Ancient History & Civilisation

Part Four


Chapter Forty-Three

The Mandate of Heaven

Between 1040 and 918 BC, the Zhou kings of China come up with a justification for empire-building and discover its shortcomings

ALTHOUGH WU was the first Zhou king, Wen (who died before the final conquest of the Shang) very soon became the symbolic beginning of the new dynasty. Much later, Confucius would remark that although the music by which Emperor Wen celebrated his victories was perfectly beautiful and perfectly good, the victory music of the Emperor Wu “though perfectly beautiful, was not perfectly good.”1 Wu’s violent scouring of the Shang capital was a dangerous violation of the emperor’s divine authority.

No one wanted the Shang back, but Wu’s new dynasty had to be justified with care. At the start of his reign, Sima Qian tells us, Wu sacrificed to the heavens to make up for the misdeeds of the last Shang ruler; he “put aside shields and pole-axes, stored his weapons, and discharged his soldiers, to show to the world that he would no longer use them.”2 The resulting peace was intended to make up for the frenzy of his accession.

This was all very ethical, but also a practical necessity. To keep his throne, Wu would have to rule by influence and tact, not sheer force. The Shang king had been unable to fight off the united force of the feudal lords, and Wu also had to face facts: he ruled over a kingdom filled with strong personalities who would resent too autocratic a rule. Sima Qian refers to the “Lords of the Nine Lands”—noblemen who governed their own territories, while still owing loyalty to the king. But there were many more than nine lands; the Record of Rites, written several hundred years later, counts up a total of 1,763 separately governed territories at the beginning of the Zhou Period.1023

Inscriptions of gifts given and loyalties claimed seem to show a complicated pyramid-like structure with as many as five ranks of officials sloping down from the Zhou throne to a second rank of “enfeoffed” lords who had control of the states, through three more ranks of noblemen with decreasing territory and power.4

Many histories call these noblemen “feudal lords.” The Zhou king did possess some sort of claim to the whole country; he did not “own” China’s land, as a medieval feudal lord might, but he did claim the right to run it properly. This right of administration he granted to his noblemen, in exchange for their loyalty and (when necessary) military support. When a “lord” was “enfeoffed” by the king of the Zhou, he wasn’t given a gift of his land; instead he was given gifts as a symbol that the Zhou king had awarded him a portion of sacred authority. Most often, these gifts were bronze vessels with inscriptions. A gift of bronze symbolized both wealth and power: enough power to control the miners who dug the metal out of the earth, the craftsmen who cast it into shape, and the priests who inscribed it.5 The Zhou position at the top of the power ladder was represented by nine of these ceremonial vessels: the Nine Cauldrons, which resided in the Zhou capital city.

There’s a big difference between this sort of “feudal” relationship and the feudalism practiced in later times. For one thing, later feudal lords would claim actual possession of the land, not mere moral authority over it. Moral authority can disappear in an awful hurry. Wu himself leaned heavily on the justice of his court to prop up his power. “To secure Heaven’s protection,” he tells one of his younger brothers, not long after gaining the throne, “…we must single out the evil people and remove them….Day and night we must reward and comfort the people to secure our western land.”6 He also did his best to pay homage to the divine authority which the Shang had held before him. He did move his capital city to the double city of Feng and Hao, separated by the Fenghe river;103 but he appointed Chou’s own son, the deposed heir to the throne, as one of his subject lords, with authority over a vassal center of the old Shang domain. According to Sima Qian, this son, Lu-fu, was given the old capital city of Yin as his base, and put in charge of the surrounding area, because “Yin had just been pacified, and [the situation] was not yet settled.” Wu also detailed two of his younger brothers to “assist” the ex-prince; two watchdogs to make sure that Lu-fu behaved himself.7


43.1 The Western Zhou

As soon as Wu died, the shakiness of his authority became clear. His son was still young, and so his brother Tan took charge as regent. Almost at once, though, the two brothers who were supposed to be supervising Lu-fu organized an armed uprising in the middle of the old Shang territory. They intended to put Lu-fu back on the throne as their puppet-ruler.

Tan turned out the army in the name of the young king and overwhelmed the rebels with numbers. Lu-fu died in the fight, as did one of the brothers; and Tan then did his best to break up the remaining Shang resistance by deporting the obstinate Shang loyalists who lived around Yin to other parts of the empire.8 Granting any recognition to the divine authority of the Shang was simply too dangerous.

Ancient accounts tell us that, after seven years of regency, Tan willingly stepped down as regent and turned the reins of power over to the now-grown Ch’eng. Perhaps he actually did. On the other hand, this relinquishment of power goes even further towards solving the knotty problem of the Zhou rise to power. The young king Ch’eng held his power only because his father was a regicide. When Tan, a man praised across his entire country for both wisdom and virtue, willingly handed authority over to him, his power was shifted onto a different foundation.9 A virtuous man gives his power away only to a more virtuous man, and that man was Ch’eng.

