Hsi-wei and the Mandate of Heaven – By Robert Wexelblatt




“The people are obliged to obey the command of Heaven.  They must revere and submit to those who bear its Mandate. No duty is higher or plainer.”

“Would that apply also to those who killed Emperor Yangdi?”

“Of course. They too were obeying Heaven which had obviously withdrawn its Mandate from the despicable Yangdi.  Heaven takes note.  It took note of the disasters in Goguryeo, the squandering of the treasury, his cruel and degenerate life.”

“Why not add to his account all the peasants who lost their lives in his mad projects, the ones who never returned from the Canal or the Wall, the widows and orphans who starved in the droughts and drowned in the floods?  Why not add the bad weather, too?”

“I hope you aren’t being sarcastic. Be assured, Heaven sees all and records all.  And it acts.  The old dynasty is gone.”

“Heaven certainly took its time. You say those in authority must be obeyed because of Heaven’s Mandate and the end of the Sui came because Heaven withdrew its Mandate.  But the Sui ended because of the revulsion of the people and because his officers assassinated Emperor Yangdi.  Is that so?”

“Yes, that is true. And all of it was in accord with the wishes of Heaven.”

“Well then, it seems that the Mandate of Heaven requires both that people obey those in power and also that they rebel against, overthrow, and kill them.”


Xiao Yi-chen, the new dynasty’s choice for magistrate of Chiangling prefecture, was a large man, with an exceptionally thick neck and arms, impressive in his bearing, not particularly quick, and conventional in his opinions.  For career reasons, he was a nominal Buddhist but at heart Xiao was a strict Confucian who honored hierarchy and insisted on subordination.  He was pleased with his appointment and sure that he deserved it; however, he was not at ease in Chiangling.  He had spent his entire life in the capital and knew little of the city, let alone its outlying villages.  He did not express curiosity because he believed it would make him look underinformed and weak.  Instead, Xiao assumed an aloofness he believed proper to his position, and which also served to conceal his insecurity from others and, perhaps, from himself. 

Xiao’s wife Mei adjusted to her new home more quickly than her husband.  This was thanks to Lady Bao, widow of a former governor.  Both women had been born into wealthy families in the sophisticated South and were married off to well-placed northerners to further family interests.  The two became fast friends, and Lady Bao introduced Lady Mei to the women of her circle. 

The new magistrate had much to do setting up his office, examining his subordinates, and executing the numerous orders issued from the capital.  Xiao had met only a few of the local notables, including Tian Yu-xuan, one of the three wealthiest men in Chiangling and the most intelligent of them.  Tian had made his fortune supplying timber for Emperor Yangdi’s Grand Canal and the expansion of the Great Wall.  He also provided live trees for the Emperor’s extravagant garden in Luoyang.  Tian was shrewd.  Foreseeing the fall of the Sui, and that his wood would be less in demand afterwards, he set up a factory to turn out porcelain for the markets in the west.

Tian Yi-chen shared Lady Bao’s high regard for the poems of Chen Hsi-wei, the peasant/poet and maker of straw sandals who had spent his life wandering all over the Empire.  It was through Lady Bao that Hsi-wei was granted a small cottage three li outside the city in which to retire.  Tian had twice enjoyed long afternoons conversing with the poet about his travels, verses, and also politics.  The merchant was a self-made and self-educated man who came from a peasant family, like Hsi-wei.  Unlike other successful men of his type, Tian never forgot his origins. He and Hsi-wei both admired the accomplishments of Emperor Wen, deplored his excesses, and both despised Yangdi, Wen’s profligate, incompetent second son and successor.  Both believed Yangdi had murdered his father and were pleased when his own assassination ended the short-lived Sui dynasty.  Another thing the two had in common was sympathy with the poor.  Tian treated his workers well and did many things to aid the distressed, but he preferred to keep his charity anonymous. 

When Tian learned how Lady Bao had helped the new magistrate’s wife, he resolved to do the same for her husband.  Not only would this be an act of kindness, good for the new magistrate and the community, but also a convenient way to cultivate a relationship likely to prove useful.

Tian organized a banquet at his villa in honor of Magistrate Xiao and Lady Mei.  He invited men of consequence such as the merchants Wu, Yi, and Shen, and the two local officials of the old regime distinguished for honesty, Zhu and Meng.  All brought their wives; Wu, the jade merchant, brought two.  Tian also invited Hsi-wei whom he regarded as one of Chiangling’s chief ornaments.

