What is Heaven’s Mandate in Confucius’ Teachings?

Heaven’s Mandate is a fundamental concept in Chinese intellectual and cultural history (1). 

The earliest mention of Heaven’s Mandate is in the literature of the Western Zhou (ca. 1045‐770 BCE) after which it permeated almost all texts in the Spring Autumn and Warring States period of 770 to 221 BCE. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE ‐ 220 CE), Heaven’s Mandate become a fundamental concept in Chinese intellectual and cultural history as it permeated all dimensions of religion, philosophy, polity, literature, society, and daily life.

The term “tianming” (Heaven’s Mandate) occurs frequently in the earliest parts of the Shangshu (Book of Documents) and Shijing (Classic of Poetry). It also appears in many Western Zhou bronze inscriptions. According to these sources, the “mandate of heaven” was granted to King Wen of Zhou (1152-1050 BCE) to sanction the divine legitimacy of Zhou’s conquest of the Shang dynasty. 

Heaven’s Mandate was gradually extended from King Wen to other members of the ruling class and eventually to ordinary people (2). This is apparent in the Shijing’s description of Heaven’s Mandate as the source that generates people and grants them moral principles and virtues. There is a sense of omniscience ascribed to Heaven as it cannot be hidden from and is capable of understanding anything it chooses to understand. 

According to the Analects, the great Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BCE) considered himself to be selected by Heaven to play a special role,

When the Master was in danger in the state of Kuang, he said, “King Wen is dead, but his patterns live on here in me, do they not? If Tian wished these patterns to perish, I would not have been able to partake of them. Since Tian has not destroyed these patterns, what harm can the people of Kuang do to me? (9.5)

Heaven recognized Confucius,

The Master said, “No one recognizes me!” Zigong said, “How is it that this is so?” The Master said, “I do not complain against Tian, nor do I blame men. I study what is lowly and so get through to what is exalted. Is it not Tian who recognizes me?” (14.35)

Confucius’ role was the realization of a just, peaceful, harmonious, and flourishing society, as well as to preserve, codify, and propagate the Dao or Way to enable people to achieve this end (3).

When one is faced with inexplicable events, Confucius says not to complain against Heaven or blame others. Rather, with complete confidence that Heaven works for the best, one is to carry on in his pursuit and propagation of the Dao.

Because Heaven reveals its will through deeds and not through verbal commands,

“The Master said, “I wish to be word-less.” Zigong said, “If you never spoke, then what would we disciples have to pass on? The Master said, “Does Tian speak? Yet the seasons turn and the creatures of the world are born. Does Tian speak?” (17.19)

Major Interpretations of Heaven’s Mandate

Discussions regarding Heaven’s Mandate have been lively and there are three major interpretations based on the teachings of Confucius and Mencius (372-289 BCE), an influential Chinese philosopher who inherited Confucius’ ideas (4).

1. Mandate (or destiny) is viewed as normative commands and moral imperatives issued by Heaven (5). Emphasized is Heaven’s divine‐ethical authority and purposeful force or will that bestows a divine mission upon an individual, such as Confucius.

Confucius’ and Mencius’ view is voluntarist. The individual wields control over Mandate or destiny with his will, conduct, and virtue. Because Mandate embodies ethical duty‐rightness, one should practice duty‐rightness to realize one’s Mandate. Mandate can be changed through one’s self‐cultivation and action.

2. Mandate is viewed as descriptive, causal, and amoral fate, seeing Heaven in terms of naturalistic or mysterious forces. Confucius apparently struggled to come to terms with the uncertainty of Mandate or destiny (6). Heaven’s Mandate is also described as a capricious and inexplicable fate (7).

Relevant is that Confucius viewed the Mandate as fatalistic (8). The Mandate is predetermined, uncontrollable, and impossible to control or change. Holding this view, Confucius understood that much (governance, personal fortune, etc.) is beyond human control, although peace can be attained by knowing that one has done his best in a set of circumstances. 

3. The third view is a synthesis of the above two (9). Both Confucius and Mencius viewed Mandate or destiny as prescriptive‐ethical and descriptive‐amoral. To account for this variance, a two‐stage development notion of Confucius’ views has been described (10). Before middle age, Confucius viewed Heaven’s Mandate as Heaven’s will and the source of virtues. But when Confucius reached middle age, his view changed in response to uncertainty and amoral fate encountered in his personal experiences. 

Another interpretation is that although much of Confucius’ and Mencius’ thought concerning the Mandate is fatalistic, it is not completely so. There is also space for an individual’s ability to cultivate virtue. Heaven’s Mandate is both what “is not in his control as well as of what is his true sphere of autonomous action” (11).

References

1. Schwartz, B. 1985. The world of thought in ancient China. Harvard University Press.

2. Jia, Jinhua. 2021. “The classical Confucian conception of Heaven’s Mandate”. Philosophy Compass 16(22):1-12. p. 3.

3. Ivanhoe, Philip J. 2007. ”Heaven as a Source for Ethical Warrant in Early Confucianism.” Dao 6:211-220. p. 213.

4. Jia, Jinhua. 2021. Ibid. p. 3.

5. Jia, Jinhua. 2021. Ibid. p. 3.

6. Graham, Angus C. 1989. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical argument in ancient China. Open Court. p. 17.

7. Slingerland, Ted. 1996. “The conception of ming in early Confucian thought.” Philosophy East and West 46(4):567-581. p. 568.

8. Song, Yunwoo. 2019. The emergence of the notion of predetermined fate in early China.” Dao: A journal of comparative philosophy 18(4):509–529.

9. Jia, Jinhua. 2020. Ibid. p. 3.

10. Jia, Jinhua. 2020. Ibid. p. 3.

11. Schwartz, Benjamin. 1985. The world of thought in ancient China. Harvard University Press. p. 126-127, 288-290.

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