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The Mandate of Heaven:
The Classic of History
(c. 1700 B.C.E.)
The Shu Jing, or The Classic of History, is the oldest complete
work among what are known as the five Confucian classics. The five classics
were canonized as the basic elements of the Confucian educational system
during the second century B.C.E., when the books were reconstructed by
order of several emperors of the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.). Already
ancient in Confucius's day, the current version is probably essentially
the same text that Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) knew, studied, and accepted
as an authentic record of Chinese civilization.
The Classic of History is a collection of documents spanning some seventeen
hundred years of Chinese history and legend, from 2357 to 631 B.C.E. The
document that appears here was composed in the age of Zhou but purports
to be the advice given by the faithful Yi Yin to King Tai Jia, second of
the Shang kings. According to the story behind the document, when the first
Shang king, Cheng Tang, died around 1753, his chief minister, Yi Yin, took
it upon himself to instruct the new, young king in the ways and duties
of kingship and the workings of the Mandate of Heaven.
The Mandate of Heaven was a political-social philosophy that explained
the success and failure of monarchs and states down to the end of the empire
in 1912 C.E. Whenever a dynasty fell, the reason invariably offered by
Chinas sages was that it had lost the moral right to rule, which is given
by Heaven alone.
Questions to Consider
In the twelfth month of the first year ... Yi Yin sacrificed
to the former king, and presented the heirking reverently before the shrine
of his grandfather. All the princes from the domain of the nobles and the
royal domain were present; all the officers also, each continuing to discharge
his particular duties, were there to receive the orders of the chief minister.
Yi Yin then clearly described the complete virtue of the Meritorious Ancestor
for the instruction of the young king.
- According to the Mandate of Heaven, what are the most important lessons
that history teaches? What does this reveal about the significance of
ancestors in Chinese society and culture?
What must King Tai Jai do in order to become a successful ruler?
He said, "Oh! of old the former kings of Xia cultivated earnestly their
virtue, and then there were no calamities from Heaven. The spirits of the
hills and rivers likewise were all in tranquility; and the birds and beasts,
the fishes and tortoises, all enjoyed their existence according to their
nature. But their descendant did not follow their example, and great Heaven
sent down calamities, employing the agency of our ruler who was in possession
of its favoring appointment. The attack on Xia may be traced to the orgies
in Ming Tiao. ... Our king of Shang brilliantly displayed his sagely prowess;
for oppression he substituted his generous gentleness; and the millions
of the people gave him their hearts. Now your Majesty is entering on the
inheritance of his virtue; -- all depends on how you commence your reign.
To set up love, it is for you to love your relations; to set up respect,
it is for you to respect your elders. The commencement is in the family
and the state....
"Oh! the former king began with careful attention to the bonds that
hold men together. He listened to expostulation, and did not seek to resist
it; he conformed to the wisdom of the ancients; occupying the highest position,
he displayed intelligence; occupying an inferior position, he displayed
his loyalty; he allowed the good qualities of the men whom he employed
and did not seek that they should have every talent....
"He extensively sought out wise men, who should be helpful to you, his
descendant and heir. He laid down the punishments for officers, and warned
those who were in authority, saying, 'If you dare to have constant dancing
in your palaces, and drunken singing in your chambers,-- that is called
the fashion of sorcerers; if you dare to set your hearts on wealth and
women, and abandon yourselves to wandering about or to the chase, -- that
is called the fashion of extravagance; if you dare to despise sage words,
to resist the loyal and upright, to put far from you the aged and virtuous,
and to seek the company of ... youths, -- that is called the fashion of
disorder. Now if a high noble or officer be addicted to one of these three
fashions with their ten evil ways, his family will surely come to ruin;
if the prince of a country be so addicted, his state will surely come to
ruin. The minister who does not try to correct such vices in the sovereign
shall be punished with branding.'...
"Oh! do you, who now succeed to the throne, revere these warnings in
your person. Think of them! -- sacred counsels of vast importance, admirable
words forcibly set forth! The ways of Heaven are not invariable: on the
good-doer it sends down all blessings, and on the evil-doer it sends down
all miseries. Do you but be virtuous, be it in small things or in large,
and the myriad regions will have cause for rejoicing. If you not be virtuous,
be it in large things or in small, it will bring the ruin of your ancestral
Anonymous, "The Mandate of Heaven: The Classic of History," in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds. The Human Record: Sources in Global History, Volume I, 3rd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998): 26-28.