The Elusive Mandate of Heaven: Changing Views of Tianming 天命 in the Eastern Zhou Period

Luo Xinhui, Yuri Pines

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The concept of tianming 天命 (Mandate of Heaven/Heaven's Mandate) is often viewed as a foundational principle of Chinese political culture. However, as paleographic and textual evidence marshalled in our article suggests, during the formative age of this culture-the Eastern Zhou period (eighth through third centuries bce)-this concept underwent profound changes and lost much of its original appeal. With the de facto collapse of Zhou authority in 771 bce, tianming became dissociated from the idea of singular and universal rule. Henceforth it could refer to a regional lord's hegemonic power, or the right to rule one's state, or just to an opportune moment or individual destiny. The very idea of Heaven as an activist deity that guaranteed political order was questioned by many, further eroding the appeal of tianming. However, the Western Zhou notion of tianming did not perish altogether. It remained “an ideology in reserve,” part of a broad toolkit of political ideas, to be rediscovered and redeployed by Han dynasty imperial ideologues.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1-47
Number of pages47
JournalT'oung Pao
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the Chinese Ministry of Education, grant number 21JJDM005 (Luo Xinhui), and the Israel Science Foundation (grant No. 568/19) (Yuri Pines). We are grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

Publisher Copyright:
© Luo Xinhui and Yuri Pines, 2023.


  • Heaven
  • Mandate
  • Qin
  • Zhou
  • Zuozhuan
  • bronze inscriptions
  • legitimacy
  • political culture


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