Kingship: Kingship in East Asia

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The central focus of East Asian civilization until the beginning of the twentieth century remained the king. He was the center of the universe, whether it was in China, Korea, or Japan, and he was supremely responsible for the well-being and prosperity of the society over which he reigned. The king's political authority was ultimately based on the religious claim that he possessed the mandate of Heaven, whether temporarily or perpetually. Moreover, the heavenly origin of the king was acknowledged almost invariably in East Asia. His status was generally defined as (1) the earthly representative of heaven or heavenly will, (2) the descendant of a god, or (3) the god incarnate.

The earliest institution of kingship to emerge in East Asia developed on the mainland of China with the establishment of the Shang kingdom (c. 15001050 bce). The Shang state centered around the king (wang ) for, according to oracle-bone inscriptions, he was the "unique man" who could appeal to his ancestors for blessings or, if necessary, dissipate ancestral curses that affected the state. It was believed that determining and influencing the will of the ancestral spirits were possible through divination, prayer, and sacrifice. The king's ancestors interceded, in turn, with Di or Shangdi, the supreme being in heaven, who stood at the apex of the spiritual hierarchy of the Shang.

The question of whether or not the Shang people defined the status of their king as Shangdi's "descendant" has not yet been settled. The Shang dynasty was founded by members of the Zi clan, who were descendants of the clan's founder, Xie. According to the Shi jing, Xie was born miraculously; his mother became pregnant after swallowing an egg dropped by a dark bird in flight. This mythic story might be taken to suggest that the Shang people believed in a blood link between Shangdi and the king. It may be noted, however, that no oracle-bone inscription has thus far pointed to the genealogical relationship. According to David N. Keightley, the doctrine of the "mandate of Heaven" (tianming ), usually considered a creation of the Zhou dynasty (1150256 bce), has deep roots in the theology of the Shang. Di, the supreme god of the Shang, is most impersonal in character; that is, it was not generally thought that he could be "bribed" by the sacrifices offered by the members of the royal family. It was precisely this impersonality that made it possible for Di to harm the dynasty by sponsoring the attack of the Zhou, the dynasty that followed the Shang.

The state religion of the Zhou times centered on sacrifice to Tian (Heaven) and the gods of the soil (she ). A vast ceremonial was elaborated in which the Zhou king played the leading role and on which the well-being of his state was deemed to depend. Two kinds of sacrifices were offered to Tian, the supreme god of the Zhou: in the ancestral temple and in the open fields. The sacrifice in the open fields, called the "suburban sacrifice," was the religious act par excellence of a reigning king; a burnt offering of an unblemished calf was offered to Tian at the winter solstice, on the round hillock in the southern suburbs of the royal city.

The Shi jing narrates the origin of the Zhou people: a woman named Yuan stepped on the big toe of Shangdi's footprint and then gave birth to Hou Ji (Prince Millet), the god of agriculture, who was considered the primordial ancestor of the Zhou. This notion of divine descent probably helped to establish the Zhou's claim to the royal throne, and it may also have contributed to the Zhou conception of the king as "son of Heaven" (tianzi ).

The Son of Heaven was one who received the mandate of Heaven. This mandate signified that imperial authority could not become a permanent possession of the ruler, that Heaven had the complete freedom to confer or withdraw its charisma or "gift of grace" from the ruler on earth. Whether or not the king was given the divine mandate was generally determined by his acceptance by the "people" (the ruling class and their clients, i.e., the literati and landowners). If the people recognized his rulership, it was an indication that the heavenly mandate remained with him, but if they deposed him or killed him, it was a clear sign that he had lost Heaven's moral support. Under these circumstances, the Zhou conception of the Son of Heaven tended to lose in the course of time whatever genealogical implications it may have had in its beginnings.

The classical Chinese conception of sovereignty took shape in the Qin and Han periods (221 bce220 ce). While the sovereign adopted the title, connoting supreme power, of huangdi (emperor), he was never considered divine, at least while he was alive, nor was he regarded as an incarnation of a divine being. Rather, he was a "unique man" representing Heaven's will on earth and serving as the link between Heaven and earth. The Chinese notion of the Son of Heaven in its classical form had nothing to do with the genealogical conception of kingship, such as in ancient Egypt or Japan, that the king was the descendant of a certain god or the god incarnate; the emperor was simply the earthly representative of Heaven or heavenly will. The essential function of the Chinese emperor, as formulated in the Han period, was to maintain the harmonious cosmic order by means of ceremonials. "The Sage-Kings did not institute the ceremonies of the suburban sacrifices casually," states the Han shu (chap. 25). "The sacrifice to Heaven is to be held at the southern suburb. Its purpose is to conform to the yang principle. The sacrifice to earth is to be held at the northern suburb. Its purpose is to symbolize the yin principle." In short, the emperor maintained the cosmic balance by assisting Heaven and earth in the regulation and harmonization of the yin and yang principles.

