The Mirror and the Mandate 明镜与命运

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For early Chinese rulers, observing and communicating space and the passage of time were considered divine obligations (Guo, 2017), which helps to explain why predicting celestial events was essential for a dynasty’s success. The duty of the ruler was not only to understand these celestial patterns, but to act righteously and know the exact timing for scheduling religious ceremonies (Pankenier, 1998). The ruler’s ability to maintain harmony between Heavenly and Earthly realms showed that he had the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ 天命 (Tianming), which equated with regime legitimacy.

Temple of Heaven

Image: The Temple of Heaven. Retrieved March 18, 2017 from here. According to Wu (2016), the design of the temple reflects the cosmological laws believed to be central to the workings of the universe, where the three-tiered circular roofs and outer staircase represents the interconnection between the sky and earth.

For a short period during the Han dynasty 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), Liu He 劉賀 (93-59 BCE) became emperor until he was dethroned by the Chief General, Huo Guang 霍光, for displaying “licentious and arrogant behaviour” (Katz, 2017). While not much is known about Liu He except for his “inclination to pleasures”, “loose morals” and disregard for the Mandate, for contemporary archaeologists, Liu He has become an increasingly important figure in Chinese history. Recent findings show that Liu’s mausoleum was filled with royal seals, ancient bamboo, jade ornaments, as well as the earliest known image of the great sage philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE).

Confucian Mirror

Image: The Bronze Mirror. Retrieved 18 March, 2017 from China Daily.

Standing almost one meter tall, the image appears on a bronze mirror that is encased in a hand-painted wooden cover showing Confucius dressed as a commoner with two students by his side. Though broken into pieces, alongside the mirror are 2,000 Chinese ink characters that tell stories of Confucius and his pupils that are not found in other documents dating back to the Western Han period.

For some observers, the inclusion of these philosophical teachings could support the claims that Liu was a more complex character than his historical record shows. As Shou Che and Songzhi Pei noted in their book ‘Empresses and Consorts’ (1999), the emperor’s recitation of Confucian teachings could mean that Liu did not fall out of favour for his shameful behaviour, but for being a ‘free spirit’ who threatened the Chief General’s control of the imperial government. Liang Cai (2014) also states that the more likely explanation for Liu’s dethronement “was that the emperor trusted no one but former subordinates and so filled the upper ranks of the bureaucracy with officials from the kingdom he had previously ruled.”

In that case, as well as providing more information about Confucius beyond the Analects 论语, the current authoritative source for Confucian teachings, the writing on the mirror may provide insights into the life of one of China’s shortest ruling emperors. The events surrounding the disposal of Liu He are also significant for understanding the role of the Mandate in the workings of the central government, and the different ways that Chinese rulers maintained power.

To read the original article on the archaeological findings of the earliest known image of Confucius, click here.


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