I’ve referenced this several times in the past few months, and each time people have asked what I meant by it. So:
Ancient China was in many ways a very weird place, even by the standards of ancient civilizations, which were all rather peculiar to our modern sensibilities. I don’t claim to understand it well – or at all – but I find it a fascinating subject of study.
One of their widely-held beliefs was that a society would only thrive if its ruler properly respected dictates of the divine and harmonized with the nature of the world; rulers which acted in accordance with these mystical principles would have kingdoms which thrived, but those who did not would reap destruction. Like so much of ancient Chinese thought, this idea superficially resembles certain rationalistic and scientific conclusions which reasonable people accept today. Obviously it has a certain degree of merit: foreseeing and planning well for disastrous contingencies would benefit any society, and failing to do so or acting in ways which increase risk would be liable to end poorly. But the Chinese belief is much more complex and mystical than that.
They believed that a ‘righteous’ ruler would have good fortune and prosperity come upon his domain, not through human agency, but divine intervention. There would be clement weather in due season, bountiful harvests, and an absence of dangerous natural events such as floods, earthquakes, and plagues. ‘Unrighteous’ rulers would lose the good graces of the Celestial Bureaucracy and would face just such catastrophes. They would have lost what we refer to in English as the ‘Mandate of Heaven’, the divine approval of a ruler’s behavior and resulting favorable fortune. This was held to be so certain that the presence or absence of natural disasters was used to determine the virtue of a ruler regardless of other evidence. If they were truly righteous, the thinking went, they wouldn’t have such problems – so the existence of the problem proves that they are unworthy. So there were often upheavals after major droughts and floods and so on, things which made people unhappy and shook their faith in the quality of their leadership, providing ways and means for those who desired to have power to turn the people against the status quo.
The modern equivalent of the Mandate of Heaven is “it’s the economy, stupid”. It doesn’t matter whether the people who are currently in charge themselves made decisions which brought on economic troubles, or even whether they’ve made good decisions since being put into power. If times are tough, and the people are dissatisfied, the incumbents go out and new people go in. Contrariwise, if the people believe that their difficulties have been eased by the people in power, even if they’ve actually been increased by terrible decision-making, they laud the authorities and support them beyond reason.
In either case, the decisions of the people as a whole are determined by an invalid association of their moods and the perceived quality of their leadership.