Tan stayed on as one of the young king’s ministers. As the “Duke of Zhou,” he is credited with organizing the Chinese state into an efficient bureaucracy, perhaps for the first time. This organization involved the proper oversight of land, a tax system, appointments of officials, and other mundane details. But the Duke of Zhou’s most important job was the gathering together of all the ceremonies surrounding the royal court into a book of ritual. If the Zhou king was to rule without constantly using his army to whip rebels into shape, his divine authority needed to be clearly on view. The rituals that surrounded him would be the outward show of his moral authority, the visible shadow cast by his invisible right to rule.

With his power at the center of the kingdom established, Ch’eng now had to worry about the edges of it. No book of ritual was going to convince peoples who lived a day’s ride or more from the capital city that the Zhou king must be obeyed. That would have to be done by force.

The eastern side of his empire was, perhaps, the most worrying; the Shang remnant had been settled out there and needed to be watched. So the Duke of Zhou built a fortress to the east, in a strategic spot: it would dominate the Yellow river ford (which could be crossed by a hostile army) and protect the eastern approach to the Zhou capital.10 This fortress became the center of a new city: Loyang.104

Ch’eng then sent his brothers out to build similar centers of Zhou watchfulness along the other edges of his domain. This had the additional advantage of getting them out of the capital and away from any temptation to steal his crown. As a result, the outer ring of the Zhou kingdom became a set of Zhou colonies, each ruled by a royal relative. The largest were at Jin, Wey, Lu, Qi, and Yen (the original city of the ancient Yen colony lay at the modern site of Peking).

Ch’eng fought a continual battle to keep the edges of his empire safe against the tribes who lived beyond his borders and did not recognize his authority. But he was careful to connect this use of force to his divine right to rule. “Heaven’s mandate is not to be presumed upon,” he tells his followers, as he prepares for another campaign of conquest against the east; he may have been granted the right to rule because of his virtue, but heaven did not expect him to relax and wait for everyone to recognize it. He is the first Chinese king, so far as we know, to use the phrase “Mandate of Heaven.”11 The Mandate of Heaven gave Ch’eng the right to take up arms; his success in battle demonstrated the reality of the Mandate of Heaven. It is a sort of circular reasoning that we have seen before.

CH’ENG DIED around 996 BC, after a thirty-year rule; his son K’ang took the throne.

Under King K’ang’s chief general, the northern edge of the kingdom was pushed farther out. The Zhou army marched against a northern tribe known as the Guifang and subjugated them by force. “I captured 13,081 men,” the general boasted, “along with horses, thirty chariots, 355 oxen and thirty-eight sheep.”12

If this sounds more like an Assyrian boast than anything we have heard so far, it is; out on the edges of the empire, the Mandate of Heaven had to be backed up with armed troops. K’ang’s son Zhao, who came to the throne around 977, followed his father’s example and planned another campaign of expansion, this one to the south. Apparently he was encouraged in this by a comet, which seemed a fortunate portent.

But the comet was deceptive. “His six armies were lost,” the Bamboo Annals tell us, “and the king died.”13 Sima Qian’s account is a little more circumspect: “In the time of King Zhao, the kingly way of government diminished,” he writes. “King Zhao took an inspection tour to the south and did not return.…His death was not announced to the feudal lords; it was forbidden to speak of it. They enthroned King Zhao’s son.”14 This is hardly surprising; Zhao’s death suggested that he had not been protected by the Mandate of Heaven after all, and it was best to conceal this from his subject lords.

With the “six armies” (the primary royal army, stationed in the capital) wiped out, Zhao’s son Mu soon discovered that he would have to redefine the Mandate in order to hold onto it at all. When he began to plan to use his remaining forces against another northern tribe, the Chuan-Jung, his noblemen remonstrated with him. The Mandate of Heaven did not stretch quite that far out, Mu was told. As a matter of fact, he should look at his empire as an onion with five rings: “Within the kingdom is the supply domain,” the nobleman tells him; “just outside the supply domain is the warning domain; outside that is the subordinated domain; then the reinforcing domain; and then the wild domain.”15

Each one of these domains had a decreasing responsibility to recognize the Mandate, a responsibility mirrored in the kinds of sacrifices sent to the capital city by the inhabitants of each. The central domain, the “supply domain,” was expected to offer daily sacrifices, the warning domain monthly sacrifices, the subordinated domain seasonal sacrifices. The two outer rings of the kingdom had even less responsibility. Neither offered sacrifices. The reinforcing domain paid tribute once a year; the wild domain did homage only once for each king—at the king’s funeral. The Chuan-Jung were out in the wild domain, and the Mandate did not dictate that they be treated in the same way as the peoples at the center of the kingdom. Attacking them was bound to be fruitless.

Mu took this to heart and “pacified” the Chuan-Jung; instead of campaigning against them, he made a royal journey north and brought back gifts: “four white wolves and four white deer.” But there is a sting in the tail of this story: “From this time on,” Sima Qian ends up, “those in the wild domain stopped coming to pay homage.”16

The circular reasoning of the Mandate had come back and wound itself around Mu’s feet. The Mandate justified war; the king had a sacred responsibility to protect his divinely granted powers. But defeat in battle cast doubt on the Mandate itself. In order to preserve it, the monarch could only go to war with the absolute certainty that he would win. He had strengthened his power at the center of his kingdom, where his court performed daily rituals that recognized his hallowed status; but only at the cost of perforating the edges of his empire until they tore away.


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