China's earthquake and the Mandate of Heaven

In Chinese history, natural disasters are often accompanied by a change in dynasty. Don't hold your breath

Published May 13, 2008 3:19PM (EDT)

The devastating earthquake in the Sichuan province of China -- 12,000 dead and counting -- is spawning the usual blogospheric chatter about the "Mandate of Heaven." As in, has the Chinese Communist Party lost it?

Ever since the Zhou Dynasty replaced the Shang some 3000 years ago, natural disasters have been interpreted in China as a sign of heaven's disfavor with whomever is currently in charge. The Tangshan earthquake of 1976, which killed hundreds of thousands, provided the most famous recent demonstration of this theory. A few months later, Chairman Mao died, setting the stage for the eventual ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping and a radically different approach to Chinese economic development.

2008 has had its shares of disasters, starting with the destructive snow storms in January, and punctuated by the Sichuan earthquake -- the worst earthquake in China since Tangshan. Coming so close to the border of Tibet, the scene of destructive riots just a month ago, you could easily make the case that Heaven is unhappy, especially if you're already predisposed against the CCP.

But there's one problem with the formulation: Where's that new dynasty waiting in the wings, ready to seize power from the discredited rulers who have failed to keep mankind in harmony with heaven and earth?

From the days of the Zhou, the theory of the Mandate of Heaven has been closely associated with the problem of establishing the legitimacy of the new government. New dynastic rulers arrive, point out the floods, famine, earthquakes and general distress that characterized the last years of the previous dynasty, and announce that obviously, the previous rulers had lost the Mandate of Heaven, as witnessed by all the destruction.

Even without an imminent shakeup in power, natural disasters provided an opportunity for in-house critics of the regime to voice dissent.

The great China scholar Burton Watson wrote:

Like the Greeks and Romans, the early Chinese firmly believed in the portentous significance of unusual or freakish occurences in the natural world. This belief formed the basis for the Han theory that evil actions or misgovernment in high places invites dislocations in the natural order, causing the appearance of comets, eclipses, drought, locusts, weird animals, etc... However interpreted, this theory of portents and omens had a tremendous influence upon Han political thought, for it gave the bureaucracy a method of indirectly censuring the throne when direct criticism was impolitic.

Right now, media accounts of the earthquake are focusing on collapsed buildings in Sichuan and wondering whether they were built to code, speculating that building contractors cut corners while local officials looked the other way. In China's pell mell economy, such practices seem likely to have been widespread. But for that kind of mismanagement to open up cracks in the perceived legitimacy of the CCP to govern China requires that there be some kind of countervailing force ready to take China in a different direction. A Deng Xiaoping to eclipse a Mao Zedong, or a Qing to sweep out the Ming.

Even with all the environmental consquences of China's recent economic growth, longstanding grievances of workers and peasants against corruption, and intellectual discontent with the Party's control over political discourse, the current dislocations don't seem comparable at all to the upheavals that Mao perpetrated in the 1960s, or the vast incompetence that characterized the failing years of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Quite the contrary -- as long as China's economy continues to boom, the CCP will keep its mandate -- especially with no credible opposition in the wings. Because China's history demonstrates that mandates aren't just lost. They're taken.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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