In the centuries that followed the fall of the Han empire, China was often threatened and invaded by the nomadic peoples of Central and Northeast Asia. Here, too, the king (khagan, khan ) was considered a sacred person, deriving his sacredness and authority from Tengri (Heaven); he was heavenly in origin, received the mandate from Heaven, and was a supremely important spokesman of heavenly will, serving as Heaven's representative on earth.

Significantly, the sacred nature of the king in Central Asia was often conceived after the archaic model of the shaman. Among the Tujue, who dominated the Mongolian steppes from 552 to 744, a series of strange rituals was performed when a new king acceded to the throne (Zhou shu, bk. 50): the high-ranking officials turned a felt carpet, on which the king was seated, nine times in the direction of the sun's movement, and after each turn they prostrated themselves, making obeisance to him. Then they throttled him with a piece of silken cloth to the point of strangulation and asked him how many years he was to rule. In an almost unconscious state, the king uttered his answer.

This ceremony is somewhat reminiscent of the shaman's rite of initiation in Central Asia in which the felt carpet played a role. Seated on a felt carpet, the shaman was carried nine times around nine birches in the direction of the sun's movement and made nine turns on each of them while climbing. Nine turns symbolize the shaman's ascent to nine heavens. According to the belief of the Tujue, the king in his accession makes a symbolic ascent to the highest heaven through the nine cosmic zones, starting his journey from the felt carpet on which he is seated; then, after reaching the top of heaven, he descends onto earth. In this sense, the king was heavenly in origin. It seems also certain that the number of reigning years he uttered in an unconscious state was accepted as an announcement from Tengri, the supreme being in heaven.

The use of the felt carpet was not confined to the T'u-jue. It was also used among the Tuoba, the Turkic or Mongolian people also known as the Xianbei, who established the Northern Wei dynasty (493534) in China. When the enthronement ceremony for Tuoba Xiu was celebrated in 528, seven dignitaries held up a carpet of black felt on which the new emperor, facing west, made obeisance to heaven (Bei shi, bk. 5). In the Khitan state of Liao (9071125), the enthronement ceremony had as its essential scenario the elevation of the new emperor on a felt carpet (Liao shi, bk. 49). Chinggis Khan, the founder of the great Mongol empire, was also lifted in his accession on a carpet of black felt supported by seven chiefs.

In ancient Korea, several states competed with each other for political supremacy until 676, when they became united by the kingdom of Silla. The beginnings of these nations are inseparably interwoven with myths narrating the miraculous birth of the founders, which point almost invariably to the heavenly origin of sovereignty.

The myths can be classified into two major types, one of which may be illustrated by the myth of Puyŏ: Tongmyŏng, the founder of Puyŏ, was born of a woman who became pregnant by a mystical light descending from heaven. A similar story is also told of Zhu Mong, who founded Koguryŏ. This type of foundation myth is associated, outside of Korea, with Taiwudi (r. 424452), the third emperor of the Northern Wei dynasty; with A-pao-chi, who founded the Khitan state of Liao; and with Chinggis Khan. There is no doubt that this mythic theme was widespread among nomadic peoples such as the Manchus and the Mongolians.

The other type of myth is characterized by the story of how the founder of a nation or a dynasty descended from Heaven onto mountaintops, forests, and trees. According to the myth of ancient Chosŏn, Hwang-wung, a son of the celestial supreme being Hwang-in, descended from Heaven onto Mount Tehbaek to establish a nation. The supreme god in Heaven approved of Hwang-wung's heavenly descent and granted him three items of the sacred regalia. He descended, accompanied by the gods of the wind, rain, and clouds as well as three thousand people. Similar stories of heavenly descent are known of Pak Hyŏkkŏse and Kim Archi of Silla. Also noteworthy is the myth of Karak, a small state variously known as Kaya or Mimana: Suro, the founder of Karak, descends from Heaven onto the summit of Mount Kuji at the command of the heavenly god; a purple rope is seen coming down from Heaven, and at the end of the rope there is a box containing six golden eggs covered by a piece of crimson cloth. Suro is born of one of the eggs.

Significantly, the heavenly origin of sovereignty is also recognized by the pre-Buddhist tradition of ancient Tibet: Gñyaʾ-khri Btsam-po, the first mythical king, descended from Heaven onto the sacred mountain of Yar-lha-s̀am-po in Yarlung, by means of a rope or a ladder. He agreed to descend on the condition that he be granted ten heavenly magical objects. According to Giuseppe Tucci, the Tibetan royal ideology owes much to the religious tradition of the pastoral Turco-Mongolians.

Japanese kingship emerged at the end of the fourth century ce. The ruler called himself the "king [ō in Japanese; wang in Chinese] of Wa" or "king of the land of Wa" when he addressed the court in China. These designations simply followed what had become customary between the Chinese suzerains and the Japanese local princes since the middle of the first century ce. However, these titles were never used within Japan; the sovereign was called ō-kimi (dawang in Chinese; "great king") by local nobles. It is not until the beginning of the seventh century that the Japanese sovereign began to employ such titles as tenshi ("son of Heaven") and tennō ("emperor") to refer to himself, both of which have been in use until modern times.

