One rendering of the Yellow Emperor

The Chinese believe that their history goes back 4,700 years. Archeological verification of the legendary Age of Five Rulers (2700-2200 BC) has not been found but there is some for the legendary Xia Dynasty (2200-1700 BC). Chinese civilization, as described in mythology, begins with Pangu, the creator of the universe, and a succession of legendary sage-emperors and culture heroes who taught the ancient Chinese to communicate and to find sustenance, clothing, and shelter. The first recognized dynasty — the Xia —lasted from about 2200 to 1750 BC and marked the transition from the late neolithic age to the Bronze Age. Until scientific excavations were made at early bronze-age sites at Anyang, Henan Province, in 1928, it was difficult to separate myth from reality in regard to the Xia. But since then, and especially in the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists have uncovered urban sites, bronze implements, and tombs that point to the existence of Xia civilization in the same locations cited in ancient Chinese historical texts. At minimum, the Xia period marked an evolutionary stage between the late neolithic cultures and the typical Chinese urban civilization of the Shang dynasty. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”, published in 1894: “ Instead of treating of the prehistoric period... as a territory which cannot be explored with certainty and in regard to which no positive affirmations can be made, it appears "that ancient Chinese writers, of a period antecedent to. the foundation of the Han dynasty, indulged an exuberant fancy in the enumeration of long lines of dynastic rules, to occupy the myriads of ages, which it was fabled, had elapsed since the power of Heaven and Earth had first united to produce man as the possessor of the soil of China." No actual weight is attached even by Chinese writers to the statements handed down by the fabulists of antiquity regarding prehistoric epochs and dynastic lines. It is only in the next grand division of legendary record — the age of Yao and Shun and their successors — that a claim to anything resembling authenticity is set up; and even here the sterner requirements of European criticism demand proofs which native historians are content to forego. How different is this spirit from that of Occidental exactitude, it is needless to point out. There is a story of a Newfoundland farmer who boasted of the density of the fogs in his country, and, in proof, affirmed that he had a party of men at work shingling a barn, and the fog was so thick at the time, that they unwittingly shingled forty feet into it, before they discovered their mistake!' The Chinese have shingled backward into the fogs of antiquity,' for some thousands of years, and have never detected the point where the roof of history, and the fog of myth unite. No wonder that one of their sayings declares that rather than to believe all that is in the book of History, it would be better that there were no book of History. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

The Xia was the beginning of a long period of cultural development and dynastic succession that led the way to the more urbanized civilization of the Shang Dynasty (1750-1040 BC). Hereditary Shang kings ruled over much of North China, and Shang armies fought frequent wars against neighboring settlements and nomadic herders from the north. The Shang capitals were centers of sophisticated court life for the king, who was the shamanistic head of the ancestor- and spirit-worship cult. Intellectual life developed in significant ways during the Shang period and flourished in the next dynasty — the Zhou (1040-256 BC). China’s great schools of intellectual thought — Confucianism, Legalism, Daoism, Mohism, and others — all developed during the Zhou Dynasty. *

The intersection of migration, amalgamation, and development has characterized China’s history from its earliest origins and resulted in a distinctive system of writing, philosophy, art, and social and political organization and civilization that was continuous over the past 4,000 years. Since the beginning of recorded history (at least since the Shang Dynasty), the people of China have developed a strong sense of their origins, both mythological and real, and kept voluminous records concerning both. As a result of these records, augmented by numerous archaeological discoveries in the second half of the twentieth century, information concerning the ancient past, not only of China but also of much of East, Central, and Inner Asia, has survived. *

Another rendering of the Yellow Emperor

According to legend, the ancient Chinese were savages until a sage taught them how to build shelters. Later other sages taught them, in succession, about fire, music and the cultivation of crops. The last of these sages was the Yellow Emperor. There are variations of the story, generally with Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. Sometimes the Yellow Emperor is considered a Sovereign, sometimes he is an Emperor, sometimes he is both. The Five Emperors are succeeded by Emperor Yu, the first ruler of the the Xia Dynasty. The Xia dynasty is regarded as legendary, but there is some archeological evidence suggesting that it existed in some form.

