Son of Heaven

Son of Heaven, or Tianzi (Chinese: 天子; pinyin: Tiānzǐ), was the sacred monarchical title of the Chinese sovereign. It originated with the Zhou dynasty and was founded on the political and spiritual doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. Since the Qin dynasty, the secular imperial title of the Son of Heaven was "Huangdi".

Son of Heaven
Chinese name
Vietnamese name
VietnameseThiên tử
Chữ Hán天子
Korean name
Japanese name
Inscription on Heng gui's lid (恒簋葢; 恆簋蓋; Héng guǐ gài), from Western Zhou period. Framed are the graphs 天子 in bronze script.

The title, "Son of Heaven", was subsequently adopted by other Sinospheric monarchs to justify their rule.

The Son of Heaven was the supreme universal monarch, who ruled tianxia (means "all under heaven"). His status is rendered in English as "ruler of the whole world."[1] The title, "Son of Heaven", was interpreted literally only in China and Japan, whose monarchs were referred to as demigods, deities, or "living gods", chosen by the gods and goddesses of heaven.[2]

History and adoption

Son of Heaven was a title of the King Wu of Zhou and subsequent Chinese sovereigns.

The title "Son of Heaven" (Chinese: 天子; pinyin: Tiānzǐ; Middle Chinese: tʰen t͡sɨX; Old Chinese (B-S): *l̥ˤin *tsəʔ) stems from the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, created by the Zhou dynasty monarchs to justify their having deposed the Shang dynasty. They held that Heaven had revoked its mandate from the Shang and given it to the Zhou in retribution for Shang corruption and misrule. Heaven bestowed the mandate on whoever was most fit to rule. The title held the monarch responsible for the prosperity and security of his people by the threat of taking away his mandate.[2] "Son of Heaven" was often one of several titles adopted by Sinospheric monarchs. The Emperor Taizong of Tang held the title "Son of Heaven", alongside The title "Tengeri Qaghan" which he had gained after defeating the Eastern Turkic Khaganate.[3] Japanese monarchs likewise used a second title, tennō (天皇, "Heavenly Emperor"), that, like "Son of Heaven", appealed to the emperor's connection to Heaven.[4]

The title carried widespread influence across East Asia as the ancient Chinese monarchical title, tianzi (天子), "Son of Heaven", was later adopted by the Emperor of Japan during the Asuka period.[5] Japan sent diplomatic missions to China, then ruled by the Sui dynasty, and formed cultural and commercial ties with China.[6] Japan's Yamato state modeled its government after the Chinese Confucian imperial bureaucracy. A Japanese mission of 607 CE delivered a message from "the Son of Heaven in the land where the sun rises ... to the Son of Heaven in the land where the sun sets."[5] But the Japanese emperor's title was less contingent than that of his Chinese counterpart; there was no divine mandate that would punish Japan's emperor for failing to rule justly. The right to rule of the Japanese emperor, descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu, was absolute.[7]

Based on epitaphs dating to the 4th and 5th centuries, Goguryeo had concepts of the Son of Heaven (天帝之子) and tianxia.[8][9][10] The rulers of Goryeo used the titles of emperor and Son of Heaven and positioned Goryeo at the center of the Haedong (海東; "East of the Sea") tianxia, which encompassed the historical domain of the "Samhan", another name for the Three Kingdoms of Korea.[11]

The title was also adopted in Vietnam, known in Vietnamese as Thiên tử (Chữ Hán: 天子). A divine mandate gave the Vietnamese emperor the right to rule, based not on his lineage but on his competence to govern.[12] Vietnam's adoption of a Confucian bureaucracy, presided over by Vietnam's Son of Heaven, led to the creation of a Vietnamese tributary system in Southeast Asia, modeled after the Chinese Sinocentric system in East Asia.[13]

See also


  1. Ebrey 2010, p. 179.
  2. Dull 1990, p. 59.
  3. Twitchett 2000, p. 124.
  4. Ooms 2009, pp. 154–156.
  5. Huffman 2010, p. 15.
  6. Inoue 1993, p. 182.
  7. Beasley 1999, p. 29.
  8. Yeongkwang, Jo (2015). "Status and Tasks for Study of the Foreign Relations and World View of Koguryo in the Gwanggaeto Stele". Dongbuga Yeoksa Nonchong (in Korean) (49): 70–76. ISSN 1975-7840. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  9. "고구려의 천하관". 우리역사넷 (in Korean). National Institute of Korean History. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  10. "장수왕의 남진 정책". 우리역사넷. National Institute of Korean History. Retrieved 6 December 2018.
  11. Em, Henry (2013). The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea. Duke University Press. pp. 24–26. ISBN 978-0822353720. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  12. Woodside 1971, p. 9.
  13. Woodside 1971, pp. 234–237.
  14. Book of Han, Vol. 94-I, 匈奴謂天為「撐犁」,謂子為「孤塗」,單于者,廣大之貌也.

General references

  • Beasley, William (1999). "The Making of a Monarchy". The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-22560-2.
  • Dull, Jack (1990). "The Evolution of Government in China". Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-06441-6.
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (2010) [1996]. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-12433-1.
  • Huffman, James (2010). Japan in World History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-979884-1.
  • Inoue, Mitsusada (1993). "The Century of Reform". The Cambridge History of Japan. Cambridge University Press. pp. 163–220. ISBN 978-0-521-22352-2.
  • Ooms, Herman (2009). Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan: The Tenmu Dynasty, 650–800. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3235-3.
  • Twitchett, Denis (2000). H. J. Van Derven (ed.). Warfare in Chinese History. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-11774-7.
  • Woodside, Alexander (1971). Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Vietnamese and Chinese Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-93721-5.
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