BYU Asian Studies Journal


BYU Asian Studies, China, politics, philosophy


天高皇帝远, Tiān gāo, huángdì yuan, is an ancient Chinese proverb that translates to “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” Starting anciently in the Shang Dynasty, China typically had an emperor who ruled over his subjects, yet in a far away manner: “For two thousand years China had an emperor figure who was state power and spiritual authority rolled into one” (Wild Swans, 261–262). The most notable emperor was the first blazing Emperor Qin Shi Huang who unified the land around 247 B.C. Many emperors followed, claiming the Mandate of Heaven, until the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. War and revolution followed. To this day, China is still run by a central figurehead. For the majority of China’s history, the power has been held by a central figure, surrounded by a small elite governing group, and not much has changed even with the fall of the dynasties. What in Chinese culture and political philosophy makes it difficult to share power at the top?