(Analysis) The Mandate of Heaven and the Chinese Dream

Will Wain-Williams
The mandate of heaven is as relevant now as it was 3000 years ago. Pic credit Chinese president Xi Jinping. Pic credit: https://www.interest.co.nz/
The mandate of heaven is as relevant now as it was 3000 years ago. Pic credit Chinese president Xi Jinping. (Image Source: Interest)

During the Covid pandemic, Wang Xi Ning, deputy head of mission at the Chinese Embassy to Australia, gave an address to the National Press Club, where he said that Australia had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” in pushing for an independent enquiry into the origin of the virus. Such comments have become commonplace over the past few years as Chinese diplomats and officials have taken to western social media to voice their discontent with the west, a trend which has become known as “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”. 

This claim that the feelings of the Chinese people are connected to geo-politics raises the question of the relationship between state, nation and people in China, and how nationalism has been utilised by the Chinese government to create a cohesive narrative. This has become known as The Chinese Dream.

The Roots of the Chinese Identity

Confucius is often credited as being the founder of Chinese thinking. However, if we want to understand the root, we need to go back to the early Zhou Dynasty. The concept of the Mandate of Heaven (tianming 天命) originates from this time, and is crucial to understanding contemporary China’s world view.

The Mandate of Heaven refers to the early Zhou rulers’ concept of political legitimacy, which they propagated after defeating their predecessors, the Shang, over 3000 years ago. The Zhou rulers argued that they had not overthrown the Shang out of their own desire for power but had been ordered by “Heaven” to restore justice and order to the world. This theory became foundational to Chinese political thought and has remained on the mind of all of China’s rulers up to the present day.

Chinese thought goes back around 3000 years to the Zhou Dynasty.
Chinese thought goes back around 3000 years to the Zhou Dynasty. (image source: Author’s own)

Modern China is no different, and while antiquated terms may have fallen out of favour, the ideas behind them have not. The Communist Part of China has increasingly used nationalism as a method of maintaining social coherence and legitimacy of the government.

A core part of China’s nationalism is the perceived hostility of an “other” (generally the west), which is cultivated through the education system and then reinforced through media channels. Communist party educators promote school textbooks which heavily focus on cultural-nationalist ideologies, selectively repositioning cultural inheritance to maintain national legitimacy. Many of these textbooks extoll the virtues of Chinese civilisation, while simultaneously downplaying the achievements of western civilisation. Among these “national condition” (guoqing国庆) readers, World Treasures, Nations Pride (shijie zhi guibao, minzu zhi jiao’ao 世界之瑰宝,民族之骄傲) stands out as an excellent example:

“3000 Years ago, China already had discovered the compass and gunpowder, far before the European people. 1700 years ago, there was the emergence of paper; 1200 years ago, the invention of engraved printing; while 800 years ago there was the use of moveable-type printing. Other types of magnificent and exquisite metal objects, ceramics and glowingly beautiful, durable dyes are also famous specialties from Chinese antiquity. In particular, patriotic zeal and hard-working spirit have been characteristics of the Chinese nation throughout all time. Because of this, the Chinese people hold a great sense of national self-glorification”.

Upon this foundation of instilling a sense of pride in China’s achievements the “century of humiliation” is then introduced. This was a period spanning from the first Opium War in the 1850s to the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Juxtaposed against the list of accomplishments and extolls of China’s greatness in times past, this is then framed to incite anger and resentment against foreign forces. This century of humiliation was then used by Chinese leaders from Mao onwards to reinvigorate the Chinese people and create a sense of standing up to injustice.

The carving up of China by foreign powers became known as the Century of Humiliation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Century_of_humiliation#/media/File:China_imperialism_cartoon.jpg
The carving up of China by foreign powers became known as the Century of Humiliation: (Image source: Wikipedia)

These concepts are further reinforced in the way state media represents global affairs. Chinese professional news discourses encourage popular nationalism, especially in regard to international relations or foreign policy discourse related to the US and Japan.

Chinese state media is designed to function in conjunction with education as a tool for state propaganda. It is required to educate the public on patriotism in order to strengthen the state’s legitimacy. This two-pronged approach ensures that nationalist values are instilled from a young age and then reinforced throughout a citizen’s life as their only source of information is, as we have seen above, framed through the lens of the CCP’s brand of nationalism. 

In this light, it is easy to see how dissenting opinion or dissatisfaction can be branded as being in opposition to the collective, and perhaps being instigated by outside forces. At the same time, nationalism is used as a tool to ensure that the younger generation are distracted from the excesses of the CCP and instead focus their angst on anti-western nationalism.

