It can be said that most of the time in Chinese philosophical history, there have always been thinkers discussing the subject of Heaven. Following this stream of ideas, I will study this topic. Because of the framework of the course, however, I am going to mention only ideas of Heaven in the Analects of Confucius.[1] The question I ask is what does the metaphor of Heaven in this book mean? In order to deal with the matter, this essay will be organized according to the following three points. Firstly, Heaven as Nature; secondly, Heaven as a Being; and finally, I will talk about the mandate of Heaven.


No matter how special the subject Heaven as Nature is in Confucianism, yet it does not appear so many times in the Analects. Even though it is not mentioned so much, yet this does not mean that it is not important. Further, it covers the ideas of the book with relation to human life and to the whole of society. Talking about this subject, I will mention two paragraphs which show up the idea of Heaven as Nature.

First of all, it says that “Heaven does not speak; yet the four seasons run their course thereby, the hundred creatures, each after its kind, are born thereby.” (Analects, book XVII, 19). Heaven always acts, so it makes Nature change constantly according to the cycles of time and the four seasons Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter are created. And it is also because of Heaven that all things run their course day by day.[2] So Heaven is like nature. It does not speak. Nevertheless, it is alive and makes all beings alive.

Secondly, the book says, “Greatest, as lord and ruler, was Yao. Sublime, indeed, was he. ‘There is no greatness like the greatness of Heaven, yet Yao could copy it. So boundless was it that the people could find no name for it; yet sublime were his achievements, dazzling the insignia of his culture!” (VIII, 19) It may be surprising to find when this quotation here because we think Confucius is speaking highly of Yao and not saying anything about nature. This is just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, he praised Yao because Yao recognized the will of Heaven through the rule of Nature. He copied it by creating the calendar and guided his people to organize their lives according to it.[3] In short, King Yao was praised because he obeyed Heaven as well as nature.

In conclusion, in the thought of Confucius in the Analects, Heaven is considered as nature and, in this way, it influences to all beings. Heaven takes care of all beings through running the Nature. And if we say that Heaven is taking care of all beings, we acknowledge Heaven exists as a being – a special being.


Although it is said that “Heaven does not speak!” (XVII, 19), yet, in other passages, we encounter a Heaven as a being who exists in human life. In this section, we will regard Him[4] (Heaven) as a Supreme Being and a Being having His own personal character.

Heaven as the Supreme Being

There is a way of understanding Heaven as the divine One who has power over the fate of human beings and providence for people. He exists sacredly in human life and understands us clearly. In every situation, people feel His presence and if human beings are not able to understand and to believe him, Heaven is able to solve their problem. This is the situation Confucius was misunderstood when invited to meet Nanzi because Nanzi was the unsavory female consort of the Marquis of Wei.[5] He made a solemn declaration concerning his visit, saying, “Whatsoever I have done amiss, may Heaven avert it, may Heaven avert it!” (VI, 26). And in another case, when be felt lonely for no one knew him exactly as he was, Confucius claimed, “perhaps after all I am known; not here, but in Heaven.” (XIV, 37) Thus, for Confucius, because it is sacred, Heaven knows everything and understands clearly what happens inside the hearts of human beings.

Secondly, Heaven is known as the One Who has power over the fate of human beings. We cannot avoid life or death[6] but we believe it is in the hands of Heaven. Confucius used the word “fate” to comfort Jan Keng when he was resting. He said, “It is all over with him! [ It is fated.][7] Heaven has so ordained it. But that such a man should have such an illness!” (VI, 8). Though Jan Keng was such a good person that the Master had profound sorrow for him, he could not avoid the fate from Heaven. In another place, when Confucius’ beloved disciple, Yen Hui, passed away, the Master held that it was because of Heaven. So, he mourned over the dead person: “Alas, Heaven has bereft me, Heaven has bereft me!” (XI, 8). Therefore, for Confucius, no one except Heaven has power over the lives of human beings.

Not only does Heaven have power over a person, but also it is over society and the dynasty as well. We keep discussing the meaning hidden in chapter 19, Book VII. When praising Yao – “Greatest, as lord and ruler, was Yao” – Confucius wanted to praise what Yao had done for his people. Yao helped the people to organize their ordinary lives under the will of Heaven. Because of that, his dynasty was blessed by Heaven and its people were successful in their virture. Happiness was fulled of their lives.[8] For this reason, it can be said that Heaven has power the whole dynasty.