The first sovereign, Fuxi (the Heavenly Sovereign), married his dragon-tailed sister the goddess Nuwa (Nügua, the Earthly Sovereign) who is credited with creating the institution of marriage and molding the first human beings from clay. Fuxi bestowed the gifts of hunting, fishing and animal husbandry on humanity. His successor, the ox-headed Shennong (the Tai Sovereign), gave humanity agriculture and knowledge of medicinal plants. This period is called the Age of the Rulers.

The five emperors also bestowed gifts in humanity. The first emperor, The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi or Huang Di) is said to have given humanity agricultural calendars, boats, armor and pottery. He invented mathematics, medicine, the civil service, and the use of fire in cooking, and used his knowledge to unite the Chinese tribes. His wife, Leizu (Xi Ling Shi) is credited with discovering how to weave silk from silk worm cocoons. A tomb in Huang Lin, a small town Shaanxi province, about 200 kilometers north of Xian, is said to contain Huang di's remains. “Huang Lin” literally means "Huang's Tomb."

There are some variations about which sage and emperor provided which gift. According to one variation, in 2853 B.C. the legendary Emperor Shennong declared the five sacred plants to be: rice, wheat, barley, millet and soybeans. Around the same time he discovered tea when he was sipping a bowl of hot water and a sudden gust of wind blew some tea tree twigs into the water. Zhuanxu, the second emperor, dammed 233,559 streams and built mountains in the four corners of the kingdom to halt flooding. Emperor Shun, the last of the Five Emperors, was the hero of the Great Flood and father of writing.

According to another legend, silk was discovered in 2460 B.C. by Xi Ling Shi (Leizu) the 14-year-old wife of the Yellow Emperor, who lived in a palace with a garden with many mulberry trees. One day she took a cocoon from one of the trees and accidently dropped it hot water and found she could unwind the shimmering thread from pliable cocoon. For hundreds of years after that only the Chinese royal family was allowed to wear silk. Xi Ling Shi is now honored as the goddess of silk.

Historical Perspective on the Early Chinese Rulers

20080215-Yellow Emporer or Huangdi ch pg.jpg
Yet another rendering of the Yellow Emperor
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The Spirit-like Farmer is a mythical culture hero who seems to have first been cast in the role of an ancient emperor during the third century B.C. He was placed before the Yellow Emperor, but does not appear to have had great influence on the notion of the distant past until after the end of the Classical era. Sima Qian, writing a century later, still does not see fit to describe his rule – his history of China begins with the Yellow Emperor. During the early Han, yet another sage was added to the list of China’s earliest rulers. Prior to the Spirit-like Farmer, we learn, was the sage emperor Fu Xi. Fu Xi’s great achievement was the discovery of the basis of the mantic text "Yi jing", which was very much in vogue during the Han. [Source: Robert Eno, Associate Professor, Retired, Early Chinese History and Thought, Indiana University/+/ ]

“In referring to “the lords,” this account projects back into earliest times the power structure of the Zhou era, when many political entities ruled by hereditary lords shared common cultural features and, although often engaged in mutual warfare, also joined in diplomatic agreements, alliances, and at times common acknowledgment of a paramount leader. /+/

“The way in which the Yellow Emperor fits into the genealogy of the succeeding rulers is rather uneven, and may reflect some late religious “patchwork.” The Yellow Emperor did not emerge as a significant figure until the Warring States period. At that time, one clan in the major state of Qi usurped the throne and, in order to demonstrate that they possessed ancestors worthy of veneration, claimed descent from this Yellow Emperor, whose previous role in legend is unclear. This ruling house sponsored a cult of the Yellow Emperor in Qi, which greatly enhanced their clan’s stature, and also had great intellectual influence over a much broader territory.” According to a theory with roots in the 19th century, The Yellow Emperor is the ancient ancestor from which all Han Chinese are believed to have descended. /+/

