September 12, 2022

The Monarch In Ancient Chinese Thought

An excerpt from, "On Being Kings and Queens for an Ecological Civilization: A Brief Exploration of a Chinese Character" By John Becker, Ph.D., Open Horizons, March 17, 2019:

There is a universal quality captured in logograms that are lacking other writing systems. What follows is a Westerner’s appropriation of a crucially important classical character in Chinese thought: “King” (王). My goal is to offer an ecologically infused commentary on its rich symbolism and demonstrate its use for an ecologically oriented person.

The role of the King in Chinese culture (王) has been a topic of conversation since times immemorial. The state of the people, the environment, and the world were all directly related to the conduct of the King. The character for King speaks directly to these concerns: The top horizontal line represents the heavens, the middle horizontal line represents society, and the bottom horizontal line represents the earth. This trifold scheme reveals a cosmological pattern in Chinese thought. The heavens and the earth create a blueprint for society to replicate as they come to represent the natural order. The vertical line that intersects the trifold cosmos represents the King. Kings bring the heavens, society, and nature into accord with one another: They act as the all-important conduits that bring the tiers into a relational whole.

The King’s cosmic duty is made evident through the Mandate of Heaven (天命), a religio-political concept that justified a King’s legitimate reign or usurpation. If the kings did not align themselves to the law of heaven, the needs of society, or the reverence of the life-giving nature of the environment, the different layers would revolt against the throne in various forms, whether floods, fires, plagues, social unrest, famines, and so forth. The King’s duty, then, is to the world in its entirety, seeking to integrate the heavens, society, and earth harmoniously. To isolate any one over the other would inevitably bring about discord between the strata, and thus give rise to a chaos and turmoil. A balanced approached to the tiers are vital not only for a vibrant world but a holistic, dignified person.

The King character (王) is useful in thinking about an individual’s duty as a world citizen because it is teeming with cosmological significance. We are all called to be “Kings” and “Queens,” to find a balance that humbly situates us between the heavens and earth. Today we encounter different modes of life that are hyper-localized on only one tier of the ancient Chinese universe, highlighting various aspects of religion, society, and the environment. This unnaturally compartmentalizes our world while failing to recognize our expanded duties. The Chinese character invites us to see beyond our limitations and makes us to acknowledge our cosmic obligations.

An excerpt from, "What Is China's Mandate of Heaven?" By Kallie Szczepanski, ThoughtCo, August 1, 2019:

Although the Mandate of Heaven sounds superficially similar to the European concept of the "Divine Right of Kings," in fact it operated quite differently. In the European model, God granted a particular family the right to rule a country for all time, regardless of the rulers' behavior. The Divine Right was an assertion that God essentially forbade rebellions, as it was a sin to oppose the king.

In contrast, the Mandate of Heaven justified rebellion against an unjust, tyrannical, or incompetent ruler. If a rebellion was successful in overthrowing the emperor, then it was a sign that he had lost the Mandate of Heaven and the rebel leader had gained it. In addition, unlike the hereditary Divine Right of Kings, the Mandate of Heaven did not depend upon royal or even noble birth. Any successful rebel leader could become emperor with Heaven's approval, even if he was born a peasant.

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The concept of the Mandate of Heaven had several important effects on China and on other countries, such as Korea and Annam (northern Vietnam), that were within the sphere of China's cultural influence. Fear of losing the Mandate prompted rulers to act responsibly in carrying out their duties towards their subjects.

An excerpt from, "The Emperor in the Cosmic Order" Columbia University:

In the Chinese tradition, the emperor did not necessarily have the absolute power that is associated with the traditional monarchies of Europe. The emperor’s actions had to be tempered by basic political expectations, and he had to act properly as an integral part of the cosmic order. The expectation was that an emperor should be an exceptional being — a sage king — and his right to rule was contingent upon his ability to skillfully mediate the cosmic forces. As mediator between Heaven and Earth, the emperor was thought to be a major participant in all cosmic actions, and as such he had to conduct himself accordingly, or the repercussions, in terms of cosmic dislocation, could be very serious. If things went wrong — a bad crop year, for instance — the emperor could be held responsible. He could be overthrown, and this would be considered legitimate. When such an overthrow occurred, it would be understood that the emperor had “lost” the Mandate of Heaven. In this way the notion of imperial legitimacy was fundamentally linked to the notion of maintaining the cosmic order.

When the conquering Manchus overthrew the reigning Ming dynasty and established the Qing dynasty in 1644, they announced that the Ming had lost the Mandate of Heaven. However they also continued to worship the Ming emperors throughout the 268-year duration of the Qing dynasty. Why did the Manchu Qing rulers do this? Because the Mandate of Heaven was centered on the principle of legitimacy — meaning that the Ming (and others before the Ming) had legitimately held the Mandate at one point in time, but no longer. The Qing buttressed their own claim to the Mandate by acknowledging the Ming’s legitimate claim to it in the past. In continuing to worship the Ming emperors as they did, the Qing were asserting the legitimacy of the entire system that dictated who could “rightfully” be an emperor of China, because in fact it was this system that allowed them to present themselves to the populace as “Sons of Heaven” rather than as conquering foreigners who had no legitimate claim over China.