For the last point, we will see Heaven as providence for human beings. It is not very difficult to encounter the image of Heaven who is protecting His people.[9] Now, we are going to go back to the Han period. Huan Tui was Minister of War in the State of Song. Jealous of Confucius, he wanted to threaten Confucius when the Master and his disciples journeyed to Song. Confucius calmed his disciples, saying[10], “Heaven begat the power (tê) that is in me [Tian has engendered virtue in me][11]. What have I to fear from such a one as Huan T’ui?” (VII, 22). In another case, when Confucius was trapped in K’uang, it seemed to be dangerous for his life and he said, “If Heaven does not intend to destroy such culture, what have I to fear from the people of K’ung?” (IX, 5). Confucius believed that he had received the culture (wên) from Heaven and Heaven wanted him to preserve it for later generations. If it is the will of Heaven, no one can do harm to him or destroy the culture he was holding.[12] So we recognize that Heaven is providence who always stays here to protect His people.

So, Confucius believed profoundly that Heaven is as divine Being. He is always with us and we can pray to Him at anytime. He knows us clearly more than anyone else in the world. Everything we possess, including our life and our death, belongs to His will. And because we belong to Him, he will be our providence.

We have talked about Heaven as a Supreme Being with His supernatural power over human beings and over all things. However, in the following section, we also find Him to be like as a human being who has His own personal characteristics.

One having a personal character

It is unusual when we say that Heaven is like a human being because Heaven belongs to the supernatural world and human beings belong to the natural world. So, we should not understand this concept in a strict sense but only in an analogical sense. The aim is that we recognize some of Heaven’s characteristics according to Confucius in the Analects which we are able to compare with human characteristics such as love and hatred.

The love Heaven has for His people can be illustrated through the goodness He granted them. For example, because of loving Confucius, Heaven granted him to be a sage. (See IX, 6) Or in the situation mentioned above, many times Heaven protected and saved Confucius from danger. (VII, 22; IX, 5) In short, as a human being, Heaven is known lie the One who loves His people.

There also exists hatred in the feeling of Heaven. Heaven does not love sinners. If someone sins or offends against Heaven, his prayer to Heaven will not be accepted. This is why Confucius said that “He who has put himself in the wrong with Heaven has no expiation left.” (III,13)

Having considered the two common characteristics love and hatred which label Him, we know that, in the view of Confucius, Heaven is like a human being with humane motions and behaviors.


Looking back at all the details discussed above, we discover Heaven is a Being with a will. If Heaven has His will, His will is His Mandate.[13] Yet how should the Mandate of Heaven in the Analects of Confucius be understood? How can human beings get it? And how does it influence the world? These three questions will be studied in this section.

Firstly, how should we understand the Mandate of Heaven? According to Lý Minh Tuấn, Mandate in Confucianism possesse three hereinafter senses. (1) Mandate is the pure nature in a human being.[14] (2) It is the function, the office, the duty, or the competence from Heaven.[15] (3) It is something which happens inevitably according to the rule of cause and effect and human beings cannot avoid it.[16] In the Analects, we can understand the Mandate according to such these senses. In VII, 22, Confucius said, “Heaven has engendered virtue in me.” Let us think about this first kind of understanding the Mandate of Heaven. In III, 24 and IX, 6, Heaven intends to use the Master as wooden bell. That Heaven granted him to be a sage can be linked with the second meaning of Heaven. In VI, 8, Life-and-death is what we cannot avoid and inIX, 5, Heaven does not want to destroy the culture (wên) or the life of Confucius. This relates to the third meaning.

Secondly, how can people get the Mandate of Heaven? In (II, 4) Confucius shows us the answer fto this question. After a long time setting his heart upon learning, practicing virtue, and experiencing life, until fifty years old, he got the Mandate: “At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven.” So, in some way, we can say that studying, practicing, and experiencing help us know the Mandate of Heaven.

Lastly, how does the Mandate of Heaven influence the world? Looking back to the two points above, we acknowledge that the Mandate of Haven affects the whole life of human beings. Their nature, their fate, their possessions in society, and so on, all depend on the Mandate of Heaven.

