Mandate of Heaven

(ca. 475–221 BCE)

Context

The Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1045–256 BCE) is divided in two periods: the Western Zhou (ca. 1045–771 BCE), the era in which the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was formulated, and the Eastern Zhou (770–256 BCE). The historian and scribe Sima Qian (ca. 145–87 BCE) wrote in his classic history the Shi ji (Records of the Grand Historian) that the Zhou Dynasty came to free the suffering people from Shang tyrants. King Zhou (also known as King Wen) was a model of virtue. He provoked the envy of the last Shang ruler, who imprisoned him. When King Wen died in prison, his son King Wu attacked the Shang and defeated them in the Battle of Muye (ca. 1046/1045 BCE).

The transfer of leadership from the Shang Dynasty to the Zhou Dynasty marked a change not only in government but also in concepts of the divine. The Shang worshipped the Shang Di (supreme emperor), from whom they believed themselves to descend. The Zhou Dynasty continued to worship the same divine being but introduced a new...