Sui only gained the Mandate in year 589 when it unified China?

Over the 5000 years of Chinese history, there were over a hundred of self-declared dynasties yet only a few were recognized as a part of China’s legitimate dynastic succession and it was not uncommon for some “legitimate” dynasties to only control less than half of China and therefore coincide with another “legitimate” dynasty in the other half of the country. Chen dynasty was one example of a dynasty that did controlled a significant part of China for nearly 30...