The concept was first used by the Zhou dynasty to justify their overthrow of the Shang dynasty and was used by many succeeding dynasties to justify their rule. One consequence of the idea of the mandate of heaven was that it was not necessary for a person to be of noble birth to lead a revolt and become a legitimate emperor, and in fact a number of dynasties such as the Han dynasty and Ming dynasty were founded by persons of modest birth.
The idea of mandate of heaven was linked to the notion of dynastic cycle in which a dynasty started strong and vigourously but gradually would succumb to immorality and be replaced by a new stronger dynasty. The notion of the mandate of heaven was also invoked by Mencius.
The idea was different from the European notion of Divine right of kings in that it legitimized the overthrow of a dynasty and it also put some limits on the behavior of the emperor. If the emperor ruled unwisely or failed to perform the proper rituals, the emperor could lose the mandate of heaven and be overthrown. Also, while the European divine right is intrinsically linked to Christianity, the mandate of heaven is not religion-specific, as the popular religion of China shifted from time to time. The "Heaven" is merely the ultimate power above, not necessarily the supreme deity of Buddhism or Taoism or the ancestor's spirit of ancestor worship.