The Mandate Of Hell

Students of Chinese history will be familiar with the mandate of heaven (天命 – tiānmìng), but the concept can be a little hard to grasp for westerners, especially those with a Judaeo-Christian background. “Heaven” means something very different on this side of the world, where it’s usually associated with the happy-ever-after place that good people go after they die.

When foreigners first came to China and encountered the concept of 天, they not only decided to translate it as “heaven,” but put their own religious spin on it. Many of them assumed that there was a deity called Heaven, similar to if perhaps less fully formed than the Western God, who the Chinese worshipped. This would have come as news to the Chinese, who don’t go in for Supreme Beings the way westerners do. There are gods, yes, especially among the less educated, but they tend to serve utilitarian purposes, and are easily discarded in favor of more effective competitors if they fail to deliver the goods.

Heaven, in the Chinese sense, is better understood as a force – fans of Star Wars might have the easiest time thinking of it as The Force – rather than a being. If you delve into philosophical realms, it’s the creative energy that combines with the receptive nature of the earth to produce all that lies between in the Middle Kingdom, literally 中国 (Zhōngguó ), or  China. (It would also extend to all the realms where life flourishes, though the Chinese do prefer to think of themselves as being at the center of it.)

What then is the mandate of heaven? It’s the authority by which emperors or other rulers (that would include presidents or Chinese Communist Party chairmen) govern. The power of heaven, it’s believed, has lifted them into positions of power, and as long as they do a good job of caring for the nation and the people, it will ensure that they have smooth sailing. Crops will be plentiful, enemies will hold back or meet defeat, the people will be happy and prosper.

Is this anything like the “divine right” of kings, you might ask, the premise by which many monarchs, European and otherwise, justified their wealth and power, or, for that matter, manifest destiny, the philosophy invented by European-Americans to justify occupying and subduing all the land from sea to shining sea, regardless of who else might already be living there?

There might be some overlap, but the mandate of heaven differs in at least one fundamental way: unlike divine right or manifest destiny, it is temporary, not a fixed state of affairs. When European kings ran into a rough patch and the peasants were starving or being slaughtered, they were told that God was testing them, that they needed to have faith and sacrifice even more for the sake of the king. Under the mandate of heaven, however, there would be none of that. When things went wrong – a plague or pestilence, for example, a barbarian invasion, floods, droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes – this was seen as evidence that the emperor had fallen out of favor with heaven and lost his mandate.

This did not mean the peasants were supposed to grin and bear it, to wait for matters to improve and the emperor to get his act together. Quite the contrary: it meant the peasants needed to stop listening to or following that emperor and find a new one who was more on the ball and/or in tune with heaven’s ways. Granted, this did not always go smoothly. Sometimes it resulted in rebellions or civil wars that lasted decades or longer and cost millions of lives. But if the peasants, wanting to avoid all that trouble, acquiesced to an incompetent emperor, effectively saying, “Well, sure, he’s an idiot, but what are you gonna do, he’s the emperor, after all,” then they themselves would also be deemed to have lost the mandate of heaven, and the consequences would not be pretty.

Given that view, what would traditionally-minded Chinese make of conditions in the USA today? For most of the past couple centuries, our country exerted an aura of near-invincibility. If gods existed at all, they seemed to have taken up permanent residence here; by far the world’s greatest share of wealth and power resided here with them. We were sometimes feared, sometimes admired, sometimes even loved, but for the longest time, bad things tended to happen to other people in other places (yes, there were the inconvenient truths of slavery and genocide, but for those who didn’t look too closely, the Hollywood dream factory managed to turn even those fearsome blots on our history into minor hiccups and/or sources of entertainment).

With thousands of years of history behind them, the Chinese take a longer view of matters like this. The United States lost its way and got saddled with a bad emperor? They’d been through it dozens of times when Europeans were still learning to build houses and figuring out indoor plumbing. Either the Americans will sort it out and replace their failing government, or will continue to limp from one disaster to another. But what of Americans, who are not at all used to this sort of thing? The closest we’ve come to it was the Civil War, and even that, brutal and bloody as it was, barely inconvenienced those not living in combat zones or who were wealthy and well-connected enough to avoid having to fight in it.

Always before, whether it was a Great Depression, a World War, a terrorist attack, a crime wave, or a polio epidemic, the government could be counted on, sooner or later, to muster its resources, protect its citizens (the majority of them, anyway), and set things back on an even keel. Never before have we experienced the pervasive misfortune of a government so incompetent – or perhaps just plain evil – that everything it does seems contrived, accidentally or deliberately, to make matters worse.

It’s become popular to blame the year. Facebook and Twitter are littered with posts lamenting 2020 as the “worst year ever,” etc., but that’s akin to blaming your car crash on Mercury being in retrograde. If America has in fact lost the mandate of heaven – or whatever Western equivalent you prefer to employ – it’s something that’s been building for a long time, with its tentacles sunk deeply into the American body politic. For decades we skimped on education; now we have tens of millions of functional illiterates – economically, culturally, historically – choosing leaders and policies with the power to destroy the world. We’ve elevated individual desires and the acquisition of personal wealth above all else, to the detriment, even the destruction of the public good.

How do we get out of this? Or do we? Sure, unless the planet itself is incinerated – not completely off the table, unfortunately – there will come a time when those of us who survive will look back and – well, not exactly laugh, but at least heave a sigh of relief, feel a frisson of what the Chinese know as 苦尽甘来: “Bitterness ends, sweetness comes.” But could things get a lot worse first? Yes, I’m afraid so, though of course I hope not. I’m at an age where I had planned to enjoy a quiet life, studying, writing, talking, and traveling, enjoying the pleasures of my home in one of the world’s great cities, New York, and, when possible, in some of the other cities I’ve come to love and cherish, like London, Rome, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Guangzhou. Now nearly all of that is off the table.

When I visited East Germany in the 1980s, it was a real gutpunch to hear people explain what it was like to be held prisoner in their own country; now it is we Americans who are no longer free to travel beyond our borders. When our leaders took us into stupid wars or failed to protect the civil rights of our fellow citizens, marches and protests and court cases and elections, even if they always seemed to take too long, would eventually bear fruit and accomplish the necessary changes. We no longer have that confidence, let alone certainty, that our needs will be met or our petitions taken seriously.

We’re hardly the first people to see our country collapse or succumb to dictatorship. More countries than not have endured or are still enduring similar events. You could say we Americans are spoiled, that we’ve had it easy for so long that we’ve forgotten that a soft and privileged life is not ours by divine right or manifest destiny, let alone a mandate of heaven. When I was young, and the whole world seemed young with me, President Kennedy concluded his inaugural address with the words, “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

I didn’t interpret those words as suggesting we had the right to arrogate divinity to serve our own purposes, but that rather there was a force, a nature, a power that coursed through the universe and that our job was to align ourselves with that power and use it – or let ourselves be used by it – to do the great work of building a better and fairer world. You don’t have to believe in God, or a Supreme Being or higher power, or any kind of magical being in the sky for that to make sense. But now, at the other end of my life, when I’m as filled as ever with hopes and dreams and promises, if not for myself, then for the generations that will come after me, it feels too often as though we’ve taken that bright, shining vision, that gift of nature and the liberating power of truth, and sold it for a mess of pottage. Like Jedi lost in the wilderness, we’ve turned our back on The Force, and the mandate of hell is upon us.

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