The Mandate of Heaven
In this post, I will provide a brief primer about the concept of the Mandate of Heaven in ancient China. Beyond merely teaching something about what I know, my hope is that it will generate discussion about similar concepts--whether they be viewed as propaganda, rituals, legitimizing techniques, etc.--at different times and places, particularly in but not restricted to contemporary American politics. Consider what animates notions of the Mandate in our own culture. When a party says they have won the Mandate, to what external authority or factors are they appealing? The People? My Higher Father? What? Are there any signs? How are different media used to promote this vision? What is the origin of the Mandate in the American context?
Throughout Chinese history there were two applications--really two sides of the same coin--of the concept known as the Mandate of Heaven as a politico-religious legitimating device. On the one hand, it was used in a historiographical sense as a means to explain why events happened the way they did, and as such asserted the claims of a specific dynastic line over another. In this manifestation, one group or individual already held power; the mandate then became a later rationalization of how that group or individual came to possess such power and why others did not. Yes, it was Heaven who authorized our rule, which flows directly from on high. The previous dynasty had lost the Mandate because their last king had become corrupt.
This ex post facto rationalization, which became the model of development and decay for every successive dynasty, was, if we are to believe traditional scholarship, the earliest use of the Mandate. The Zhou ruling house had made this argument after they had led a rebellion against the Shang Dynasty in what is now believed to be 1045 BCE. The early Shang kings, so it was argued, had received the Mandate, but later kings lost it because of their devious ways. The last Shang king was so bad that Heaven authorized King Wu of the Zhou to lead an attack against him.
On the other hand, ministers, regional leaders, rebels, etc. could question the existing order, or at least the living embodiment of that order--the emperor himself--by appealing to the Mandate. Thus, a minister who felt that his ruler's behavior was out of line could argue that his actions were not in accord with the Mandate. Heaven always responded to the bad behavior of an emperor by revealing signs of disapproval: severe meteorological patterns (floods, droughts, famines) and socio-political disorder (rebellions). The Mandate, then, both served as a check on the Emperor's power and as a challenge to it.
Heaven also responded to imperial actions that were in line with the Mandate. Signs of approval often came in the form of weather that was conducive to a prosperous agricultural society, but sagely rule in tune with the Will of Heaven could also usher in a utopian age, a Great Peace, when All under Heaven (tianxia天下) was in harmony. Not only was there meteorological and socio-political harmony, but Heaven also revealed extraordinary omens, signals of approval--strange creatures, magnificent objects, Heavenly Beings and immortals, etc.
By the mid to late Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE)--the great formative period for discussions concerning the Mandate--as the centralized authority of the emperor gradually dissipated, regional leaders appeared who asserted links with Heaven by presenting objects that they supposedly discovered, usually at rivers or mountains. It began as advice to the court. People appeared at court claiming to have encountered divine emissaries who were sent by Heaven (or the Heavenly Sovereign) to deliver messages to the emperor in the capital. Increasingly, these messages came in the form of specific texts--evidence supporting the claims of rebellious, regional leaders.
I would love to go on with this historical discussion, but at this point I will shift focus to the question of how changing media are used in legitimating practices. One can only imagine--I know, a crazy thought--how things would have been different if the Han emperor had access to television. "Breaking News: A bizarre, multi-colored, two-headed bird has been discovered on the roof of the Whitehouse. I have never seen anything like this before! This must be evidence that the president has indeed won a mandate! Wow!"
Even the weather report would have echoed the same exact message: the Mandate. "Breaking News: The Emperor has completed his mourning ritual and purified himself completely. Magnificent ethers have emanated from his lips, causing the clouds to coalesce. A glorious spring rain is on its way. You know what that means."
Less crazy, one could think about how such media funtion in our own society. Now. Think of the centralized, top-down, corporate media. Think of photo-ops and the filter. Think of Wolf Blitzer eulogizing: "Bush shocks the world!" Think of Fox News.
Then think of the blogosphere and the future paradigm of de-centralized mediation, or in the words of Gary Hart:
Finally, the information revolution disintegrates old media and political structures. Virtually anyone in America today can organize his or her own individual information network tailored to his or her increasingly individual concerns. Nothing symbolizes this stunning fact more than the explosion of personal blog sites. Now everyone has opinions and a forum, the Internet, for expressing them. We are all consumers and producers of opinions if not also news. You can choose to focus your attention on defense and foreign policy, or fiscal and monetary policy, or health care and education, or the environment, or anyone of hundreds of individual areas of interest, or any collection of them. You don't have to adopt an entire party platform, in any case a kind of nineteenth century exercise that has become basically meaningless. You can write your own platform. You can be a party of one. And that is increasingly what millions of Americans are becoming.
No wonder some feel threatened. What I would add to Hart's comment is that this information revolution is not merely resulting in parties of one, that is, as atomized, isolated entities, but in new forms of connection, collaboration, and community-building.