The Mandate of Heaven had no time limitations, but instead depended on the just performance of the ruler. The Mandate does not require that a legitimate emperor be of noble birth, and in fact, dynasties were often founded by people of modest birth . The concept of the Mandate of Heaven was first used to support the rule of the of the Zhou Dynasty and later the Emperors of China. ''"Mandate of Heaven"'' was also the first era name of the Qing Dynasty.
The concept is first found in the written records of the words of the Duke of Zhou, younger brother of King Wu of Zhou and regent for King Wu's infant son King Cheng of Zhou. He is considered by many to have been the originator of the idea. The notion of the Mandate of Heaven was later invoked by Mencius, a very influential Chinese philosopher sage, considered as the second greatest philosopher sage next to Confucius.
The Mandate of Heaven was first used by the Zhou Dynasty to justify their overthrow of the Shang Dynasty and would be used by many succeeding dynasties to come. The Duke of Zhou explained to the people of Shang, that if their king had not misused his power, his Mandate would not have been taken away. Eventually, as Chinese political ideas developed further, the Mandate was linked to the notion of the dynastic cycle. Severe floods or famines were considered evidence of divine repeal of the Mandate of Heaven.
The Shang had legitimized their rule by family connections to divine power. The Shang believed that their founders were deities, and their descendants went to join them in Heaven. As shown by the divination texts preserved on oracle bones from the later Shang, Heaven was thought to be very active and interfered in mysterious ways with earthly rule. The Mandate of Heaven changed the right to rule from divine legitimization to one based on just rule.
Although the Mandate had no time limitation, it held rulers to a clear standard. Over the passage of time, there would inevitably arise a ruler that would cause Heaven to withdraw its Mandate. As the Mandate of Heaven emphasized the performance of the ruler, the social background of the ruler became less important. Historical documents found in ancient China stated that a legitimate ruler could come from any spectrum of the society. The Zhou said that the Xia Dynasty had existed long before the Shang, and that they too were overthrown by the Mandate. This would have given the Zhou the same right to overthrow the Shang. However, there is no concrete evidence for the existence of the Xia, and it is believed by many that the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was created by the Zhou.
Transition between the Shang and the Zhou
The Shang Dynasty had its prosperous times filled with many outstanding accomplishments. Notably, the dynasty lasted for a considerable amount of years in which 31 Kings ruled over an extended period of 17 generations. During this period, the dynasty was able to enjoy a period of peace and tranquility in which jobs were commonly available for citizens. The government was able to control most of its internal affairs due to the firm support provided by the people. Among many of its accomplishments, they were noted primarily for of wealth on wine, women, and tyranny. This abuse of the other social classes consequently led to an upheaval in the dynasty. The corruption in this dynasty mandated the need for a new ruler. This inevitably gave rise to the Zhou Dynasty. Led by Zhou Wu, as the will of heaven, they believed that the Shang were morally implacable because of their degenerated moral standards, therefore, entitling them to overthrow the Shang Dynasty because it was a mandate given by Heaven.
After the Zhou gained control of the dynasty, they instituted mostly their own officials. However, in order to appease some of the citizens, they allowed some of the Shang beneficiaries to continue governing the small Kingdoms in which they had been governing but in compliance with the Zhou rules and regulations. As the empire continued to expand, much intermarriage became eminent. This was done because the rulers believed that it was a method of forming strong allies that enabled them to absorb more countries into the dynasty. In case of a war, the Zhou Dynasty boasted an excellent military and technology mostly because of influence from annexed countries. They also excelled in shipbuilding, which made them excellent mariners because of their discovery of navigating their ships to a precise destination by using the stars as their guide. Intellectually, the Zhou excelled in fields of literature and philosophy. Many governmental positions were dictated around the intellectual ability of a candidate. Many of the literature from the Zhou period included the Book of Changes, , Book Etiquettes, Book of Song, Book of Odes, and the Book of Rites. Most of these literatures observed the progress and political movement of the dynasty. In philosophical terms, Confucius and his followers played an important role in shaping the mentality of the government. These critical thinkers served as a foundation for the government. Their works primarily stressed the importance of the ruling class, respect and their relationship with the lower class. Due to the growing size of the dynasty, it became apparent that a centralized government would lead to a lot of confusion and corruption because the government would not be able to exert its influence or compromise the needs of everyone. To address this political barrier, the dynasty formed a decentralized government in which the empire was broken down into sections. Within these districts were administrators who were appointed by the government, in return, they had to maintain their allegiance to the main internal government. In effect, the Zhou dynasty became a collection of districts. Consequently this marked the fall of the dynasty as it became difficult for the central government to exert influence on all other regions of the empire.
