The Mandate of Heaven: American-Style

laotzu2Ah, the Chinese, who can understand them? Far away, isolated and ancient-how could a Westerner, aka foreign devil, ever truly grasp their inscrutableness?

When Confucius came along around 500 B.C., China was already old. Confucius was a reformer, a political philosopher who said such things as, “They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.”

His philosophy meshed with the Tao of Lao Tzu who had said such things as, “Therefore he would administer the kingdom, honoring it as he honors his own person, may be employed to govern it, and he who would administer it with the love which he bears to his own person may be entrusted with it.”

What? Is Confucius saying that a leader must be, not dogmatic, but flexible and adaptable to changing conditions? Is Lao Tzu using the “L” word, which almost never appears in western writings on governance? Is he saying a leader must love the kingdom as much as he loves his own self?


Confucius also said, “Men’s natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart,” thus answering the human nature versus culture debate in words that could fit neatly on a fortune cookie. If men’s natures are alike, then westerners can not only understand the Chinese to some extent, they might even learn something from them.

I rather like the idea that a leader should care about the kingdom as much as he cares about himself. Wouldn’t that be great? And I rather like the idea that a leader should be willing to look at the current circumstances and act according to what is best for the kingdom and not act from his preconceptions.

Wouldn’t that be better than loving one’s ideology more than people?

But Chinese leaders were human beings and did not always measure up to these ideals. If the people became unhappy, the leader was said to have lost the Mandate of Heaven. The idea was that heaven had chosen the leader to be good and just and if he failed to be good and just, he should be removed, since he had obviously lost the Mandate.

That’s it, you’re through, don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out.

Western kings also claimed to be chosen by heaven, but with the western emphasis on property rights through heredity-it was a royal bloodline. No matter how lousy the king was or how unhappy the people became, the power was in the blood and it was sinful rebellion to reject the king. No matter how inept or even insane, the man who inherited the title kept the title.

In China a commoner could become ‘king’ but then he, just like a nobleman, had to prove he had the Mandate of Heaven. Temporary royalty? Royalty based on merit? A very foreign idea to the west, but I would suggest-a better idea!

Of course, I’m an American and America at one point in time (unconsciously I am sure) grabbed onto the Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven and leadership based on merit, validating Confucius’ observation that, in the end, “Men’s natures are alike.”

Listen to Thomas Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness-that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed-that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it…

In other words, “King George, you have lost the Mandate of Heaven. The people are unhappy. Goodbye.” Then Jefferson, being an Enlightenment man and prone to list-making, backed up his rejection of King George with twenty-six reasons why the people were unhappy.

American has only been around for a few hundred years. Currently we are projecting our worldview onto nations that been around for thousands of years. Instead of making such juvenile assumptions, we might tone down the hubris and try reading some Confucius, and some Lao-tzu.

And before we make a huge military blunder, as we are so prone to do, we might try reading Sun Tzu on the Art of War: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

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