Mandate of Heaven

Joern Peter Grundmann

Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingEntry for encyclopedia/dictionarypeer-review


The Mandate of Heaven (tianming 天命) is perhaps the most prominent feature in early Chinese intellectual history. Initially associated with a rhetorical claim to legitimize the Zhou conquest over the Shang, the idea soon developed into a moral theory of history, retrospectively explaining the in part mythological change of ruling houses from Xia, Shang to Zhou in terms of a shift of Heaven's Mandate, caused by ritual excess and moral failures in those who lost it and by moral excellence paired with ritual restraint in those who were about to receive it. Moreover, with its pronounced decoupling of the notion of a high god from the exclusive, quasi-genealogical access of one particular ruling lineage and its ancestral spirits, the idea of a universal, incorruptible theopolitical mandate heralded the distinction between transcendence and world-immanence in early Chinese thought. Whereas the concept was combined with ideas of cosmic cycles, heavenly decreed fate, and even human nature in subsequent centuries after the end of the Western Zhou period, the originally moral notion of the Heavenly Mandate continued to constitute the chief ideological context for the legitimation of dynastic change and royal authority throughout pre-imperial and imperial times.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Encyclopedia of Ancient History
Subtitle of host publicationAsia and Africa
EditorsDaniel T. Potts, Jason Neelis, Roderick James Mcintosh, Ethan Harkness
ISBN (Electronic)9781119399919
Publication statusPublished - 29 Dec 2021


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