Reclaiming Our Climate Stories – 3

By Rowan Sylva

In this latest post in my  Reclaiming Our Climate Stories series I discuss a subject close to my heart: A story or rather a concept arising from the ancient Chinese philosophical tradition.  The great schools of Chinese philosophical thought, the Confucians, the Daoists and Mohists all arose during the turbulent but culturally rich Warring States period (475-221 BC). These schools of thought had fundamental differences, but they also agreed on certain key concepts.

One such concept was tian ming – the mandate of heaven – the notion that heaven bestowed on rulers the right to rule, but could also revoke that right. Tian ming, supported by both Daoist and Confucian tradition became one of the most important governing principals of the imperial period that lasted until 1911.

As with most classical Chinese philosophy tian ming, was based on precedents drawn from the semi mythical Zhou, Shang and Xia dynasties. So what are these mythical precedents that had such an important impact on Chinese history? Here are the stories:

In the beginning the goddess Nuwa created humanity and domesticated animals; she made them out of yellow clay. At this time a quarrel between two other powerfull gods smashed one of the pillars of heaven. This caused great calamities to strike the earth, floods and wildfires, but Nuwa repaired the fallen pillar by cutting of the legs of the cosmic tortoise and fashioning them into a pillar.

The founder of the first and mythical dynasty the Xia dynasty, Yu the Great established the mandate of heaven when he stopped the floods which threatened to engulf ancient China. Yu with the aid of a yellow dragon and a magical black turtle stopped the flooding by building irrigation canals, ditches and dikes and in doing so established agriculture. Yu’s dynasty would rule for 700 years until 1600 bc.

 At the end of the Xia dynasty a seven year drought scorched the land the Xia had also become complacent and tyrannical rulers. The people starved and died of thirst, their crops failed and the land became barren. The people supported the rebellion of Tang of Shang, and the Shang dynasty reestablished the mandate from heaven and there was five centuries of peace and prosperity.

The last ruler of the Shang ignored the affairs of state and preferred drinking and orgies, and floods, fires, earthquakes and raining animals devastated the land. The Zhou dynasty defeated the now ailing and corrupt Shang and established the last and longest of China’s ancient dynasties, claiming the mandate of heaven to legitimise their rule.

This story of the transitions between the ancient dynasties provides the precedent for tian ming. And principal runs something like this:  Heaven bestows the mandate on the ruler because of his virtue. The mandate is passed on to the ruler’s chosen successor. However when the ruler becomes tyrannical and devoid of virtue, then heaven revokes the mandate through devastating climate chaos. The people are then justified in overthrowing the ruler .

Tian ming has essentially two facets the first amounts to kind of ancient Chinese second amendment – the right of the people to rise up and overthrow a tyrannical and morally corrupt ruler. The second is that the ruler, as “the son of heaven.” has a responsibility to please the force of heaven and therefore avert natural disaster during his reign.

Much has been made in online and scholarly commentary of the first of these facets. But it is the other side of tian ming that I find particularly interesting and most applicable for the modern age.  For we now know that rulers indeed do have the power to please heaven and avert natural disaster, or to go against the will of heaven and induce natural disaster. The imperial Chinese clearly had a better understanding of the relation between state and climate than many modern nations.

But what should a ruler do to please the will of heaven? Well one answer is given clearly in the Daoist classic, the Dao De Jing,

“Man follows earth, earth follows heaven, heaven follows the way, the way follows nature.”

As climate chaos and natural disasters wrack the world in the 21st century, causing increasing conflict, refugee crises, famines, droughts and floods it is abundantly clear that the leaders of our modern nations, China among them, have lost their heavenly mandate. And it is our responsibility raise up an overthrow them and re-establish the sacred balance between heaven, ruler and earth.  Picture by Daniela Gast.