Mandate of Heaven

(ca. 475–221 BCE)

The Mandate of Heaven is a key concept of Chinese political culture. Thought to have been formulated during the Western Zhou Dynasty, the notion of tianming (“heavenly will” or “heavenly mandate”) has been used across the centuries to legitimate power, whether in imperial, republican, or Communist China, from 221 BCE to the present day. According to Chinese tradition, the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was laid out for the first time in the Shang shu (traditionally dated between 1766 and 1122 BCE). This text, whose title rendered into English is “Venerated Documents” (or “Ancient Documents”), is one of the earliest Chinese collections of historical fragments—writings spanning seven centuries but with considerable lapses in the chronology. The work is also known as Shu jing (Classic of Documents), commonly rendered in English as the “Book of History” or “Classic of History.” It is recognized as perhaps the most important extant work for the study of ancient Chinese...