The Duke of Zhou and the Mandate of Heaven

“I must be slipping. It’s been too long since I have dreamt of the Duke of Zhou.”

— Confucius

Names, Zhougong Temple

Names, Zhougong Temple

When trying to sort out the Bronze Age Dynasties—Xia, the Shang, and the Zhou—it’s helpful to remember the three Ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (S.P.A.). Unless you slept through that week in AP European History in which case the following will only confuse you:

Zhougong Temple

Zhougong Temple

  1. Xia = Socrates
  2. Shang = Plato
  3. Zhou = Aristotle

Socrates was the philosopher who started it all, but he never put pen to paper, or papyrus. We only know about Socrates from what his student, Plato, wrote about him. And of course Plato wrote some of his own killer filler as well. (Who can forget the riveting Second Alcibiades?) Plato in turn taught Aristotle, and when Aristotle started writing, there was no stopping him. He put words to theories that would influence human understanding for over two-thousand years.

Likewise, the Xia were the primer, but left no written records. It was the Shang who started the paper trail, or tortoise trail. While Plato left behind greats like The Apology, the Shang left us with nail-biter oracle bone inscriptions such as If We Raise 3,000 Men and Call Upon Them to Attack the Gongfang, Will We Receive Abundant Assistance?

Then came the Zhou, who left an Amazon-sized store of records, rituals, speeches, and odes—and even more ascribed to them—which would form the basis of Chinese thought until the reformation of the imperial exams in the early 20th century.

Of course the whole Greek-Philosopher/Chinese-Dynasty analogy’s not perfect. For it to be more accurate, you’d have to imagine that Plato and Aristotle, instead of just learning from and gaining insight from their teachers, killed them and took their jobs. That’s why we have to be a little skeptical of what the rulers of Zhou in particular wrote about the Shang, wine lake and all.

The Mandate of Heaven

Zhougong temple guide drawing 2Yes, we know what you’re thinking. Mandateofheaven would be a great name for a gay men’s dating site, but in the Chinese context it refers to the law of dynastic succession.

Like Yao of old, King Wen’s son Wu, first ruler of the Zhou Dynasty, had a problem, but it wasn’t as simple as controlling the Yellow River. It was about controlling the hearts and minds of the people. He’d just overthrown a king believed to be god on earth, and his authority was precarious. So he asked his little brother, the Duke of Zhou, “Duke, how does one explain how sometimes it’s okay to overthrow a divine dynasty, and sometimes it’s not? Or rather, it was okay once, when I did it, but not ever again?”

So the Duke of Zhou conceptualized the Mandate of Heaven.

According to this theory, the King isn’t God on Earth. More like Heaven’s divinely-appointed representative. Every so often, when a leader acts contrary to the wishes of Heaven, he and the dynasty lose Heaven’s mandate. In these rare instances, Heaven will call upon a new leader such as King Wen’s son, King Wu. Honorable King Wu, who reluctantly took up the sword, overthrew the impostor on the throne, and assumed the heavy burden of kingship that Heaven bestowed upon him.

The Wine Lake stories are shining, bubbly examples of how the Xia and Shang lost the Mandate, and the Duke of Zhou’s theory explained why it was important for the incoming dynasty to document the debauchery of its predecessor, while embellishing on the natural disasters and eclipses that signaled the loss of Heaven’s favor.


Did you know?… A search for “laugh” in the average Chinese history text returns 47 instances of “slaughter”.


But the Duke was just getting warmed up, my guide at the Zhougong Temple in Luoyang tells me. She points to a mural on the inside wall of the main hall depicting events in the life of the Duke. After two years as ruler of all China, King Wu died, leaving a toddler on the throne. During the youth’s formative years, it was the Duke of Zhou who ruled the country, keeping the throne warm for the tyke and protecting the fragile dynasty from threats external and internal. From the remnants of the Shang loyalists to the insurrection of the Duke’s elder brother. The dynasty would not have survived without the Duke, and when the young king became of age, the Duke did something even more incredible. He stepped down.

