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?
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that a lack of morality on the part of a ruler, or a line of rulers, would result in the Mandate of Heaven being withdrawn from one ruling line and given to another.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...
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