In 600 Empress Suiko sent an envoy to the Sui dynasty, the first Japanese mission to China since 502. The Sui shu reports of that mission: "The king of Wa, whose family name was Ame and personal name Tarishihiko, and who bore the title of Ō-kimi, sent an envoy to visit the court." Meaning "noble son of Heaven," Ametarishihiko (or Ametarashihiko ) was roughly equivalent to the Chinese tianzi, although its implications could be different. "Son of Heaven" in the Japanese conception of sovereignty referred invariably to the ruler who claimed his direct genealogical descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu as well as his vertical descent from the heavenly world. The Japanese mission to China was followed by another one in 607: "The Son of Heaven in the land where the sun rises addresses a letter to the Son of Heaven in the land where the sun sets" (Sui shu ). According to the Nihongi (compiled in 720), in 608 Suiko forwarded a letter to China with the greeting: "The Emperor of the East respectfully addresses the Emperor of the West."

The classical Japanese conception of sovereignty took shape in the second half of the seventh century. It was an era when, under the influence of the Chinese legal system, a highly centralized bureaucratic state was created. Significantly, the creation of this political structure was accompanied by the completion of the sacred-kingship ideology that had been developing in the previous centuries; not only was the state conceived as a liturgical community with its paradigm in heaven, but also the sovereign who ruled the state was explicitly called the akitsumikami, manifest kami (god), that is, the god who manifests himself in the phenomenal world.

The essential part of the sacred-kingship ideology was the belief in the emperor's heavenly origin, and this belief was clearly expressed in the myths of Ninigi, as narrated in the Kojiki (compiled in 712) and the Nihongi. Genealogically, Ninigi is connected with both the god Takaki (Takamimusubi) and the sun goddess Amaterasu through the marriage of Takaki's daughter to Amaterasu's son, to whom Ninigi is born. He is born in the heavenly world and, at the command of either Takaki or Amaterasu or both, descends onto the summit of Mount Takachiho. When Ninigi is about to descend, accompanied by the five clan heads, Amaterasu gives him rice grains harvested in her celestial rice fields, after which he comes down in the form of a newborn baby covered by a piece of cloth called matoko o fusuma. Especially noteworthy is the fact that Ninigi is granted the sacred regalia as well as the mandate of Heaven guaranteeing his eternal sovereignty on earth. Ninigi's heavenly descent was reenacted by the emperor at the annual harvest festival in the fall as well as on the occasion of his enthronement festival.

See Also

Amaterasu Ōmikami; Chinese Religion, article on Mythic Themes; Japanese Religions, articles on Religious Documents, The Study of Myths; Shangdi; Tengri; Tian; Tibetan Religions, overview article.


There is no single book dealing with the problem of sacred kingship in East Asia as a whole. On kingship in ancient China, there is a classic study in Marcel Granet's La religion des Chinois (Paris, 1922), translated with an introduction by Maurice Freedman as The Religion of the Chinese People (New York, 1975), pp. 5796. Valuable information is also presented in D. Howard Smith's "Divine Kingship in Ancient China," Numen 4 (1957): 171203. David N. Keightley has made an excellent analysis of the kingship ideology of Shang China in "The Religious Commitment: Shang Theology and the Genesis of Chinese Political Culture," History of Religions 17 (FebruaryMay 1978): 211225. More recently, kingship in ancient China has been brilliantly discussed in Guangzhi Zhang's Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China (Cambridge, Mass., 1983).

The conception of kingship among the nomadic peoples in Central Asia has been skillfully analyzed in Jean-Paul Roux's "L'origine céleste de la souveraineté dans les inscriptions paléo-turques de Mongolie et de Sibérie," in La regalità sacra/The Sacral Kingship (Leiden, 1959), pp. 231241. I have examined the symbolism of the felt carpet with special reference to both shamanism and kingship in my article "Notes on Sacred Kingship in Central Asia," Numen 23 (November 1976): 179190.

On the ancient Tibetan conception of kingship, see Giuseppe Tucci's study "The Sacred Characters of the Kings of Ancient Tibet," East and West 6 (October 1955): 197205.

The Tibetan conception of kingship has been compared with that of ancient Korea and Japan in my "Symbolism of 'Descent' in Tibetan Sacred Kingship and Some East Asian Parallels," Numen 20 (April 1973): 6078.

The formation of kingship and its ideology in ancient Japan is discussed in my "Sacred Kingship in Early Japan: A Historical Introduction," History of Religions 15 (May 1976): 319342. See also my article "Conceptions of State and Kingship in Early Japan," Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 28 (1976): 97112.

New Sources

Butler, Lee. Emperor and Aristocracy in Japan, 14671680: Resilience and Renewal. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Ching, Julia. Mysticism and Kingship in China: The Heart of Chinese Wisdom. Berkeley, 1997.

Fujitani, Takashi. Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan. Berkeley, 1996.

Piggot, Joan. The Emergence of Japanese Kingship. Stanford, Calif., 1997.

Wakabayashi, Bob Tadashi. Japanese Loyalism Reconstrued: Yamagata Daini's Ryushi Shinron of 1759. Honolulu, 1995.

Manabu Waida (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Kingship: Kingship in East Asia