The so-called "Mandate of Heaven" (tianming 天命) was a metaphysical concept to legitimize rule. It was invented by the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) and shifted the focus away from ancestry to rule by modes of behaviour or performance in leadership, in concrete terms, power (de 德) enabling a leader to attract followers. Confucian interpreters defined "power" as moral standards of benevolence, righteousness, trustworthiness, and similar virtues. In later ages, the term tianming or ming was used in the sense of fate, destiny, or predisposition.
In the early Zhou concept, Heaven was personalized as the utmost deity (zhishang shen 至上神), who ordered the leader ("king") of the Zhou people to take over the rule of the "Chinese" world, i.e. to overthrow the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE). From the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) on, this personalized view of Heaven gradually shifted away to a more 'scientific' one, even if the concept of the Mandate was not given up until modern times.
Heaven did only play a minor role in Shang religion, and hints at the Mandate of Heaven in Shang chapters in the Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" might be Zhou-period reinterpretations. The concept of the Mandate was created for King Wen 周文王, father of the founder of the Zhou dynasty, King Wu 周武王. He was allegedly given the Mandate because of his "rule of virtue" (de zheng 德政) for which he was particularly rewarded by Heaven: "Great Heaven has no partial affections; it helps only the virtuous" (huang tian wu qin, wei de shi fu 皇天無親，惟德是輔; Shangshu, ch. Cai Zhong zhi ming 蔡仲之命). A leader was under constant observancy by Heaven: "Heaven sees as my people see; Heaven hears as my people hear" (tian shi zi wo min shi, tian ting zi wo min ting 天視自我民視，天聽自我民聽; Shangshu, ch. Taishi 泰誓 B).
For this reason, the Zhou did not see the Mandate of Heaven as definitely given into the hands of the offsprings of King Wu, but it was bound to the style of rule, in other words, "the Heavenly Mandate is not constant" (tianming mi chang 天命靡常; Shijing 詩經, part Daya 大雅, ode 235 Wenwang 文王), and "the ordinances of Heaven are inexplicable" (tianming bu che 天命不徹; part Xiaoya 小雅, 193 Shiyue zi jiao 十月之交).
The use of the concept of Heaven's Mandate cannot just be seen in transmitted sources as the Shangshu, but also in bronze inscriptions, as for instance, that of the tripod Da Yu ding 大盂鼎, dated c. 998 BCE (as daling 大令 "Great Mandate").
The propagation of legitimate rule by the Zhou dynasty thus stood in contrast to the constant fear to be deprived of the Mandate, as was felt to happen under the rule of King You 周幽王 (r. 781-771), the last of the Western Zhou rulers. The Shijing "Book of Songs" dedicates three odes to the time, lamenting that "Great and wide Heaven had contracted his kindness, sent down death and famine, and destroyed all through the kingdom" (Haohao hao tian, bu jun qi de, jiang sang jijin, zhanfa si guo 浩浩昊天！不駿其德？降喪饑饉，斬伐四國 (194 Yu wu zheng 雨無正). Yet even if Heaven was "all dark" (shi tian mengmeng 視天夢夢; 192 Zhengyue 正月), it was believed that the calamities of the lower people did not come down from Heaven (xiamin zhi nie, fei jiang zi tian 下民之孽，匪降自天), but violence and hatred "came from men" (zhi jing you ren 職競由人; 193 Shiyue zhi jiao), i.e. the evil conduct of government by King You.
Research hints at a correlation between celestial phenomena and politicial disruptions, and it might have been quite likely that the Zhou dynasty saw its accession to rule as justified by astronomical phenomena and interpreted its rule as a reflection of signals in the sky (xiang tian 象天; Pankenier 1995).
In the Spring and Autumn period, important politicians like Liu Xiahui 柳下惠 (720-621), Shu Xiang 叔向 or Zichan 子產 (d. 522) were convinced that the stability of a state did not indirectly depend on Heaven's will, but directly from the performance in government. They advocated therefore effective reforms in administration and jurisdiction to achieve more administrative efficiency.
How difficult it was for average persons to understand the will of Heaven can be seen in Confucius' famous statement that he was fifty until he finally understood Heaven's will (wushi er zhi tianming 五十而知天命; Lunyu 論語, ch. Weizheng 為政). Someone not understanding the ordinances of Heaven would not be able to rule (bu zhi ming, wu yi wei junzi 不知命，無以為君子; ch. Yao yue 堯曰).