So, in order to summarize the section The Mandate of Heaven, we can say briefly that the Mandate of Heaven is what relates immediately to human beings. In order to get it, the sage needs to have a disire to learn, contemplate, and improve himself. And know Heaven’s Mandate is necessary to rule ourselves and the whole kingdom.


In order to come to a conclusion, we are able to say that Heaven always relates to the heart of human beings in all the world. Chinese people in the early time of philosophy, especially at the time of Analects of Confucius, were in the same case as other people in the world. Through contemplating the world, they recognized what Heaven is. With their experience, they knew that Heaven is like Nature, a special Being, and that He has a Mandate over the world. According to their experience, Heaven on the one hand, because of His supernatural character, is far above with human beings, and on the other hand, He is close to His people when they consider Him as the One who has personal characteristics like a human being.


Eno, Robert (tr.), The Analects of Confucius: An Online Teaching Translation, Version 2.21, 2015.

Lý Minh Tuấn (tr. ed.), Tứ Thư Bình Giải: Luận Ngữ – Mạnh Tử – Đại Học – Trung Dung. TP Hồ Chí Minh: NXB Tôn Giáo, 2010.

Phùng Hữu Lan, Lịch Sử Triết Học Trung Quốc: Quyển 1 – Thời Đại Tử Học. Translated by Lê Anh Minh. TP Hồ Chí Minh: NXB Khoa Học Xã Hội, 2006.

Waley, Athur (tr.), Confucianism: The Analects of Confucius, , New York: Harpercollins, 1992.

Student: Đaminh Phan Văn Quỳnh, SJ
Subject: An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy

[1] For quotations from the Analects I use the book Confucianism: The Analects of Confucius, translated by Arthur Waley. See Jaroslav Pelikan, (ed.), Confucianism: The Analects of Confucius, Translated by Arthur Waley (New York: Harpercollins Phublisshers, 1992).

[2] Lý Minh Tuấn, Tứ Thư Bình Giải: Luận Ngữ – Mạnh Tử – Đại Học – Trung Dung (TP Hồ Chí Minh: NXB Tôn Giáo, 2010), 437.

[3] The Book of History (Shu Ching), has the passage that praises king Yao because he obeyed the will of Heaven, so he composed the calendar which included the change of the Nature. Then he let people use it in their lives, especially, in their cultivating. See Lý Minh Tuấn, 201.

[4] When discussing Heaven as a Being, I want to consider Heaven as a man. So I can us the works He, Him, His in order to refer to Heaven.

[5] Robert Eno, The Analects of Confucius: An Online Teaching Translation, Version 2.21 (2015) 28-29.

[6] Lý Minh Tuấn, 134.

[7] Robert Eno, 26; Lý Minh Tuấn, 134. (伯牛有疾,子問之。自牖執其手曰:亡之,命矣夫!斯人也,而有斯疾也!斯人也,而有斯疾也!Dịch: Bá Ngưu hữu tật. Tử vấn chi. Tự dũ chấp kỳ thủ viết: “Vong chi, mệnh hỹ phù! Tư nhân dã, nhi hữu tư tật dã! Tư nhân dã, nhi hữu tư tật dã!”)

[8] See Lý Minh Tuấn, 201.

[9] In my opinion, in this context, we can hold that all good people belong to Heaven and Heaven is their Lord, their Master. So, Heaven will protect them.

[10] Robert Eno, 33

[11] Robert Eno, 33.

[12] See Lý Minh Tuấn, 209.

[13] Phùng Hữu Lan, Lịch Sử Triết Học Trung Quốc: Quyển 1 – Thời Đại Tử Học, Translated by Lê Anh Minh (TP Hồ Chí Minh: NXB Khoa Học Xã Hội, 2006), 107-108.

[14] The Mean and Harmony says, 天命之謂性 (Thiên Mệnh chi vị tính). See Lý Minh Tuấn, 33.

[15] The Mean and Harmony says, 居易以俟命 (Cư dị dĩ sĩ mệnh). See Lý Minh Tuấn, 33.

[16] The Analects says, – 道之將行也與,命也;道之將廢也與,命也 (Đạo chi tương hành dã dư, mệnh dã; đạo chi tương phế dã dư, mệnh dã).  See Lý Minh Tuấn, 33.

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