T'ien Ming

When the Chou defeated the Shang in 1115 B.C. and began one of the longest dynasties in Chinese history (1115-221 B.C.), they were faced with the problem most usurpers faced when instituting a new government: how do you convince people that you are the proper people for the job of governing? This problem of legitimation is compounded by the fact that the authority is gained through conquest, which means that anyone with an army can legitimately take power, which means that people with armies start getting ideas as happened in Rome between 170-270 A. D. The Chou developed a political theory to justify their conquest and their usurpation of the emperorship in a doctrine called t'ien ming, or the "mandate" or "decree of Heaven."

In its early form, this political theory asserted that Heaven, T'ien , was primarily interested in the welfare of human beings. For this reason it has established governors and rulers who assume the responsibility for the welfare of their people. It mandates that certain people be in charge; while they rule justly, fairly, and wisely, Heaven maintains that certain rulers or dynasties remain in power. If a dynasty or ruler ceases to rule justly or wisely and begins to rule only with its own self-interests at heart, then Heaven removes the mandate from that ruler or mandate and passes it on to another family, who are then required to revolt and overthrow the dynasty. How does one know if the Mandate has passed to another dynasty? It is made evident by the fortunes of war.

Now this Mandate is not equivalent to fate or destiny, it is more of an imperative. Humans are free to rule unjustly, they are free to harm the people they rule over; their rule, however, will come to a swift end as Heaven passes on its mandate to another family.

Eventually this concept would gain a wider application in ancient China. By Confucius' time, the t'ien ming applied to everyone and their obligations to see to the welfare of the people they are related to. The Mandate of Heaven, through which Heaven worked out its efforts to guarantee the well-being of humanity, applied to each and every obligation and action one took and so represented what might be called the moral order of the universe. Allied with this idea was the concept ming, or destiny. Heaven also ruled the physical world: earthquakes, sickness, wealth, rain, etc, but it ruled the physical world directly. All things that happen in the physical world are the direct result of Heaven's actions and are completely out of human control. The proper venue for human action, then, is in the realm of t'ien ming . These two concepts, t'ien ming , or the moral order of the universe, and ming , or the physical order of the universe, combined make the Tao, or "Way" of Heaven.