If we think of morality broadly enough, then morality plays a very important role in the transfer of the Mandate of Heaven from one emperor to the next in ancient Chinese thought. People typically thought that a lack of morality on the part of a ruler, or a line of rulers, would result in the Mandate of Heaven being withdrawn from one ruling line and given to another. This important role for morality in the transfer of power can be seen in Sima Qian’s account that is found in this primary source.
When thinking about morality in the context of this passage, we have to understand something about the use of the word “virtue.” The word “virtue” appears twice in the passage, at a very important point in the narrative. Sima Qian reports that the last of the Xia emperors did not practice virtuous government while the man who would become the first Shang emperor did. This helped bring about the transfer of the Mandate of Heaven from the Xia to the Shang.
But what does virtue mean? It is not the same thing that we think of when we discuss virtue today. For us, virtue and morality are the same thing. When we say that someone leads a virtuous life, we tend to mean that they were faithful to their spouse, did not lie or cheat or steal, and otherwise did not break any moral laws. We do not mean that they did a good job at work or that they voted in every election. These are things that are outside of our ideas of morality.
In ancient China, however, things like this were part of virtue. The Confucians believed that virtue did include integrity, but they also thought that it included things like having knowledge, following justice, and performing the proper rites. (You can see links to a discussion of some aspects of Confucian virtue in the link below.) These are things that would not really seem like moral issues to us, but which did have moral import to the ancient Chinese.
When looked at in this way, morality was very important in Sima Qian’s narrative. We start by hearing that the Emperor K’ung-chia engaged in “licentious and disorderly actions.” This implies that he did things that we would think of as being immoral. Perhaps he was sexually immoral and got drunk too much. However, these are not the only things that are mentioned in the passage that have to do with morality from the ancient Chinese point of view.
Instead, we see that K’ung-chia was unable to properly care for the two dragons sent by Heaven, even after he got someone trained to care for them. Since dragons were associated with powerful forces and were a symbol of imperial power, this implies that K’ung-chia did not know how to take care of his Mandate from Heaven. He did not have enough virtue to know how to deal with the dragons.
Later, we see more references to virtue. As mentioned above, we see that the last Xia emperor does not rule with virtue while the first Shang emperor cultivates it. We can see, then, that the Xia had been failing to act virtuously for some time. By contrast, the person who became the first Shang emperor acted virtuously. It is no accident that the Mandate of Heaven passed to him.
To the ancient Chinese, rulers needed to act virtuously so that they could keep the Mandate of Heaven. If they did not, Heaven might permit them to be overthrown. Virtue and morality, then, played a very large part in the transfer of power from one dynasty to the next.