Finally, after the Zhou dynasty became less powerful, it was then wiped out by the Qin because they believed that the Zhou became unfit in ruling. This transition emphasizes the customary trend of Mandate of Heaven which provided leeway for the rise of new power. The Qin initially attempted to capitalize on the mistakes/errors made by the Zhou, by either eliminating the source of error or reforming it. During this reformation, administrative changes were made and a system of legalism was developed which stated that the law is supreme over every individual, including the rulers. Although significant progress was made during the Qin Dynasty, however, the persecution of scholars and ordinary citizens led to an unstable state.
After the death of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi of the Qin dynasty, a widespread revolt by prisoners, peasants, and unhappy soldiers inevitably led to the fall of the Qin Dynasty due to its tyrannical practices. The establishment of the Han Dynasty marked a great period in China’s history. This period was marked by significant changes in the political structure of China. During the Han dynasty, significant changes were made in which the government introduced entrance examinations known as civil service examinations for governmental positions. Additionally, the Han dynasty prospered economically through the Silk Road and other trading means. Throughout the reign of the Han Dynasty, the wealthy elites and the peasants benefited from the wise decisions made by the brilliant minds of the dynasty.
The Five Dynasties Period
During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, there was no dominant Chinese dynasty that ruled all of China. This created a problem for the Song Dynasty that followed, as they wanted to legitimize their rule by claiming that the Mandate of Heaven had passed on them. The scholar-official Xue Juzheng compiled the ''Five Dynasties History'' during the 960s and 970s, after the Song Dynasty had taken northern China from the last of the , the Later Zhou Dynasty. A major purpose was to establish justification for the transference of the Mandate of Heaven through these five dynasties, and thus to the Song Dynasty. He argued that these dynasties met certain vital criteria to be considered as having attained the Mandate of Heaven despite never having ruled all of China. One is that they all ruled the traditional Chinese heartland. They also held considerably more territory than any of the other Chinese states that had existed conterminously in the south.
However, there were certain other areas where these dynasties all clearly fell short. The brutal behavior of and the Later Liang Dynasty was a source of considerable embarrassment, and thus there was pressure to exclude them from the Mandate. The following three dynasties, the , , and were all non-Han Chinese dynasties, all having been ruled by the non-Chinese Shatuo Turks. There is also the concern that though each of them was the most powerful Chinese kingdom of its respective era, none of them ever really had the ability to unify the entire Chinese realm as there were several powerful states to the south. However, it was the conclusion of Xue Juzheng that the Mandate had indeed passed through each of the Five Dynasties, and thus onto the Song Dynasty when it conquered the last of those dynasties.
Divine right in other countries
The Mandate of Heaven is similar to the European notion of the Divine Right of Kings. Both sought to legitimize rule from divine approval. However, Divine Right of Kings granted unconditional legitimacy, whereas the Mandate of Heaven was conditional on just behavior of the ruler. Revolution is never legitimate under the Divine Right of Kings, but the philosophy of the Mandate of Heaven approved of the overthrow of unjust rulers. Chinese historians interpreted a successful revolt as evidence that the Mandate of Heaven had passed. In China, the right of rebellion against an unjust ruler has been a part of political philosophy ever since the Zhou dynasty, and a successful rebellion was understood as evidence of divine approval.
In the East Asian countries that drew much of their political philosophy from ancient China, the concept of a divine political legitimacy that is conditional and could be withdrawn was ideologically problematic. In Japan this problem was obviated because the Imperial House of Japan claimed to be descended in an unbroken line from the Japanese , Amaterasu. Nevertheless, while maintaining his role as a divine descendant and high priest of state, the Japanese emperor became politically marginalized in the Nara and Heian periods by powerful regents of the Fujiwara clan who seized executive control of state. Even though the Japanese imperial line itself remained unbroken after the eighth century, actual political authority passed through successive dynasties of regents and shoguns which cycled in a manner similar to that of Chinese dynasties. Even after the Meiji restoration in 1868, when the emperor was placed back in the center of the political bureaucracy, the throne itself had very little power vis-à-vis the Meiji oligarchy. Actual political power has passed through at least four systems since the Meiji restoration: the Taisho democracy, the , the Occupation of Japan, and . The emperor today is a political figurehead and not a ruling sovereign. It could be said the imperial line of Japan survived for so long precisely because it did not have control over the state, and that the turmoil of succession was projected onto a series of proxy rulers.