Conceiving the Legendary Chinese Emperors: Going Backwards in History

Dr. Eno wrote: “During the Classical era, the patrician elite was highly concerned with learning about the past and understanding the lessons it taught. In some cases, the effort was a sincere attempt to become enlightened; in other cases, the search for the past was actually a search for more practical tools, such as justifications for contemporary political goals. It is unclear to us just how much material was actually available for constructing an account of the distant past. What is clear is that the narratives of China’s earliest history were cobbled together out of a mix of outright myths, legends with some historical basis, and the political and ethical prejudices of their authors. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“It is easiest to conceive of the narrative of the past as being constructed backwards from the early Zhou. The Zhou people knew that before them had come a series of rulers belonging to a single ruling house, the Shang Dynasty. A clear picture existed for only a few Shang kings, but the Shang founder, at least, was seen as an heroic man, quite similar in many ways to the Zhou founders. Prior to the Shang, it was believed that there had been a dynasty called the Xia. Although these kings were mostly indistinguishable, again, the founding king, a man known as the Emperor Yu, was clearly conceived. /+/

“Yu represents a transitional figure. Prior to Yu, history was seen as a succession of emperors, mostly sages, rather than as a succession of dynasties. These legendary rulers seem to have been individuals who existed originally as mythical figures, many part man and part animal. Each appears to have been lifted out of the realm of myth and inserted in turn at the beginning of history either to celebrate some particular virtue associated with his legend, or for practical political reasons, such as those described below for the Yellow Emperor. /+/

“This process of back-filling distant history with mythical or semi-religious figures in known as “euhemerization” (an awkward term which in non-Chinese contexts actually means something else: the deification of historical figures). It is generally the case that the figures at the earlier stages of this historical story were added latest — there was always more room in the remote past to insert a new sage ruler. /+/

“The texts which follow here – important but emphatically undramatic – are drawn from two sources. The descriptions of the first three sage rulers are translated from the Han Dynasty history “Shiji”, which Sima Qian composed about 100 B.C. These are followed by longer texts concerning the sage emperors Yao and Shun, two heroes of the Confucian tradition. /+/

Yellow Emperor poem

Yellow Emperor

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) was the son of Shaodian. His surname was Gongsun; his personal name Xuanyuan. He was born with spirit-like abilities, could speak when just a baby, had broad understanding as a youth, was sincere and assiduous as he grew up, and as an adult he possessed keen powers of wise perception. During the age of Xuanyuan, the era of the clan of Emperor Spirit-like Farmer was in decline. The lords raided one another’s states and tyrannized the common people, yet the clan of the Spirit-like Farmer could do nothing to suppress them. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Accordingly, Xuanyuan learned to use the halberd and spear in order to subdue them, and the patrician lords all came to submit to him. But one, Chi You, was the most violent, and none could subdue him. Now the Fire Emperor wished to control the lords, but the lords all cleaved to Xuanyuan. Xuanyuan thereupon perfected his virtue and raised the weapons of war, ordered the five vapors and planted the five seeds, surveyed the four quarters, and trained as soldiers the likes of bears and wolves and tigers. He met the Fire Emperor in battle on the plains of Banquan. Three times they fought, and only then did Xuanyuan prevail. Then Chi You rebelled and would not obey the ordinances of the emperor. So the Yellow Emperor raised armies from the lords and battled with Chi You on the plains below Mt. Zhuolu, and there he captured him and put him to death. /+/

Then the patrician lords all honored Xuanyuan as the Son of Heaven and he succeeded to the throne of the house of the Spirit-like Farmer and was known as the Yellow Emperor. If there were those in the empire who were disobedient, the Yellow Emperor would go and suppress them, and would depart only once peace had been restored. In this way he cut tracks across the mountains and was never himself at rest. /+/

According to Eno: “The Fire Emperor is sometimes reported to have been a brother of the Yellow Emperor. In this portion of the account and those that follow, it is easy to see that a series of discrete myths concerning the triumph of culture heroes over evil demons have been blended together to create the story of the Yellow Emperor.” It is also “intriguing that the process of the Yellow Emperor’s enthronement is left so vague. No other example of this sort of imperial “election by the elite” comes to mind throughout the course of Chinese history, and it is a riddle why this tale was fashioned in this way.” /+/

