The Mandate of Heaven: The Traditional Social Contract of China

 Creation of Lesser Gods is a Daoism edutainment, offering many stories of magical battles as well as history and moral lessons. The most important moral lesson of the story is the concept of the Mandate of Heaven (天命 tien ming: This word is also used in more general sense of Heaven's will.) Since the Zhou dynasty was a usurper, it had to somehow legitimatize the action. It did so by claiming the Mandate of Heaven, the notion that the supreme ruler earn or lose the Mandate to rule based upon his virtue or lack thereof. The idea goes like this. Heaven rules earth not directly, but through the "Son of Heaven," i.e., the Emperor. As Heaven rules through the Son of Heaven, his personal moral quality dictates the condition of the society ruled by him. A virtuous emperor ensures that people suffer no heavy tax burden, and therefore have no qualm with obeying the laws. Moreover, his virtue entices Heaven to be kind to earth so that the farmers would receive timely rain but suffer no flood or drought, which leads to general prosperity and peace.


According to this idea, the ideal political form is benevolent autocracy, which is not dissimilar to the modern Western idea of enlightened absolutism. The idea of the Mandate of Heaven, or Heaven’s control over the Chinese dynasties, was not only emphasized in the official historical records  but also adopted in the popular literature such as Creation of Lesser Gods, which, in turn, spread the idea further. 

The Mandate of Heaven, with its emphasis on ren of the ruler, sows a seed for rebellions. If the ideal ruler is to ensure the society’s prosperity through his virtue, adverse conditions such as severe flood, drought, or famine, which have been frequently recurring problems in China, are to be blamed upon the lack of virtue of the ruler. If the natural disasters devastate the country, the ruler has the obligation to amend the situation (offering famine and tax relief and so on). And if he fails to do so, the people consider it within their rights to rebel. The Mandate of Heaven, thus, functions as a kind of social contract. The rulers, not only the emperor but also local lords, are expected to show ren, or their love for the people, to ensure the mythical ideal state of the peaceful and prosperous world. If they fail to do so, the people have, at least theoretically, the right to remove the unworthy ruler.


Mencius, the Second Sage of Confucianism, clearly approved the elimination of unrighteous Zhou Wang (Mencius 1:2:8), a statement in the authoritative text hat made many Chinese emperors nervous. Many rebels in Chinese history did claim that they had the Mandate of Heaven to rebel. Two of Chinese dynasties were founded through this route. Liu Bang, the founder of the Han dynasty, started off as a peasant rebel warrior,  rose to the imperial throne, and ruled as Emperor Gao from 202 to 195 BCE. The founder of the Ming dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang (ruled as Hongwu Emperor 1368-1398) was also a peasant warrior who rose to the throne through his participation in the revolt against the Mongol rule.


 The human part of Creation of Lesser Gods unfolds according to the Mandate of Heaven's winner-takes-all view of history; the winner wins because he is virtuous, and the loser loses because he is immoral. Because of this underlying theme, Creation of Lesser Gods vilifies Zhou Wang and his concubine Daji to the hilt. Creation of Lesser Gods describes Zhou Wang as tyrant beyond any hope of redemption; his misdeeds were augmented by his concubine Daji who was a fox demon.  Many righteous men and women die as martyrs in this novel so as to prove that Zhou Wang’s lack of ren was irreversible, and that Zhou Wang had indeed lost the Mandate of Heaven and deserved to fall.

Such reassurance was necessary.  The Mandate of Heaven was a weighty issue, and not to be claimed lightly.  Even though Zhou Wang was clearly a tyrant, Wen Wang and Wu Wang of Zhou still needed Jiang Ziya's constant prodding and assurance that it was the heaven's will to usurp Zhou Wang.  Zhou Wang said to Minister Xia Zhou, "Since ancient times, subjects have no justification to kill their Lord."  When steeped in  that kind of social norm, usurping the emperor required an enormous amount of psychological energy from Wen Wang and Wu Wang.  (The American social psychologist Stanley Milgram documented in his breaching experiment in 1972 that the minor violation of social norm of asking for a seat on the New York  subway made his graduate students physically ill.)  Peasant revolutionaries, who were not as restricted by such social norms, had easier time claiming the Mandate of Heaven.

