The Divine Right to Rule | Ancient Chinese Customs

The question of inheriting a position from one’s predecessors has shaped both ancient and modern thoughts on the subject. From the transfer of power in a family unit to the transfer of power among the leaders of a nation–leadership succession is an issue that is fraught with idiosyncratic perils.

What is progress, truly? A move towards democracy–the right of the people to choose their leaders? Or is it structure and stability, law and order, and continuity in the face of change that defines one society’s apparent success over another’s? I personally lean towards the latter.

In ancient East Asia, the importance of the Emperor as ‘the Son of Heaven’ formed the basis of Chinese thinking and politics since Shang times (1600 to 1046 BCE). This practise has a long history and continued right up to 1911. The ‘Son of Heaven’ was the custodian of social order and was considered to have the divine right to rule.

The original meaning of wang king consists of three horizontal lines: representing heaven, humanity and earth. These three lines are joined together by a vertical stroke at the centre of the character which represents the ‘One Person’ who is the sole channel of communication between all three. The Shang kings kept in constant touch with their forebears and ancestors.

The layout of the ancient Chinese capitals was underpinned by a conscious attempt to mirror the cosmic order of the heavens on earth. Geomancers were commonplace in imperial China and their role required them to defend the kingdom against ‘evil influences’ that could potentially cause chaos on earth. By reshaping hills, removing boulders and excavating ground considered to be ‘unlucky’, geomancers influenced and harnessed the link between the Heavenly Bodies and our Earthly Residences.

To the ancient Chinese, attuning mankind to the rhythm of nature was vital. The Chinese concept of Yin and Yang that so many modern people are familiar with, is rooted in the notion that two interacting forces co-exist in a harmonious balance. If this balance is disturbed, disaster would ensue. During the Shang Dynasty, there was no priesthood but its culture was passed down generation after generation by a unique method of written communication.

If history teaches us anything, it is that the traditionalists of today were the reformists of yesterday.

During the Confucian era, it was argued that whenever a ruler lost the goodwill of his subjects and resorted to oppression, ‘The Mandate of Heaven’ was withdrawn and rebellion was justified. Late Shang kings are said to have squandered resources on campaigns and people began to resent Shang rule. Self-serving leaders are a dime a dozen.

Confucius at the Imperial Academy in Beijing

Confucian reforms sought to envision the state as a collection of families under the care of a ruling family. The Confucian concept of leadership went beyond the king and encompassed the entire society. This included the head of the family as well as took into account the important role that teachers play in shaping society.

In addition to familial obligations, Confucius also believed in the importance of personal responsibility for the welfare of mankind. Confucian philosophy, which became predominant around first century BCE, required that ‘the leader’ no longer rely on inherited status; but instead should focus his or her attention on the qualities derived from personal integrity which commanded respect.

The phenomenon of regression to the mean refers to the fact that outstanding parents are statistically unlikely to have outstanding children. Children of larger-than-life leaders are–for better or worse–bound their predecessor’s legacies. A system in which the charismatic authority of a deceased leader may conceivably be taken over by an eldest sibling or offspring calls into question the justice or fairness of the system itself.

Most of us in the modern world do not believe in any sort of divine right to rule. We expect people to earn their place as leaders and to do their job well. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that if a leader allows him or herself to pander to the popular vote or indulge in short-term thinking, they are sacrificing the long-term well-being of the country. Most leaders would rather be feared than be liked and with good reason.

The only way to get out of the chaos that ensues when there is a leadership vacuum is to institutionalise a system of leadership renewal. I’m not sure if I believe in divine right to rule, but what I do believe in is that there are select individuals who are born leaders… But being born a leader is not enough. Ultimately, leaders must be forged and thus made.

5 thoughts on “The Divine Right to Rule | Ancient Chinese Customs

  1. Excellent. I think our leadership model has changed dramatically and drastically over time. But somehow the son succeeding the father thing still hasn’t changed as much as it should.

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