Xi Jinping and The China Dream

Chinese nationalism has seen a sharp increase since Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013. In comparison to his predecessor Hu Jin Tao, who continued in the footsteps of Deng Xiao Ping and his keeping a low profile (tao guang yang hui 韬光养晦) approach to foreign policy, Xi’s regime has taken a much more assertive position on the global stage. Since Xi assumed leadership, China has taken a much more assertive role in world affairs and its foreign policy has indeed become much more confident, using both “carrots” and “sticks” in setting up the Belt and Road Initiative, but also increasing its military presence in the South China Sea.

The China Dream was not a concept initiated by Xi, it was already making its presence known during the Beijing Olympics of 2008. However, since Xi’s ascent to power it took a much more prominent role in state propaganda. Xi ensured the China Dream was solely focused on creating a moderately prosperous society (xiaokang shehui 小康社会) through upholding the core values of socialism, which you are able to see on signboards all over the country: prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity and friendship.

The Chinese Dream (image courtesy of CNN)
The Chinese Dream is a central part of the Chinese zeitgeist (Image source: CNN)

It is obvious here that this is a very different concept from the American Dream, which is one of individual success through following passion. The China Dream as seen through the eyes of Xi Jinping is one where the individual must play their part in creating this so-called moderately prosperous society. This can be seen clearly just be looking at the list of core values of socialism. It is also easy to see how the China Dream implies conformity to the actions of the state; indeed, it has nothing to do with realising what the west terms “the good life”, or any kind of individual satisfaction or accomplishment. Instead, it is wholy about being one part of a mass which is working together in a coordinated fashion to enact the goals set out by the party. 

At its root, the China Dream is also about surpassing other civilisations, and rests not only upon economic growth, but also a nostalgia of the greatness of ancient China, an idea that has been termed “nostalgic futurology”. The China Dream is also framed with nationalist tendencies against the backdrop of the Century of Humiliation, with phrases such as “the rejuvenation of China” and “China’s renaissance” being employed, which would be central to China “restoring its dignity”.

In the “Road to Rejuvenation” Exhibition held at the National Palace Museum in 2012, the overall story being told had shifted away from the Mao-era framing of the oppressed Chinese people as standing with other oppressed peoples worldwide in a unified class struggle from hostile forces both domestic and foreign, towards a narrative of China being a lone victim in a world of aggressors.


While Xi Jinping is not responsible for the creation of Chinese nationalism, he has built upon a long tradition of nationalistic tendencies and brought them together as a uniting force in driving China forward towards his own aspirations. In contrast to the Mao era rhetoric of class struggle and proletariats of the world uniting against a common oppressor, Xi is now transforming the dialogue to one of the Chinese nation being a lonely victim against aggressive foreign forces bent on halting China’s inevitable rise. He has drawn upon the greatness of times past and declared that China is only reclaiming its rightful place as a superpower.

This is all condensed into the China Dream, a concept very different to its American counterpart. Here, there are no gains for an individual, it is all about the state as a whole moving towards a goal decided upon by the party. All citizens must conform to this goal and share the aspiration of the nation. There is no distinction between the individual, the nation and the state here. This is achieved by drawing on a long cultural tradition in which the individual is defined within relation to the society and is not an autonomous unit as is in western philosophy. 

At the same time, it has been shown that this nationalist model, reinforced through cultural and linguistic habits, brings about an unhealthy relationship with the outside world. This is one built on distrust and suspicion, and a kind of contradictory superiority/inferiority complex, where Chinese people on the one hand feel pride at the complexity and depth of their culture, but on the other hand an insecurity which manifests in the need for affirmation from the outside world. 

What remains to be seen is will this model be successful in taking China towards a brighter future? Or is it merely patching together the cracks in a society on the brink of collapse? The next few years will be crucial in answering this question, as how China responds to growing criticism of its handling the coronavirus pandemic, and how it responds to a toughening approach from western nations will be crucial in which of these two questions will be answered with a yes.

Further Readings:

  1. If the mandate of heaven is withdrawn – ASPI The Strategist 14 August 2019.
  2. The mandate of heaven then and now – Organisation for research in China and Asia December 1 2022.
  3. What does Xi Jinping’s China Dream mean? – BBC 6 June 2013.

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(Analysis) The Mandate of…

by Will Wain-Williams time to read: 7 min