 Even though more muted in tone, official history books also follow the idea of the Mandate of Heaven and paint Zhou Wang as the most despicable tyrant. The most reliable historical record concerning the ancient China is Shiji by Sima Qian. According to Shiji, Zhou Wang was chosen to succeed the throne because his elder brother’s mother was lowly, while his mother was his father's  favorite consort.(Anal 3: 105) Shiji describes him as sharp and quick, and insightful. His physical prowess was such that he could fight off ferocious animals with his bare hands. Proud of his exceptional abilities, he was harsh toward his subjects, considering them beneath him. He was fond of wine and women. He loved Daji and would only listen to her words. (Anal 3:105).


             While it does report that Zhou Wang would only listen to Daji’s words, Shiji does not connect Daji to the invention of torture instrument such as pole burning. Shiji only reports that Zhou Wang used pole burning in order to control the lords. (Anal 3:106). Shiji says that his empress, the daughter of Lord Jiu, was not interested in debauchery, so that Zhou Wang got angry at her and killed her. Zhou Wang executed Lord Jiu and made his body chopped up. (Anal 3:106). Creation of Lesser Gods not only freely embellishes such deaths and makes martyrs out of them.


Shiji seems to blame some sort of hereditary psychotic trait for the fall of the Yin dynasty. Shiji reports that Zhou Wang’s grandfather, Emperor Wu-yi, exhibited some bizarre behavior. He had dolls made, called them heavenly gods, and gambled against them (with his servants operating the dolls). When “heavenly gods” lost, he ridiculed them. He made a leather pouch filled with blood, threw it up in the air, and shot at it with an arrow, claiming to be shooting at Heaven. He died struck by lightning during a hunt.  (Anal 3:104). Some historians caution that what we read in the history books should be taken with a grain of salt, because they were written to justify the Zhou dynasty’s usurpation of power.


Was Daji as evil an existence as Creation of Lesser Gods claims? When an emperor went astray, the blame was always first placed upon eunuchs and imperial consorts and concubines. There is even an idiom “the country-destroying beauty (傾城傾国)” to describe the power of beautiful women to corrupt the rulers. There were famous (or infamous) beauties in Chinese history who seduced kings and emperors away from their duties. Imperial consorts and concubines were, therefore, often the targets of harsh criticism. Just as we do not know for sure how bad a tyrant Zhou Wang was, we cannot know for sure how nasty Daji really was. However, in people’s remembered history, they are forever the worst tyrant and the evil concubine.


The Mandate of Heaven holds the Emperor as the sole guilty party for the state of the world. Common people are not ascribed the power to influence the overall state of the world. The solution to the human world’s problem, therefore, is revolution (革命), which is Changing the Name (of the dynasty). This precludes the possibility of apocalyptic violence  pursued recently by people such as Timothy MacVeigh, Asahara Shoko, and Osama Bin Laden. The pursuers of apocalyptic violence try to “cleanse” the world of supposed “impurities,” i.e., those who do not agree with their views, so as to usher in a new world order; they somehow expect that the like-minded would follow them with similar violence and transform the entire world. While the battle of Daoist deities in Creation of Lesser Gods has some cosmic implications, the prohibition of future battles among Daoist deities tucks the possibility of such catastrophic violence safely away into the realm of mythic past. The solution to the human world’s problem is thus sought in the realm of human politics.


This focus on the human world  makes martyrs in Creation of Lesser Gods very different from the Christian or Islamic martyrs. Martyrs in Creation of Lesser Gods do not die for the love of God. They die for the love of fellow human (ren). The martyrs in Creation of Lesser Gods died trying to make the human world regain the lost peace and prosperity that hangs on Zhou Wang’s ren.  


Humans can manifest different levels of moral qualities, depending upon the individuals' qualities and social stations. Those who in higher social stations are expected to hold higher moral standard, with the emperor’s ren expected to be the highest. Only those who held higher social status become martyrs in Creation of Lesser Gods.  This applies to men as well as to women.


The female martyrs in this novel behave and die at least as impressively as male martyrs. Being mindful of her responsibility as Mother of the Country, Empress Jiang tried to remonstrate with Zhou Wang in the same way as male ministers did. She also tried to control the fox Daji by using her authority as the mistress of the harem. When falsely accused of treason, she chose to suffer tortures to uphold her innocence. She acted as honorably and courageously as Minister Mei Bo who showed no fear of being burnt alive by the pole.

