The Mandate of Heaven (天命 Pinyin: Tiānmìng) was a Chinese concept used to support the rule of the kings of the Zhou Dynasty and later the Emperors of China. The concept of the Mandate of Heaven was based on the blessing of Heaven and that if a king ruled unwisely, Heaven would be displeased and would give the Mandate to someone else. It is first found discussed in writings recording the words of the Duke of Zhou, younger brother of King Wu of Zhou and regent for King Wu's infant son King Cheng of Zhou, and he is usually considered to be its first proponent.
The Shang dynasty had ruled because of family connections to divine power—their founders had been deities, and their ancestors went to join them in Heaven. Heaven was very active and interfering, in mysterious ways, in earthly rule, as is shown by the divination texts preserved from the later part of the Shang dynasty, the oracle bones. The Mandate of Heaven theory may be thought of as changing this familial connection to a feudal one—the world was now a fief, held at Heaven's pleasure, which could and would be reassigned if the holder misbehaved.
The concept was first used by the Zhou dynasty to justify their overthrow of the Shang dynasty and was used by many succeeding dynasties to justify their rule. One consequence of the idea of the Mandate of Heaven was that it was not necessary for a person to be of noble birth to lead a revolt and become a legitimate emperor, and in fact a number of dynasties such as the Han dynasty and Ming dynasty were founded by persons of modest birth.
With the idea of the Mandate of Heaven there was no time limitations. It was a performance standard. The Duke of Zhou explained the Mandate to the people of the Shang dynasty, that if their king had not been so mean, his Mandate would not have been taken away. Eventually, as Chinese political ideas developed further, the Mandate was linked to the notion of dynastic cycle in which a dynasty started strong and vigourously but gradually would succumb to immorality and be replaced by a new stronger dynasty. The notion of the Mandate of Heaven was also invoked by Mencius.
The idea was different from the European notion of Divine Right of Kings in that it legitimized the overthrow of a dynasty and it also put limits on the behavior of the emperor. If the emperor ruled unwisely or failed to perform the proper rituals, the emperor could lose the Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown. On the other hand, it also promoted "might is right" ideas, since any successful dynastic founder was considered to have the Mandate by virtue of his success, and any failed ruler was considered to have lost it, no matter how great his personal virtue. It also encouraged both Chinese unity and a disdainful attitude towards the outside world, since there was only one Mandate, and so only one true ruler of humankind—the Emperor of China. These attitudes made it very difficult for Chinese court officials in the Qing dynasty to understand the European multi-state system.
"Mandate of Heaven" was also the very first era name of the Qing Empire.