Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

What is the Mandate of Heaven?

Confucians have interpreted the concept of Mandate or Will of Heaven in various ways over the centuries. As an ingredient in Confucian political thought, the concept has functioned both as a means of legitimation of the regime in power and a justification for overthrowing an unjust regime. The notion derives from a traditional Chinese belief in an elaborate network of correspondences among all levels of existence—the heavenly, the earthly, and the human. Human beings are not the independent source of authority. They can hope for harmony only through sensitivity to the ways of Heaven above and of nature below. Order in society depends on the good faith effort of a single human being, the emperor as “Son of Heaven,” to rule unselfishly by always consulting the Will of Heaven.

A theory of immanent retribution holds that there is a direct connection between natural and moral evil in the world and Heaven’s displeasure with any emperor who arrogantly forgets the source of his authority. When the people prosper, one can conclude with certainty that affairs of state are in order, all as a direct result of the emperor’s keeping his priorities straight. Many of the great Confucian thinkers have taught that the tradition’s most consistent contribution to society has been that of fearlessly holding the ruler responsible to his people. If the one on the throne presides over an unjust regime, that person is no longer worthy of the name emperor. According to Meng Zi, for example, the people have the right to remove such a fraudulent leader. Meng Zi argued that violent overthrow of an unjust ruler was not regicide but tyrannicide. The greatest sovereign, therefore, is the one who governs only after first submitting to a higher authority.


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