China's written history goes back thousands of years to include the Zhou Dynasty (pronounced like "Joe"), which was founded in the year 1046 B.C. according to China's Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project. This was a time when the Chinese system of kings and emperors was first emerging, and a principle was developed to explain why the king had the right to rule. This principle, translated into English as the "Mandate of Heaven," would continue to justify the rule of Chinese leaders for three millenia, until the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911.

Mandate of Heaven

Called "tian ming" in Chinese, the idea of the Mandate of Heaven was that the king or emperor ruled because that was his fate passed down from heaven. Based on this idea, the emperors of China were called "tian zi," the "sons of heaven." Though the Chinese did believe in many gods who lived in the heavens, saying that the mandate came from heaven didn't mean that it was handed down by those gods. Instead, they held that the cosmos itself was establishing the mandate impersonally as part of the basic morality of the universe.

Origins

The concept of "ming," a heavenly fate or mandate, first appeared during the Zhou Dynasty as a variant of "ling," which to the preceding Shang Dynasty meant commands given by the gods to control the forces of nature. By the time of the Zhou Dynasty, the Chinese believed that these natural forces were not controlled by commands from humanlike deities, but by a cosmic force of fate vested in heaven itself. This concept of fate became the new meaning of "ming." So the idea of "tian ming," the Mandate of Heaven, was first used by the kings of the Zhou Dynasty, who justified their overthrow of the Shang by saying that heaven had punished the Shang for immorality and transferred its favor to the Zhou.

Not Absolute

Unlike the European idea of "divine right to rule," the Mandate of Heaven wasn't understood to mean that the emperor had absolute power backed by God. Instead, the mandate was seen as a moral responsibility that the emperor needed to meet if he was to keep his throne. A bad emperor, the Chinese believed, would lose the Mandate of Heaven, justifying his overthrow by a new dynasty which would then receive the mandate. In ancient times natural disasters would be taken as a sign that the emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven, because it meant that he had failed his responsibility as the Son of Heaven to mediate between the cosmos and humankind.

Later History

The Zhou Dynasty was only the beginning of about 3,000 years in which kings and emperors ruled China in the name of the Mandate of Heaven. The tradition continued all the way up to China's last dynasty, the Qing (pronounced "Ching"). This dynasty was not even founded by ethnically Chinese people, but by the invading Manchu. Nevertheless, the invaders also claimed the Mandate of Heaven and acknowledged that the mandate had previously lain with the Chinese Ming Dynasty they overthrew. Even in modern China, the concept of a moral mandate for leaders hasn't been forgotten. During the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, some student activists claimed the communist government had failed in its moral responsibility and was losing the Mandate of Heaven.