The Building of Luoyang

The Building of Luoyang, Zhougang Temple mural

He was for all intents and purposes ruler of the kingdom. He could have easily knocked off his nephew and seized the reigns. And many a future regent would. But the Duke was the Cincinatus of his day. Perhaps in doing the honorable thing, the Duke hoped to set a precedent. [He didn’t.] He built a new city about east of the capital called Luoyang, and prepared to live there in order to give the new king full reign. But the young king gave the Duke permission to stay, and the Duke continued to advise the king.

The Mandate of Heaven wasn’t the only thing the Duke was attributed with. He’s traditionally credited with establishing the rites and traditions that would become the basis for Chinese social and political order during the Zhou Dynasty’s many years in business…and for centuries after its liquidation sale, when pieces of the kingdom were bought and sold to the most ruthless bidder…

Zhougong Temple

Zhougong Temple entrance, Luoyang

Zhougong Temple entrance, Luoyang

My favorite sight in Luoyang is this one, the Zhougong Temple, dedicated to the Duke of Zhou. I assumed the Zhougong Temple would be the big round Temple-of-Heaven looking building I passed on the bus. Instead, it’s hidden among old apartment complexes and alleys. I’m surprised how empty it is. The attendant on duty, a Ms. Guo is startled that somebody’s walked into the information center, let alone a foreigner. She quickly makes a phone call, then tries to help by drawing pictures in her sketch book. But she doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Chinese. When I mention my surprise that the temple of Zhougong is almost empty, she writes that the Duke of Zhou was the “root of Chinese culture, but people don’t know.” She also writes something about the temple surviving “the debris” but I can’t be sure what she means.

As I’m about to leave, she stops me. It seems like she’s stalling. Finally she makes another call and the woman on the other end explains that she’s the English-speaking guide and she’ll be here in 20 minutes if I can wait.

Zhougong temple guide drawing1

Some of Zhougong’s many accomplishments

When she arrives on her bicycle, she gives me a personal tour in English of the whole complex, and apologizes for not being “professional.” I want to tell her this is one of the most professional and personable tours I’ve been on all year. She explains the story behind the murals in the temple. And mentions that her family name stems from one of Zhougong’s sons.

“You’re related to the Duke of Zhou?”

“Many, many people are,” she says.

“In Luoyang?” I ask.

“In all of China.”

She shows me a stele and asks, “How do you call this?” I know it’s pronounced “stele” as in Steely Dan, but it sounds strange to my ear as I’ve never spoken the word aloud. And I think she can sense it. How do you explain to someone who’s never left China, where a temple isn’t a temple without an ancient stele, how rarely the word comes up in America?

She translates an inscription. “It means a war happened in a place called Muyie. This place is in the north of Henan Province… Zhougong helped his brother King Wu to win this battle. After this battle Shang Dynasty disappeared. Zhou Dynasty was founded.”

Zhougong Temple offerings

Zhougong Temple offerings

As for the debris Ms. Guo had described, my guide explains that many of the relics were removed during the Cultural Revolution, and some have come trickling back only recently. One of the sculptures of Zhougong’s sons, for example, is an original from the Ming Dynasty. “Made of mud,” she says. “It was found in the east of this house. In the walls.”

Luoyang is one of China’s most ancient cities. The capital several times over, and I’ve lost track of all the times it was destroyed. It’s not like Xi’an, with its walls intact. To find the ancient city, you have to go searching for it. But it’s worth the search.

stairwells-anonymous-Luoyang

Stairwell poetry, Luoyang hostel

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About sinestor

Originally from Los Angeles/Long Beach, California, I'm currently spending a year exploring the amazing world known as China. My main website is Every Day's a Holiday.

2 comments

  1. Love reading your detailed history, Steve! And yes I think I dozed off in AP European History that week because I can’t remember that Socrates/Plato/Aristotle lecture you are talking about 🙂

    • Ha! Yeah, Grady was awesome. My personal trick: using the word “SPA” to remember the order of the three. (I’m reading Sophie’s World now—a sort of mystery that goes through the history of philosophy. Good read!) Obviously Maben and AP bio must have been a bigger influence for you, Doctor D. (:

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