Jia Shi, the wife of Supreme Commander of Imperial Army Huang Feihu, chose to throw herself from the balcony to die in order to protect her and her husband’s honor. By doing so, she also protested Zhou Wang’s immoral behavior, just as Minister Jiao Ge did by throwing himself from the same balcony to protest Zhou Wang’s use of snake pit.


Western Empress Huang died a fighting death. As a woman of martial family, she had martial training. Learning was not always denied to Chinese women. Daughters of literati families commonly leaned at least basics of the classics by reciting, if not by reading and writing, and daughters of martial families learned martial skills as participants of their households’ business. Some women even left name in history as scholars, with the oldest example being Ban Zhou (c. 45 –c. 117) who served as the tutor of the imperial court ladies and completed Han Shu (History of Han) after her brother Ban Gu died without finishing it.

Western Empress struck a blow at Daji whom nobody else dared to touch. She even demanded that Zhou Wang pay for Jia Shi’s death by his own life. Empress Huang, because she was a woman and an Empress, could step beyond the boundary that any male minister could not cross. Empress Jiang, Empress Huang and Jia Shi, together with Minister Mei Bo, came back to haunt Zhou Wang in his last moments, still raging at this imbecile emperor.


Eastern Empress Yang chose a form of passive aggressive martyrdom by hanging herself, thus quietly demonstrating the depth of her despair at Zhou Wang. Though this type of passive aggressive suicide as protest is rather rare in America, during the Vietnam War era, three committed self-immolation as protest against the war’s cruelty. The most famous is the Quaker Norman Morrison, who died aflame on November 2, 1965, outside of the Pentagon office of then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. More recently, on November 3, 2006, the 52-year-old experimental musician  Malachi Ritcher who had been an Iraq War protestor chose the act of self-immolation, dosing himself in gasoline and lighting himself on fire near the statue of a giant flame in downtown Chicago.  


 Eastern Empress Yang’s death is in contrast to that of Ma Shi, the one-time wife of Jiang Ziya, the military advisor to Wen Wang and Wu Wang of Zhou. Ma Shi also hanged herself but for a very different reason. When Jiang Ziya left to Western Province to fulfill his mission of installing the new dynasty on the imperial throne, Ma Shi refused to believe in him and demanded a divorce. When Jiang Ziya succeeded in installing Wu Wang as the emperor, she realized that she had been a fool.  She hanged herself out of shame and regret. Her death was not martyrdom but a punishment for her inability to recognize her husband’s hidden talent. There are several other well-known stories of wives giving up on their seemingly hopeless husbands too early, which indicates that wives abandoning husbands was  not a rare occurrence. 


Martyrs in Creation of Lesser Gods highlight Zhou Wang’s lack of ren, so as to convince the audience that the Mandate of Heaven was indeed on the side of Wu Wang of Zhou. People recounted the story of ancient martyrs of Creation of Lesser Gods over and over, to make them the part of the remembered public memory. These martyrs lived and still live on as commemorated figures in the collectively experienced history of the past, to set the model for the martyrs of the later generations.   


Would Confucius have approved these martyrs? As Zilu in "The Disciple" observed, Confucius was something of an anti-martyr. Confucius, however, highly praised Bi Gan who died remonstrating with Zhou Wang. Confucius said that there were three men of ren in the Yin dynasty: Weizi Qi,who left the country,  Bi Gan who remonstrated with the emperor and died, and Jizi who became a slave. (Analects 18:1)  Confucius did not elaborate the reason why he judged so.

