The Mandate of Heaven is the right to rule claimed by ancient Chinese rulers and supposedly bestowed by heaven (天; Tian). The Mandate of Heaven postulates that heaven would bless the authority of a just ruler, as defined by the Five Confucian Relationships, but would be displeased with a despotic ruler and would withdraw its mandate, leading to the overthrow of that ruler. The Mandate of Heaven would then transfer to those who would rule best. The fact that a ruler was overthrown was taken by itself as indication that he had lost the Mandate of Heaven.
The Mandate of Heaven does not require that a legitimate ruler be of noble birth, and dynasties were often founded by people of common birth (such as the Han dynasty and Ming dynasty). The concept of the Mandate of Heaven was first used to support the rule of the kings of the Zhou Dynasty, and their overthrow of the earlier Shang dynasty. It was used throughout the history of China to support the rule of the Emperors of China, including ‘foreign’ (i.e. of non-Han ethnicity) dynasties such as the Qing Dynasty.
The Mandate of Heaven was a well-accepted and popular idea among the people of China, since it argues for the removal of incompetent or despotic rulers, and provided an incentive for rulers to rule well and justly. The concept was often invoked by philosophers and scholars in ancient China as a way to curtail the abuse of power by the ruler, in a system that otherwise offered little other checks to this power. The Mandate of Heaven had no time limitations, instead depending on the just and able performance of the ruler. Throughout the history of China, times of poverty and natural disasters were often taken as signs that heaven considered the incumbent ruler unjust and thus in need of replacement..
-Wikipedia on Mandate of Heaven
As much as I am a self-loathing Chinese, there is one thing I like about my own Chinese culture which I regret we have lost and it is this concept of the “mandate of heaven”. In the words of Alexander Pope,
For forms of Government let fools contest.
Whate’er is best administered is best.
Thus, I don’t care about human rights, democracy, equality or freedom or solidarity or whatever. Forms and procedures of governments are subject to competence. Whatever is administered competently is best. Competency and empirical well-being alone grants legitimacy to any government, not idealistic or ideological justifications of “democracy” or whatever. This is why natural disasters are also considered to be tell-tale signs of the withdrawal of the Mandate of Heaven, because natural disasters, quite literally, take away and damage the material and empirical well-being of an empire, thereby weakening its legitimacy, etc.
And I guess this is why, as a Chinese, I can so easily accept foreign imperial rulers. After all, we didn’t care whether or not the Yuan Dynasty or Qin Dynasty were foreigners. We only care whether or not they were competent and effective rulers. Why should we treat the British or Western imperialists any differently? If they are competent rulers, able to bring about peace and order and prosperity, what do we care about what race they are from?
I suppose this explains my Anglophilia as well. The English and Chinese share a common culture of empirical pragmatism, which is why both cultures ran some of the most successful empires in history.
I often like to identify the English with the Chinese and the Japanese with the Germans. Like the English, the Chinese are pragmatic with the downside of the tendency towards commercial merchantalism. Like the Germans, the Japanese are insanely orderly and industrious people. But unfortunately like the Germans, the Japanese make very bad imperial rulers…