The banquet was elaborate; it had fifteen courses and lasted for hours.  Many jugs of wine, both grain and grape, were emptied.  By the fourth course, the wives separated from their husbands to talk among themselves, showing off their jewelry, discussing the new court fashions, gossiping contentedly, and quizzing Lady Mei about her impressions of her new home.

The men spoke more seriously but with moments of merriment. They had gossip of their own, whispered so the women wouldn’t overhear.

“Wu,” said Yi, “I heard about that sharp deal you made out in Yongzhu—three boulders of green jade for the price of gray.  Is it true you sealed the bargain by promising to marry the dealer’s niece?”

Wu, not at all offended, replied “Well, not marry precisely.  But what about you, Yi?”

“What about me?”

“I heard on which lovely young body that peony-printed silk you commissioned ended up.  And it wasn’t your wife’s.”

Yi smiled.  “As you have reason to know, concubines must be clothed as well as wives.”

It was during the baked carp course, that Magistrate Xiao and Tian Yi-chen began talking about the end of the Sui dynasty which the former ascribed to the Mandate of Heaven.  Hsi-wei listened with interest to what, thanks to the wine, grew into a dispute, nearly a debate.

The new magistrate took the orthodox view that Heaven had withdrawn its mandate from the unworthy Sui emperor Yangdi and bestowed it on the virtuous Gaozu, founder of what he was assured everybody would be the glorious and everlasting Tang dynasty.

Tian was neither a Buddhist nor a Daoist and sometimes not entirely in accord even with the teachings of Kong Qiu.  Though at first he held himself in check, as the discussion proceeded and the wine jugs emptied, he declared his doubt that Heaven had a hand in the matter, a risky thing to say, especially to the new magistrate.

Though Hsi-wei tended to agree with Tian and admired his courage, he said nothing until Magistrate Xiao suddenly turned to him.

“Master Hsi-wei—that’s what my wife says I’m to call you.  She tells me you write verses and showed me a poem called ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan’ which she said is very popular and I must say I can see why.”

Hsi-wei nodded politely.

“Well, as you’re a poet, I expect you are familiar with the Shijing masters.  It’s been a long time since I studied for my examination, but I recall they had some things to say about the Mandate of Heaven.  Is that so?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” said Hsi-wei.  “More than one poem speaks of how the Mandate of Heaven was taken from the Shang and bestowed on King Wen of Zhou.  That was the justification of the Zhou.”  Glancing at Tian, Hsi-wei added, “Either the ancient masters accepted the justification, or they thought it best to appear to do so.”

The magistrate’s face reddened.  “Appear to do so?  A justification?” he exclaimed.  “It was a great deal more than that, poet!”  Then, lowering his voice, he asked if Hsi-wei could quote from memory verses from the Shijing about the Zhou and the Mandate.

Hsi-wei did so.

“King Wen is on high.
Oh! He shines in Heaven!
Zhou is an old people
But its mandate is new.”

“There!  You see, Tian?  A new mandate,” the magistrate declared, nodding his approval of the verses and perhaps of Hsi-wei’s memory.

Tian nodded as well then asked Hsi-wei if he could recall if the poem had more to say.

“Yes, there’s more.

King Wen ascends and descends
On God’s left hand, on His right.”

Tian grinned.  “Ascends and descends,” he said. “The Mandate of Heaven is a useful idea for winners, as our friend here suggested.  I think, Magistrate, our disagreement is only about timing.”

“Timing?  How’s that?”

“Well, you believe Zhou and Tang replaced Shang and Sui because of a decision reached in Heaven, whereas in my opinion it was the other way around.”

The magistrate looked perplexed.  “What do you mean?”

“Only that first the winners won and then claimed—no doubt in all sincerity—that the Mandate had fallen on them.”

“I see you are pleased to be cynical, Tian.  But if the Zhou had lacked Heaven’s Mandate, they would never have been able to defeat the Shang.”

Tian smiled scornfully but spoke respectfully.  “Perhaps so, yet the only proof is that they did indeed defeat the Shang.”

Xiao, not at all pleased, raised his voice as he again appealed to Hsi-wei.

