The Mandate of Heaven

By what right does any person or group rule over any other? Or any dynasty? I thought it worth taking a brief look at China, with the help of historian Michael Wood. See also my next post.

Chinese emperors as far back as the Western Zhou, circa 1000 years BC, governed under a ‘Mandate of Heaven’, linked to a specific astronomical event, a rare five-planetary conjunction that occurs every four or hundred years. A king who acted tyrannically would arouse the displeasure of heaven, disturbing cosmic harmony.

So was born the notion of the sage-king, preserved in our time in the person of Mao, and now Xi Jinping. Challenging that notion in the 19th century were the very down-to-earth British, who speeded the decline of empire in their demand for trading rights. Sea power and weaponry ensured victory in the Opium Wars and humiliation for the empire after the Boxer Rebellion.

Wood’s splendid book, ‘The Story of China’, draws on his remarkable TV series of that name, and provides as close as any history can a visual sense of China as it changed – towns and cities achieving unmatched levels of prosperity and civilisation only to collapse before barbarian invaders – over four millennia.

At the heart of the story lies Confucius, still the great sage as he has been for 2500 years. For Confucius the ideal ruler must be humane and learned. ‘Chinese thought, it may be said, has revolved around two central questions, the harmony of the universe, and the harmony of society, cosmology and politics.’ (I’m quoting from Wood’s book.)

‘As for the role of the intellectual, the key was to determine the Way (dao). When the Way is lost, the sage has a moral duty, above all else, to reform society, to set the away back on track, to define the tradition and advise the prince.’

We have no sage, no Confucius. But we did have Socrates, and indeed Plato, who shared with Confucius the ideal of power vested in a wise ruler, a philosopher king. Karl Popper in the aftermath of World War Two (‘The Open Society and its Enemies’) made clear how damaging that notion has been in the West, and we see in too many countries how dangerous it still is. ‘Wise rule’ descends into tyranny.

Comparisons between China and the West can be instructive. But any presumption on the part of a Westerner that he or she understands China is foolish. We have no notion of a ‘mandate of heaven’, now vested in the Chinese Communist Party, woven into our national psyche. Our ‘mandate’ has to be our democracy, and specifically our parliamentary democracy.

We are the ‘barbarians’ at the gates of China, and they at ours (‘ours’ being the West, broadly defined). Is it too alarmist to say that only one can prevail?

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