Confucius rarely spoke of Heaven and sometimes doubted that Heaven would be able to express any desires or orders, like in his words "The four seasons pursue their courses, and all things are continually being produced, but does Heaven say anything?" (sishi xing yan, baiwu sheng yan,tian he yan zai 四時行焉，百物生焉, 天何言哉; ch. Yang Huo 陽貨). On the other hand, Confucius warned that a ruler "offending against Heaven has none to whom he can pray" (huo zui yu tian, wu suo dao ye 獲罪于天，無所禱也; ch. Bayi 八佾).
A third interpretation of tianming found in the Confucian Analects (Lunyu) is "fate, destiny" (modern term mingyun 命運), like in the words "If my principles are to advance, it is so ordered. If they are to fall to the ground, it is so ordered.” (dao zhi jiang xing ye yu, ming ye; dao zhi jiang fei ye yu, ming ye 道之將行也與，命也；道之將廢也與，命也; ch. Xian wen 憲問).
The Confucian philosopher Meng Ke 孟軻 (Mengzi 孟子; 385-304 or 372-289 BCE) was more direct in reviving the concept of Heaven as an authority supervising the way of rulership, and urged the lords to "obey Heaven's ordinances" (shun tianming 順天命). He reconfirmed the traditional view that the throne was given to the worthiest—be he the son of a ruler or not. "When Heaven gave the kingdom to the worthiest, it was given to the worthiest. When Heaven gave it to the son of the preceding sovereign, it was given to him." (tian yu xian, ze yu xian; tian yu zi, ze yu zi 天與賢，則與賢；天與子，則與子; Mengzi 孟子, ch. Wang Zhang 萬章 A).
Mengzi saw in the feelings and activities of the people an indicator whether a leader was a good ruler or not. In earliest times, the throne was given to the worthiest, but in some instances, the people decided that the son of the deceased ruler would be the better one, as in the case of Qi 啟, son of Yu the Great 大禹, founder of the Xia dynasty 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE). There were three forces working together to enthrone a worthy man, namely Heaven, the people, and the predecessor: "In the case of a private individual obtaining the throne, there must be in him virtue equal to that of Shun 舜 or Yu; and moreover there must be the presenting of him to Heaven by the preceding sovereign." (pifu er you tianxia zhe, de bi ruo Shun, Yu, er you you tianzi jian zhi zhe 匹夫而有天下者，德必若舜禹，而又有天子薦之者; ch. Wan Zhang A).
An important aspect is the interpretation of what was meant with the term de 德, a virtue constituting a precondition for receiving Heaven's mandate. In Mengzi's eyes, de was virtue in the form of "cultivating one's nature" (yang xing 養其性).
|盡其心者，知其性也。知其性，則知天矣。存其心，養其性，所以事天也。殀壽不貳，脩身以俟之，所以立命也。||He who has exhausted all his mental constitution knows his nature. Knowing his nature, he knows Heaven. To preserve one's mental constitution, and nourish one's nature, is the way to serve Heaven. When neither a premature death nor long life causes a man any double-mindedness, but he waits in the cultivation of his personal character for whatever issue; this is the way in which he establishes his Heaven-ordained being. (Mengzi, ch. Jinxin 盡心 A; transl. Legge 1895)|
Mengzi established a clear hierarchy in which way a king had to rule. The people were the most important factor in polictics, then the state altars, and only then the person of the sovereign.
|民為貴，社稷次之，君為輕。是故得乎丘民而為天子，得乎天子為諸侯，得乎諸侯為大夫。諸侯危社稷，則變置。犧牲既成，粢盛既絜，祭祀以時，然而旱乾水溢，則變置社稷。||The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain are the next; the sovereign is the lightest. Therefore to gain the peasantry is the way to become sovereign; to gain the sovereign is the way to become a regional ruler; to gain the regional ruler is the way to become a great officer. When a regional ruler endangers the altars of the spirits of the land and grain, he is changed, and another appointed in his place. When the sacrificial victims have been perfect, the millet in its vessels all pure, and the sacrifices offered at their proper seasons, if yet there ensue drought, or the waters overflow, the spirits of the land and grain are changed, and others appointed in their place. (ch. Jinxin B)|
The late Warring States-period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) philosopher Xun Qing 荀卿 (Xunzi 荀子; 313 -238 BCE), also a Confucian master, gave up Mengzi's image of Heaven as a supervisor of worldly matters who interferred into the course of history by sending down calamities and using the people as his vice. In Xunzi's eyes, Heaven was rather a natural phenomenon with great constancy, and had nothing to do with the long and prosperous rule of the sages of antiquity like Yao 堯 and Shun or with the downfall of a dynasty because of a tyrant like Jie 桀, the last of the Xia. Instead, he defines ming as "opportunities encountered expectedly" (jie yu 節遇; Xunzi 荀子, 22 Zhengming 正名), and thus deprives the world of all relationships with supernatural phenomena. In his chapter "Discourse on nature" (17 Tianlun 天論) Xunzi explains in the shape of verses:
|How can glorifying Heaven and contemplating it / Be as good as tending its creatures and regulating them?|
||How can obeying Heaven and singing it hymns of praise / Be better than regulating what Heaven has mandated and using it?|
|How can anxiously watching for the season and awaiting what it brings / Be as good as responsing to the season and exploiting it? [...]|
|How can brooding over for the origins of things / Be better than assisting what perfects them?|
Transl. Knoblock III: 20-211.