Shiji by Sima Qian tells the story of these three men thus:

Weizi Qi remonstrated with Zhou Wang several times, but he would not listen. He consulted with the Grand Tutor and Lesser Tutor and left the country. Bi Gan said, “As a loyal subject has to try even at the risk of death.” He strenuously remonstrated with Zhou Wang. Zhou Wang got angry and said, “I have heard that a sage’s heart has seven holes.” He cut up Bi Gan to examine his heart. Jizi was frightened. He pretended to be crazy and made himself a slave. Zhou Wang imprisoned him.”(Anal 3:107)

             In Creation of Lesser Gods, Weizi Qi appear as two brothers Weizi Qi and Weizi Yan who left the country to save the bloodline of the house. Weizi Qi was a brother of Zhou Wang. When faced with the hard question of if he should remonstrate with his brother at the cost of death or live to continue the family line, Weizi Qi turned to the Grand Tutor and Lesser Tutor for their opinions and accepted their counsel. Showing respect for other junzi’s judgments, Weizi Qi acted accordance to li (manners) and ren. According to another history book titled Zhou Shu (Annals of Zhou), when Wu Wang of Zhou became the new emperor, Weizi Qi surrendered himself to the new emperor. Recognizing that Weizi Qi had observed li and shown ren by this surrender, Wu Wang showed his reciprocal ren by making him the Duke of Song so that he could keep honoring his ancestors. This case can, thus, be understood as an exemplary model of how junzi are expected to treat each other.

            Bi Gan’s case is easier to understand. He is judged a man of virtue because he had the courage and loyalty to follow through what he saw was the moral conduct, to death. As an uncle of Zhou Wang, Bi Gan could reasonably hope that his death might influence Zhou Wang. Though he failed to achieve the desired effect, his courage and devotion to the dynasty were deeply admired. Shiji reports that, after enthroned as the emperor, Wu Wang ordered soil to be added to Bi Gan’s grave mound, as a show of his respect. (Anal 4:126)  There is also a legend that after Bi Gan’s death, his pregnant wife escaped with her four loyal maids and delivered a son in a deserted forest. Wu Wang of Zhou, who was very much impressed by Bi Gan’s courage and loyalty, gave the son the new surname of Lin (Forest), together with a yearly stipend. Bi Gan is still honored at many Chinese temples today as the god of good wealth and fortune (Bi Gan died in order to serve the people and country, so he is expected to continue protecting people even after death.)

           Witnessing Bi Gan’s death, Jizi realized that his own death would not change Zhou Wang’s mind. Jizi, however, could not bear to leave the dynasty he deeply loved. Jizi, therefore, pretended to be insane and made himself a slave so as to make him non-threat to Zhou Wang, in the hope of outliving Zhou Wang to serve his beloved dynasty later. Shiji tells that, after the fall of Yin, Wu Wang of Zhou had Jizi released.(Anal 4:126) Two years after the fall of Yin, Wu Wang asked Jizi what he thought was the cause of the Yin dynasty’s fall. As he could not bear to speak ill of his beloved Yin dynasty, Jizi only generally discussed the conditions under which dynasties rise and fall. Wu Wang felt embarrassed by his tactless question, so he changed subject to the way of Heaven. (Anal 4:131) Jizi is judged a man of virtue because of the depth of his devotion and loyalty to the dynasty he loved, because this shows his capacity for deep love for the fellow humans. 


                These three men, in whom Confucius saw highest human virtue, behaved very differently. For Weizi Qi and Jizi, the right thing to do was not to die but live. Only in Bi Gan’s case, death was the way. Confucius’s attitude toward martyrdom, thus, appears to be similar to that of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD); true martyrs are virtuous, but true martyrdom can occur only under very special circumstances. Augustine, the most influential of the Western Church Fathers, defined the Western understanding of martyrdom and suicide. For Augustine, to be qualified for the title of martyr, one had to have the God’s explicit command to do so. For Confucius, the criterion for martyrdom was not the God’s command, but whether or not the death was the best way to serve the society and fellow humans.

Creation of Lesser Gods, being a popular novel, does not take such a learned view; it praises the courage of men and women who die, trying to remonstrate with Zhou Wang.


While Zhou Wang kept losing hearts and minds of people through his luck of ren, the founders of Zhou Dynasty Wen Wang (Ji Chang) and Wu Wang rose to power because their ren attracted people. Creation of Lesser Gods tells the rise of the Zhou Dynasty as the happy ending to the story of long woes under tyrant Zhou Wang. This novel therefore has the function of reassuring its audience that no matter how bad things may look, the evil in this world will end and the happy days will arrive in the future.


The idea of the Mandate of Heaven promotes the feeling of belonging to a community that encompasses Heaven and earth. The sociologist Benedict Anderson famously stated that such sense of belonging creates an “imagined community”, which forms the foundation of national cohesion. The imperial China's  imagined community was grounded on the concept of the Mandate of Heaven.

