In the West, and indeed most other places, we often perceive rebellion as an act which aims to overthrow or change the ruling system. However, this conception may be altogether unhelpful, or at least misleading, when analysing Chinese history. For most of Chinese history, the act of rebellion was internalised in the overarching dynastic system. If anything, it could be better viewed as an act of maintenance rather than change.
The farthest back in time we can go before Chinese history begins to blend with myth is to the time of the Shang dynasty, a kingdom of the 16th-11th centuries BC, located in the Yellow River valley; which is the first dynasty that can be corroborated by archaeological evidence. Already, the Chinese tradition of reverence towards ancestors was present in this ancient state. It was believed that the Shang royal ancestry continued to look over political affairs from Heaven after they died and that they could be consulted through divination.
But as the Shang became the victims of the expanding Zhou dynasty, this tradition was decisively altered. Zhou thinkers argued retrospectively that the Shang rulers had become corrupt and evil, thus forfeiting the approval of Heaven, which was subsequently bestowed onto the virtuous Zhou rulers. This was the birth of the concept of the Mandate of Heaven (天命) and it was to become a cornerstone of the Chinese state, soon embedding itself into the Confucian tradition which would emerge in the 6th-5th century BC.
What makes the Mandate of Heaven so unique in comparison to something like Divine Right in Europe is that rulers could actually lose Heaven’s favor. So even though an emperor’s power was absolute and bestowed by Heaven, he still had to rule relatively responsibly over his people. If he was corrupt and left the empire in a state of despair, the people had a right and even the responsibility to rebel and depose the now illegitimate ruler.
Although this sounds a bit revolutionary, perhaps similar to Enlightenment thought, we have to remember that China was an extremely autocratic, patriarchal, and traditional society. Mixed with Confucianism, which placed huge importance on filial piety (孝) and reverence towards ancestors, the Mandate of Heaven was not a forward-thinking concept but a backward one. Its goal was not to bring about something new but to return society back to the way it was before, when it was ruled by good and virtuous ancestors. For example, the Duke of Zhou, was admired so much that Confucius once famously remarked “How I have declined! Long has it been since I have dreamed of the Duke of Zhou.”
A good example of the Mandate in action is the beginning of the Han dynasty which succeeded the first imperial dynasty of China, the Qin, ostensibly where the name for China is derived from in English. The Qin dynasty was a bit of an anomaly. Despite greatly influencing the course of Chinese history, it only lasted about 15 years. If we are to believe later accounts, the Qin were absurdly authoritarian and strict to the point of near totalitarianism. Although historians working during the Han dynasty had many reasons to make the Qin look worse and delegitimise it, it is plausible that the dynasty was indeed quite draconian. After all, uniting China; undergoing large-scale architectural and infrastructure projects; and also standardising the written language, measurements, and currency was not an easy feat. The mausoleum of the first emperor was worked on by some 700,000 laborers; Qin administration was very advanced.
Advanced, but not popular. Widespread revolt broke out. According to John Keay there was a, “strong sense of righteous obligation in overthrowing an imperial house that had so patently forfeited Heaven’s favor”. The Qin did not care much for Confucianism or tradition, instead they were strong Legalists. After the deadly turmoil had subsided, the rebel leader Liu Bang, who was born a peasant, emerged victorious and assumed imperial power under the name of Han Gaozu. Thus, only some twenty years into its conception, the Chinese imperial system had already corrected its overreaches. The Han dynasty would go on to be remembered as a golden age of Chinese civilization.
I believe that viewing historical Chinese rebellions as an act of maintenance is a helpful framework for analysing Chinese history, as it serves to remind us of the context and traditions within which these events are taking place. Otherwise, we might be tempted to apply modern ideas to ancient times. For example, we might like to see the revolts against the Qin as a revolt of the masses, led by a peasant leader fighting against the tyranny of an oppressive ruling class. And while that is indeed what happened, the implications that form in our head as a result of this framing are informed by modern thought and the events of the last few hundred years.
On the other hand, by analysing China’s ancient thought we can better understand its modern thought. Confucianism still dominates Chinese culture, and although Confucius was disavowed during the early days of the People’s Republic, he has since been rehabilitated. The Mandate of Heaven obviously is not present in modern discourse, but I would argue that the willingness to tolerate a powerful leader so long as he does not step too far over his boundaries still persists, regardless of whether this is good or bad.
By Benjamin Wofford