China and the Mandate of Heaven: The Right to Overthrow Morally Unfit Rulers

Episode 6: The Zhou and the Mandate of Heaven

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

In 1046 AD Wu, the first Zhou king, overthrew the Shang Dynasty with the help of vassal states fed up with paying tribute to corrupt kings. The longest ruling dynasty (1046-256 BC), the Zhou also introduced China’s longstanding “Mandate of Heaven.” Under the Mandate of Heaven, rebel leaders asserted the god-given right to seize power from leaders who became morally unfit to rule.

The Zhou dynasty is known for fair and humane rule of their subjects. Greatly expanding the territory they inherited from the Shang, they allowed vassal kings to pay tribute and continued ruling in territories the Zhou military had conquered.

During their first century of rule, the Zhou kings worshiped the Shang gods (Di and his vassal gods), but later focused more on worshiping ancestors and nature gods. Human sacrifice significantly decreased under the Zhou and was more likely to be voluntary.

Instead of using oracle bones to make policy decisions, the Zhou used the I-Ching (Book of Changes), which became the core of Eastern philosophy over the next 3,000 years.

After 300 years, the Zhou kingdom splintered into warring states as vassals became more distantly related to the king and ruled more independently. By the 8th century BC China had broken into 150 warring kingdoms, with warlords holding the real power and the Zhou kings being mere puppets. Some Chinese warlords engaged steppes nomads as mercenaries, and Sun Tzu’s famous Art of War was written during these civil wars.

Driven by the search for more lethal weapons, iron (used for lethal iron bolts fired from crossbows) was discovered during the late Zhou Dynasty. This, in turn, led to the invention the iron-tipped plow, which substantially increased both food production and population growth.

Under the Zhou, a wealthy middle class emerged, with rich merchants able to buy land for the first time, whereas previously it could only be inherited or gifted by the king.

During the Warring States period (480 – 256 BC) 150 warring states became a handful of mega-states. By the late 4th century, the Qin ruled the most powerful kingdom. They would depose the last Zhou king in 256 BC, installing the first true “emperor” of a unified China.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

3 thoughts on “China and the Mandate of Heaven: The Right to Overthrow Morally Unfit Rulers

  1. Pingback: Great Ideas of the Zhou: Confuscianism | The Most Revolutionary Act

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