The mandate of heaven and morality
With more than a 4,000-year history of governance, the Chinese have tackled the question of legitimacy since the very early ages. In Chinese political tradition, the legitimacy of the dynasty came from the so-called “mandate of heaven.” Despite the mysterious ambiguity of heaven, the idea was created to justify the rule of dynasties precisely because the Chinese people had questions concerning regime legitimacy.
For example, when the Shang Dynasty (1600–1100 BC) overthrew the Xia Dynasty (2100–1600 BC), it claimed that the Xia emperor had lost his mandate from heaven. When the West Zhou Dynasty (1100–1771 BC) replaced the Shang Dynasty, many people asked why heaven had previously given the power to Shang but now changed its mind and endorsed the power to Zhou. The Zhou rulers had to explain that “heaven does not favor anybody; only morality makes heaven trust you.” In this way, the mandate of heaven was related to morality. According to Zhou rulers, if the prince can behave morally, protecting the people, the people will voluntarily obey him and the heaven will forever trust him with the power to govern.30
All these teachings reveal a couple of key points for our understanding of legitimacy. First, as early as the Shang Dynasty, legitimacy was a big concern for the rulers. Second, legitimacy comes from the mandate of heaven, and the mandate of heaven comes from the morality of the rulers. In order to maintain the mandate of heaven, the rulers have to maintain their morality. This is a crucial connection between the right to rule and the morality of the rulers. As the highest ruler, the emperor was expected to be the top moral example for all his subjects. Moreover, all his officials have to be morally upright as well. While the Chinese invented the merit-based civil service examination system to select government officials, moral standards have always been the top criterion for recruitment.
Confucius was not the one who first created the concept of “the mandate of heaven” or morality as the basis for it, but he, and Mencius, are the ones who developed these ideas into systematic teachings. He elaborated that the concept of a good government was fundamentally a matter of morality. He did not question the hereditary right of the emperors to rule, but he insisted that their first duty was to set a proper example of sound moral conduct. In the Confucian scheme the ruler was to be a role model for moral behavior, displaying benevolence, filial piety, faithfulness, courtesy, integrity and frugality. If an emperor does not behave himself, he cannot expect his people to behave themselves, because it is like pursuing a straight shadow with a curled body.32 In a time when might was right, Fairbank and Reischauer commented, it is remarkable that Confucius argued that the ruler’s virtue and the contentment of the people, rather than power, should be the true measures of political success.
With morality becoming the justification of political power, the political and moral orders are inevitably intertwined. The state—the political authority—has also become the undisputed moral authority. Politics is moralized. As a result, any political criticism inevitably became moral criticism.34 The personal morality of the politicians becomes a public matter. Politics is filled with charges and counter-charges of corruption—a typical characteristic of immorality.
If a ruler was considered to have lost his virtue, then he also lost the mandate to rule, and a revolutionary moment would come. The perceived lack of morality would be vital to the regime survival. John Fairbank once characterized Chinese history as a series of dynastic cycles, with new dynasties replacing the old ones every several hundred years.36 Most of these replace-ments were accomplished through large-scale peasant rebellions. In all these occurrences, the doomed emperors were accused of being ruthless, fatuous, rotten and ultimately lacking in virtue.