“Does that old poem have any more to say about King Wen and the Mandate?”

“Yes, a bit more.  The poet wrote

Oh, to be reverenced in his glittering light!
Mighty the mandate that Heaven gave him.”

 Xiao clapped his hands with delight and turned on Tian.  “There, Tian. You see?”

“I see what I do in the verses of countless court poets, obsequiousness and flattery.  But, of course, you may be right, and Heaven supports all emperors.  But, to me, the significant thing isn’t a king or emperor’s Mandate but that it can be, as you agree, withdrawn.”

The Magistrate looked uncertainly at Tian.  “Meaning?”

“That as the Mandate of Heaven justifies those in power it also confers the right to remove them—the right, perhaps even the duty, to rebel.”

The new magistrate frowned and looked befuddled.  While appearing to grant his point, the way Tian did it smacked of sedition.

“Tian, you’re still maintaining that the work of Heaven is in fact the work of men,” he said sternly.

Tian, unruffled, took a sip of wine and turned to Hsi-wei. 

“How does the poem about King Wen end, Master Hsi-wei?  Or did you already quote it?”

“No, it goes on a bit further.”

“Let’s have it then.”

 “Very well.

The grandsons and sons of the Shang
Their hosts were countless.
But God on high gave his command,
And by Zhou they were subdued—”

The Magistrate interrupted and again clapped his hands.  “There you have it yet again, Tian.  First comes the heavenly command then the earthly victory, not the other way round.”

Begging their indulgence, Hsi-wei said there was one final line:

Heaven’s charge is not forever.”

Tian almost clapped his own hands at that but, calming himself, said levelly, “And, without rebellion, how could Heaven’s charge end?  Bad, corrupt, unjust, or even unlucky dynasties lose their mandate because enough brave people believe they deserve to.”

With a satisfied smile, Magistrate Xiao took up his cup and held it toward Tian as if to toast him.  “Well, then we don’t disagree after all.  If rebellion brings an end to a dynasty, it can only be because Heaven wills it, and why would Heaven will it unless the dynasty is unworthy of its mandate?”

Tian suppressed his exasperation at Xiao’s stubbornly circular reasoning.  “Well, Magistrate, it seems we’re back where we began.  We agree on events but not their cause.”

“Oh, I disagree that we disagree.  You’ll grant that Yangdi was a bad emperor, perhaps the worst.  And this was the cause of the fall of the Sui.  Heaven judged him and he was punished.”

“The people judged and, as for the punishment, it was his own generals who dispatched him.”

Hsi-wei, who had been thinking over what Tian had been saying, spoke up.

“Your Honors, I hesitate to offer my own worthless opinion, but perhaps it can be agreed that the Mandate of Heaven is always precarious—that it justifies the authority of those who rule but likewise the virtue of those who rebel.”

“How can you say that, poet?”

“Well, there is another poem in the Shijing that, with respect, seems to make the point.

Swift and terrible is God on high,
His Mandate has many statutes.
To begin well is common;
To end well is rare indeed.”

Magistrate Xiao’s face once more turned red ad he spoke angrily to His-wei.  “That is from the Shijing, you say?  It sounds treasonous!”

Tian intervened.  “My Lord, the lines, treasonous or not, weren’t written by our friend Hsi-wei.  If the verses are subversive, then the subversion is fourteen centuries old. . . . But enough.  Let’s leave off this talk that goes in circles and drink to Emperor Gaozu and the new dynasty.  It has begun well.”

Xiao could hardly refuse to drink to that.  And so, they polished off the wine, both the grain and grape, said their farewells.  Everyone slept well, most past noon.

The following afternoon, back in his cottage, Hsi-wei took out his inkstone and wrote the short poem people call “The Sword with Two Edges.”

The arrogant warrior Xi was sure 
of victory.  No foe’s pike or sword had ever 
touched him and Chen lay on the ground.  
A strong blow to the neck would do for
the upstart Chen.  He swung fast and 
hard but struck Chen’s armored shoulder.  
The sword shivered and fell from Xi’s hand.  
Quick as a viper, Chen seized the weapon 
and swung upward, killing the dumbfounded Xi.  
Some swords are made with two edges. 
Hard to say which is up, which is down.  



More Hsi-wei tales:
About the Author

Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published ten collections of short stories; two books of essays; two short novels; three books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.