Showcase: Mandate of Heaven Hotseat

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Ancient World History isn’t that conceptual aside from basic government types and religious dogmas, so when we do get an interesting concept like the Chinese Mandate of Heaven I try to create what my common planning colleague calls a “memorable learning experience.” This activity hones students’ public speaking and persuasive skills while helping them to understand a novel political mechanism from classical Chinese civilization.


The activity works by diving the class into groups of 3-4 kids. Each group will take a turn playing the ruling dynasty. For each dynasty’s turn, they will follow this procedure:

  1. Draw three cards of fate (in the linked file, the first 18 are disaster-type events, while the next 10 are boons).
  2. For each card, they will have 1 minute to plan a response to the event. If it’s a bad event, they should come up with solutions to the problem in an attempt to justify their continued rule. If it’s a good event, they should explain how this shows their illustrious rule and perhaps how they will capitalize on their good fortune. While the ruling dynasty is planning, the rest of the class should discuss with a partner how they would respond if they were rulers.
  3. At the conclusion of the minute, a spokesman will explain the plan to the class. They have two minutes to make their explanation and, if time permits, take questions.
  4. At the conclusion of three minutes, the class votes whether they think the dynasty still has the Mandate of Heaven.
  5. When the ruling dynasty has gone through three cards, if they have a majority of positive votes, they have proven effective rulers. If they have a majority of negative votes, they’ve lost the Mandate of Heaven. Either way, switch to a new group. I like to transition between dynasties by making up grisly coups or freak accidents.

This activity illustrates the elegant Mandate of Heaven concept – in which the Chinese interpreted disasters and fortunes as evidence of the gods’ attitudes towards a ruler – in a setting that requires students to use their public speaking and persuasive skills. Because students have no control over what disaster cards they are dealt but do have control over what their responses are, they are able to understand how both luck and ability factored into perceptions of Chinese emperors’ legitimacy – a concept that they can also apply to modern rulers.


As with other activities, students can use this to meaningfully apply critical thinking skills (questioning how a ruler will be able to raise money to provide famine relief without raising taxes) or they can just horse around and come up with nonsensical ideas (free dumplings for everyone!).

By far the biggest issue is time. I’ve run this as a whole-class activity, but with 20 students – five groups of four each – it takes a MINIMUM of 50 minutes out of 85 in my block. It’s an effective, but not altogether efficient, way to teach the concept. On the other hand, it does build the aforementioned skills. Combined with formal instruction in persuasion and propaganda, the skillbuilding component would be better developed. Absent of that, I at least ask students to reflect on two questions:

  1. What is the hardest part about being a leader?
  2. How did the Mandate of Heaven affect the Chinese political system – do you think it was beneficial or not? WHY?

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