The Mandate of Heaven was a very successful social contract. For some three thousand years since the time of the Zhou Dynasty, the ideal of benevolent autocracy guided China. Even the modern critic of the government such as the late nineteenth century philosopher reformer Tan Sitong (1865-1898) still evoked the principle of the Mandate of Heaven. Though the word Mandate of Heaven is no longer used, the basic idea has not disappeared. Today, the journalists often talk about the Chinese government having an unspoken agreement with the people that the people do not cause unrest as long as the government maintains economic growth. This unspoken social contract has its roots in the idea of the Mandate of the Heaven, the traditional social contract of China. 



Note: Creation of Lesser God and the Aeneid: The Founding Epics of the East and the West


As an epic of the founding of the empire, Creation of Lesser Gods makes an interesting comparison to the Aeneid. This would raise some eyebrows. The Aeneid was composed by the most accomplished Roman poet Virgil on the imperial commission to celebrate the “eternal” Roman Empire. The Aeneid is a literary masterpiece and one of the defining literature of the Western tradition. Creation of Lesser Gods, on the other hand, is a popular novel with obscure authorship. Nonetheless, these two epics of the founding of civilizations—in the case of the Aeneid, the Roman Empire, and in the case of Creation of Lesser Gods, the Chinese Empire—have certain similarities in their narrative structures and functions.


The Aeneid tells the story of the founder of the Roman Empire, Aeneas. Aeneas was originally Prince of Troy, who traced his ancestry back to Italy. At the end of the Trojan War, Aeneas lost the kingdom of Troy to the invading Greeks. He then received the command from Zeus to leave the shore of the East (Troy in Asia Minor) toward the West (Italy) to become the founder of the new eternal empire. His wife Creusa got lost and died amidst the fire and confusion of the falling of Troy. Creusa appeared as ghost to Aeneas and urged him to follow Zeus’ command and leave Troy. Aeneas left Troy, carrying his elderly father on his back and accompanied by his friends and young son Ascarius.


While making his way toward Italy across the Mediterranean, Aeneas lost his friends, his new lover Dido, the beautiful and mighty Queen of Carthage, his father, and his nurse to death. Through these losses, Aeneas progressively lost his attachment to his old home in the East (Troy), and became the pious vehicle of Zeus’ will to found the new eternal empire. The unfinished Aeneid leaves the readers with Aeneas engaged in fierce battle, a fight to win the hand of lovely blond Princess Lavinia of Latium. The marriage was to legitimatize his, and his son Ascarius’ rule over Rome. Aeneid, thus, emphasizes Aeneas' obedience to Zeus’ will.

Aeneas’s progress toward Italy was complicated by constant meddling of Zeus’ wife Juno (Hera). Juno held a grudge against Troy, because Paris who had judged Venus to be more beautiful than her was a Trojan. She also held grudge against Aeneas, because he was the son of Venus. Juno, therefore, did not like Zeus’ plan to make Aeneas the founder of the new eternal empire, and plotted to derail this plan until she finally realized that her efforts against Zeus’ plan were futile. (Greco-Roman Zeus is very different from the Christian God who is also called Zeus in Latin. Greco-Roman Zeus, being a god of polytheistic world, is not omnipotent but has to negotiate his way through the wills and wishes of other gods and goddesses to get what he wants.) Juno’s function in the Aeneid is that of the vengeful adversarial power. In Creation of Lesser Gods, the goddess Nüwa plays the similar role of the vengeful demonic power that tries to thwart Heaven’s will; like Juno, Nüwa fails. 


While the lofty Aeneid emphasizes the piety of Aeneas who suppresses his desires to serve Zeus’ will, Creation of Lesser Gods emphasizes the irrepressibly of human nature with its themes of the human-origin Daoists’ urge to kill and of Zhou Wang’s relentless debauchery. Nevertheless, both the Aeneid and Creation of Lesser Gods tell that the divine will inevitably prevail on earth in the end. These two epics function as the founding epics because they remind the divine origins of the respective empires and promise the continuation of their imperial "imagined communities".




许仲琳, 封神演义 (Creation of Lesser Gods

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