Sons of Heaven
Jonathan Fenby, 2008
Sitting on the Peacock Throne in the Forbidden City in Beijing,* China's emperors personified a system based on Confucian teachings which exalted the harmony of society and the planet, and demanded awe from all. Expressing their majesty and power through elaborate ceremonials and art, the dynasties which ruled China claimed semi-divine status. The ruler was set apart, rarely appearing in public apart from such symbolic occasions as his procession to the great circular Temple of Heaven in the south of the capital to offer prayers to the gods. He usually ate alone, choosing from a lavish array of dishes brought by eunuchs. At night, his chosen concubine was brought into his chamber wrapped in a red silk gown and laid naked at the foot of his bed. Imperial mythology and Confucian tradition gave social and administrative glue to a country which covered only 7 per cent of the surface of the globe but contained around a fifth of its population. Dynasties operated on the basis of filial piety, the cornerstone of old values. In return for unquestioning allegiance, the sovereigns promised to be benevolent, caring for the welfare of their people and invoking divine protection on their behalf. A master-servant relationship ran from the court down to rural villages. Every man, it was said, regarded those above him as tigers to be feared, and those below him as dogs to be kicked. The empire reached back to 221 BC, when the First Emperor established himself in Xi'an after his kingdom of Qin had won out over warring states. His dynasty was one of the shortest-lived, enduring only until its fall under his son in 207 BC. Ruling houses came and went in cycle of rise and fall that would become engraved on the national psyche as they won and lost the Mandate of Heaven granted by the gods. … [T]he idea of unifying rule from the centre had been implanted by the First Emperor and remained the foundation for the country, while the Mandate of Heaven...
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