Xunzi concludes that speculating about what belongs to Heaven will result in missing the essential nature of the myriad things (cuo ren er si tian, ze shi wanwu zhi qing 錯人而思天，則失萬物之情). This late Confucian philosopher was rather a practician than an idealist as Mengzi had been. Nuyen (2013) therefore interprets the Confucian notion of the Heavenly Mandate as a combination of divine will with human autonomy.
While Daoist philosophers accepted personal fate as part of the Way (dao 道), Mo Di 墨翟 (Mozi 墨子; c. 476-c. 390 BCE) discarded the belief in personal fate (ch. Tianming 非命), but was convinced that good and bad behaviour would be rewarded and punished by spirits (gui).
Confucianism did not play a great role in the early decades of the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), until Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (179-104 BCE) developed a new concept merging Confucian ideas with contemporary beliefs in metaphysics and cosmology. He stressed that Heaven was the Great Lord of the hundred sprits (tianzhe baishen zhi dajun 天者百神之大君), and so revived the ancient image of Heaven as a spiritual superpower. Dong Zhongshu laid great stress on Mengzi's theory that Heaven would send down signs of being discontent with the emperor's performance in rulership. Such signs were natural calamities like draughts, floods, earthquakes, or pests, or strange phenomena like unforeseen eclipses, meteor showers, or the appearance of freaks of nature. Such were thereafter minutely recorded in historical records (for instance, the Wuxing chapters 五行志 of the official dynastic histories). Only the Sages would be able to carry out Heaven's ordinances, and each king did everything he could to comply with Heaven's will and obey Heaven's orders (wang zhe shang jin yu cheng tian yi, yi shun ming ye 王者上謹于承天意，以順命也; Ju xianliang duice 舉賢良對策 3). Even then there would be situations that the Sage was powerless to salvage, as such events were just decreed by Heaven (you suo bu neng jiu, ming yi fu 有所不能救，命矣夫; Chunqiu fanlu 春秋繁露, ch. Sui ben xiaoxi 隨本消息).
The word ming had three connotations, as the book Baihutong delun 白虎通德論 says (31 Shouming 壽命 "Destinies").
|命有三科以記驗，有壽命以保度，有遭命以遇暴，有隨命以應行習。||There are three kinds of destinies, indicating man's vicissitudes. There is the old-age destiny (shouming 壽命) of those who observe the rules; there is the accident destiny (zaoming 遭命) of those who meet a violent death, and the merit destiny (suiming 隨命) of those who receive according to their deserts.|
|壽命者、上命也，若言文王受命唯中身，享國五十年。||The old-age destiny is the best. It applies for instance to King Wen, who received his Mandate in the middle of his life and enjoyed the state for fifty years.|
Translation according to Tjan 1952: 572.
More down-to-earth definitions are given by Zhao Qi 趙岐 (108-201 CE), who commented on Mengzi, saying that natural destiny (shouming 受命, zhengming 正命) meant good behaviour being rewarded, concomitant destiny (suiming 隨命) meant bad conduct being punished, and adverse destiny (zaoming 遭命) good behaviour receiving bad results (xing shan de e 行善得惡). The Later Han-period 後漢 (25-220 CE) writer Wang Chong 王充 (27-97 CE), author of Lunheng 論衡, is often seen as a materialist because he criticized imaginations of spirits, ghosts, and supernatural powers like Heaven. Yet in his chapters 6 Mingyi 命義 "What is meant by destiny", and 3 Minglu 命祿 "On destiny and fortune", Wang explicates that
|故夫遭、遇、幸、偶，或與命祿并，或與命祿離。遭遇幸偶，遂以成完；遭遇不 幸偶，遂以敗傷，是與命祿并者也 … 重以遭遇幸偶之逢，獲從生死而卒其善惡之行，得其胸中之志，希矣。||Contingencies and chance either tally with destiny and luck or disagree with them. To hit on good chances, and thus reach the goal, or to meet with bad ones, and be ruined, is tallying with destiny and luck [...] All depends on contingencies. According to the chances they have, they either live or die, but those who accomplish all their good or bad deeds, and obtain all their heart's desires, are few.|
Translation Forke 1962, I: 143.
