What role did morality play in Sima Qian’s description of the transfer of the Xia ruler’s mandate from heaven to the Shang dynasty?
The Mandate of Heaven is a fundamental concept in classical Chinese philosophy. Good rulers were allowed to continue their reigns, but bad rulers would lose the mandate, and it would be transferred to a more deserving person.
A young member of the Han court, Sima Qian, succeeded his father as the Han dynasty's grand historian in 108. Sima Qian's literary masterpiece, Records of the Grand Historian is a monumental work of history that spans 130 chapters. It begins with the semi-legendary founder of China, the Yellow Emperor, and covers ancient Chinese history up to Sima Qian's own time. He covered a wide range of topics in his book, including the rise and fall of China's ruling dynasties.
Some modern historians have criticized Sima Qian's tendency in his work to make moral judgments about rulers and events he described. While this is very much frowned upon by most professional historians today, it was not controversial in this period of Chinese history.
The Chinese believed in the Mandate of Heaven and that it played a real role in the fortunes of ruling dynasties. When the Xia lost power to the Shang, most Chinese took it for granted that the mandate was being enforced. when Sima Qian wrote about this transfer of power in moral terms, his readers would have understood it in the context of the Mandate of Heaven. He and his readers believed that the Xia must have acted immorally and that the mandate had been transferred to the Shang because they would rule with a higher degree of morality.
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