The Mandate of Heaven

If there was one thing which kept China somewhat elective was the Mandate of Heaven. Which means that anyone could claim to be an Emperor if the previous dynasty had collapsed and the country was in anarchy or split into many separate parts. Or if the dynasty was likely to fail. 

This sort of rule was good and bad. It paved the way for foreign powers such as the Manchurians and the Mongolians to rule. But it also allowed the rise and overthrow of terrible dynasties without completely disregarding tradition. 

And that is the Mandate of Heaven. 

The Mandate of Heaven could be said to have been founded in the Shang dynasty when the founding King Tang of Shang (China would only call its ruler emperors from the Qin Dynasty onwards) overthrew the tyrannical Jie of Xia. But this concept will only be widely accepted by the Zhou Dynasty. Which they used to justify their takeover from the Shang dynasty. Which wasn’t as justified as the previous one, but that’s for another post. 

And eventually would be used by the subsequent dynasty to justify their forced unification of China. And mostly the ambition of the Emperor who accomplished it and the foresight of his ancestors. And when the Qin was a failing dynasty, used by the Han to takeover. Which was how the story went for all future dynasties or divisions.

This allowed dynasties to need to ensure good governance and not ignore problems because they could. At least in the initial stages. If they did not, they would have failed upon the second Emperor. Which is why for a long-standing dynasty, the first few Emperors are crucial. Both the Qin and the Sui dynasty were short-lived because of their second Emperors. One was a useless figurehead while the other overestimated the power of his Empire. 

Whereas for dynasties such as the Tang and Ming, they were made by their second Emperors. The former having one of China’s best Emperors, Emperor Taizong of Tang, and the latter one is called the Yongle Emperor who had sent Zheng He down to Nanyang and contributed a lot to the society. (The real second Emperor had been his nephew but his rule was short and inconsequential).

There was a dynasty which did ignore this point, and saw a pretty swift collapse

Which had been the Jin Dynasty. They had not known how important was a sane, skilled Emperor especially if the Empire is new and fresh. Neither did they have robust rules, as their rules favored the aristocracy meaning that there was no social mobility. Which means that no family saw the benefit in helping them. But mainly it was having an idiot for the Emperor which gave good reasons for the erosion of power and infighting. And their later Emperors either dying way too early, or getting kidnapped by outsiders.

The Han dynasty’s second Emperor was fairly terrible. The real person who governed was his mother, Empress Lü. For all her cruelty, she knew what she was doing if the Han Dynasty was still standing after her death. However, she did not choose her successor, which was a prince that had stayed out of the picture until they were looking for a suitable heir. Especially so in a time when imperial rule was a recent thing.

The Mandate of Heaven allowed them to ensure that China must have a solid system of governance to ensure long-term rule. It certainly pushed the dynasties to improve and the learn the lessons of the predecessors, and implement them.