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  • Legitimation Discourse and the Theory of the Five Elements in Imperial China
  • Yuan Chen


For over three centuries during the Song dynasty (960–1279), China proper faced constant, pressing military threats from the Liao (916–1125), Jin (1115–1234), and Yuan (1271–1368) dynasties built by the Kitan, Jurchen, and Mongol peoples. Because of their non-Han origins, the Liao, Jin, and Yuan all faced ideological and practical challenges to their legitimacy to govern all or part of Chinese territory. First, traditionally portrayed as “barbarians” in Chinese texts, foreign rulers did not fulfill the Chinese ideals of sophisticated, highly cultured sage emperors to whom dynastic legitimacy might be accorded. Furthermore, although these nomadic or forest-dwelling peoples had successfully governed tribal confederations in their native lands, such administrative experiences offered little guidance in managing their majority Han subjects in China. What measures did these conquest dynasties take to address these challenges? Using the legitimation discourse in the Song dynasty as a benchmark case, this article will examine how the Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties employed the theory of the “Five Elements” (wuxing 五行) to legitimate their rule in China.1

From circa 1000 bce, Chinese elites had invoked the Mandate of Heaven (tianming 天命) to explain dynastic transitions. According to this scheme, a new dynastic cycle starts with a rising regime ruled by a virtuous, sage emperor. [End Page 325] As time proceeds, the initial prosperity of the dynasty progressively deteriorates and the Mandate of Heaven gradually withdraws its divine patronage, giving rise to natural disasters and civil disorders. Meanwhile, another dynasty, chosen and sanctioned by the Mandate of Heaven, arises to replace the existing one and hence commence a new cycle.2

To add a theoretical dimension to further explicate the shift of the Mandate of Heaven, some Warring States period philosophers proposed to use the cycle of the Five Elements to explain dynastic transitions. However, dynastic rulers did not use the theory as political propaganda until the Qin dynasty (221–206 bce). After some major reinterpretations in the Western Han dynasty (206 bce–9 ce), the theory became the standard model to explain dynastic succession in imperial China. Following the disintegration of the Tang, dynasties from the Five Dynasties to the Song all used this model to advance their political agendas. Among the non-Han dynasties, the Liao and Jin rulers evidently adopted the theory of the Five Elements to buttress their legitimacy by constructing corresponding dynastic lineages in connection with previous Chinese dynasties. The Yuan, however, never explicitly announced its dynastic element in the official history.

This article will first analyze the application of the Five Elements theory and the adoption of imperial colors in the Song as a benchmark case, and then examine how the Liao, Jin, and Yuan used the Five Elements discourse to assume their respective places in the Chinese dynastic lineage. In particular, I will show that the Yuan tacitly invoked Metal as its dynastic element and white as its imperial color. I argue that the Yuan choice of dynastic element essentially claimed succession to the Jurchen Jin, another non-Han conquest dynasty, rather than to the Song as scholars have previously assumed. Later in the Ming dynasty, the Ming court was also evasive about its choice of dynastic elements in the official documents. I will demonstrate, though, that the Ming court implicitly denounced the Jin-Yuan dynastic transition, which the Yuan had favored, and invoked the Earth element to claim direct succession to the Fire Element of the Song dynasty. Nevertheless, the conflicting dynastic lineages of the Yuan and Ming made it difficult for the Qing to place itself in the Chinese dynastic lineage and eventually led to the concept’s disappearance from the Qing political rhetoric. [End Page 326]

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Table 1.

The Five Elements: Cycles and Corresponding Colors

The Theory of the Five Elements in Chinese Political Discourse

Two Confucian classics, the Shangshu 尚書 [The Book of Documents] and the Liji 禮記 [The Book of Rites], lucidly articulate the Five Elements and their cyclical progression.3 In tandem with natural phenomena and seasonal changes, the Five Elements, Earth, Wood, Metal, Fire, and Water, form two parallel...


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