During the Tang period 唐 (618-907), there were two schools contending with each other, the one represented by Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824), who advocated the influence of Heaven on private nature and fate, and the other by Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 (773-819, author of Tianshuo 天說), who believed that merits were achievements by own efforts, and misfortune the result of own doings (gong zhe zi gong, huo zhe zi zuo 功者自功，禍者自禍). Liu Yuxi 劉禹錫 (772-842) wrote a treatise called "On Heaven" (Tianlun 天論) in which he supported Liu Zongyuan, but admitted that "Heaven and man contribute both" to individual situations (tian ren jiao xiang sheng 天人交相勝).
The revival of the book Mengzi during the Song period 宋 (960-1279) and the focus on the metaphysical nexus between matter (qi 氣), inherent order (li 理), and individual nature (xing 性) brought new light into the function of Heaven. Zhang Zai 張載 (1020-1077), rather on the "materialist" side, was convinced that righteousness and fate were both part of the natural order (yi ming he yi cun yu li 義命合一存乎理). While "fate" (ming) constituted the natural part of the order, "righteousness" (yi 義) played the moral role in it. The brothers Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107) suggested to stay away from using the term ming, without wholly discarding it. "Sageness" (sheng 聖) or "worthiness" (xian 賢) was the result of a search of the fundament of the Way (dao 道, i.e. the natural order li), namely righteousness (yi). For both of them, virtue and conduct was more important than speculation about any Heavenly endowment of character or fate. Cheng Hao defined ming in the following way: "The nature of Heaven is the Heavenly Way, and what Heaven bestows on the myriad beings, are Heavenly ordinances" (yan tian zhi ziran zhe, wei zhi tiandao; yan tian zhi fuyu wanwu zhe, wei zhi tianming 言天之自然者，謂之天道。言天之賦予萬物者，謂之天命; Er Cheng yishu 二程遺書 11).
Even if basically supporting the opinion of the Brothers Cheng, the Southern Song-period 南宋 (1127-1279) master Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) held that good or bad luck in life was somehow part of the physical substance or natural disposition (qibing 氣稟). The Neo-Confucian interpretations of the word tianming follows a statement in the Liji 禮記 chapter Zhongyong 中庸, where it its said that "Heavenly order is individual character/nature" (tianming zhi wei xing 天命之謂性). The ancient commentary of Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200) on the Liji chapter Tangong 檀弓 likewise said that "ordinance/destiny means character/nature" (ming, you xing ye 命猶性也).
In Neo-Confucian writings, where individual character was seen as the origin of moral and proper behaviour, the word tianming or ming was thus used in this sense, rather than in the context of political legitimation. The spectrum of common belief was still wide during the Song period, ranging from Wang Anshi's 王安石 (1021-1086) statement that "Heaven's ordinances are no thing to fear" (tianming bu zu wei 天命不足畏) to Chen Liang's 陳亮 (1143-1194) raking up of Dong Zhongshu's belief in Heaven's influence on rulership.
During the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), philosophers like Wang Gen 王艮 (1483-1541) or Wang Fuzhi 王夫之 (1619-1692) again regarded "Heavenly ordinance" from the viewpoint of the ruler. While an individuum was not able to influence his fate fundamentally, a "Sage" would be able to shape the world and "create the fate of the myriad things" (keyi zao wanwu zhi ming 可以造萬物之命). Chen Chun 陳淳 (1483-1544), author of Beixi ziyi 北溪字義, reconciled the separation of matter (qi 氣) and the natural order (li 理) and defined "Heavenly ordinance" as the way in which the Heavenly way (tiandao 天道) circulated and spread to the myriad things.
Traditionalists were still found during the Qing period 清 (1644-1911). Qian Daxin 錢大昕 (1728-1804) and Huang Shisan 黃式三 (1789-1862) scorned those who interpreted the ancient Classics Shangshu and Shijing as examples of superstition.