Yellow Emperor on 1912 banknote

Yellow Emperor as a Legendary Ruler

Dr. Eno wrote: “The Yellow Emperor traveled east to the sea, ascending Wan Mountain and the exalted Dai Peak. He traveled west to Hollowtree Hill and ascended Chickenhead Mountain. He went south to the Yangzi River and ascended Bear Mountain and Mount Xiang. He went north as far as the lands of the Hunyu people, distributing the estate tally embalms at Fu Mountain and enclosing a walled town at the elbow beneath Mount Zhuolu. He traveled to and fro with no permanent abode, his soldiers’ encampments his only protecting barrier. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“In establishing titles for his ministers and army officers, he employed the term “cloud” in all of them. He created Supervisors of the Left and Right to watch over the myriad states. When the myriad states were all in harmony, the ghosts and spirits, mountains and rivers, and royal sacrificial ceremonies to Heaven were many indeed. He obtained the treasured tripods, met the sun’s motions and calculated by means of the tallies. He appointed Feng Hou (Lord Wind), Limu (Strong Shepherd), Changxian (Ever First), and Dahong (Grand Goose) to regulate the people. He accorded with the guidelines of Heaven and earth, the divinations of the forces of dark and light, and the principles of life and death. He preserved the ancestral lines of those who had perished. In accord with the seasons, he broadcast the hundred grains and planted grasses and trees. He nurtured the transformations of the birds and beasts, insects and crawling things of the earth. He charted the sequences of the sun and moon, stars and planets, and of the tides, and differentiated the soils, stones, metals, and jades. He labored unfailingly with his mind and his strength, his eyes and his ears, and rationed the use of water, fire, and the natural riches of the world. /+/

“Portents showed that he possessed the virtue of the element earth, hence he was called the “Yellow Emperor.”The Yellow Emperor resided on the hill of Xuanyuan and there he married a woman of the West Ridge clan, Leizu. She became his principal wife and bore him two sons, each of whose descendants later ruled the empire. The first was named Xuanxiao: he became known as Qingyang and descended to live in the valley of the River Jiang. The second was named Changyi, and he descended to live in the valley of the River Ruo. Changyi married a woman of the clan of Shu Mountain, known as Changpu, and she gave birth to Gaoyang, who possessed sagely virtue.“When the Yellow Emperor died, he was buried at Mount Qiao. He was succeeded by his grandson, Gaoyang, the son of Changyi. This was the Emperor Zhuanxu. /+/

Emperor Zhuanxu


Dr. Eno wrote: “Gaoyang, the Emperor Zhuanxu, was the grandson of the Yellow Emperor and the son of Changyi. He was a deeply tranquil person of many plans, insightful into many things and possessing great practical skill in affairs. He fostered the riches of the world in his employment of the earth, and tracked the times in according with the heavens; he cleaved to the spirits in being constrained according to righteousness, governed the "qi" vapors in transforming through education, and was pure and sincere in ritual sacrifices. [Source: /+/ ]

“He went north as far as dark You Ridge and south to Jiaozhi; he went west to the flowing sands of Liusha and east to the twisted trees of Panmu. Among the things of the world that move and those that are at rest, among the great spirits and the small spirits, among all the things upon which the sun and moon shine, none did not submit to him. The Emperor Zhuanxu had a son named Qiongchan. When Zhuanxu died, Gaoxin, the grandson of Xuanxiao succeeded him. This was the Emperor Ku. /+/

Dr. Eno wrote: ““Note that the details of whatever myth made Zhuanxu appear an attractive figure for the royal succession of the distant past seems to have dropped out. He is quite anonymous in this account. This may suggest that his name entered the narrative of the legendary past at an early date and his distinct role was subsequently lost to memory. It may also suggest that Zhuanxu was more likely than the Yellow Emperor to have been based on some real person. /+/

Emperor Ku

Dr. Eno wrote: “Gaoxin, the Emperor Ku, was the great-grandson of the Yellow Emperor. His father was named Jiaoji, whose father had been Xuanxiao, and Xuanxiao’s father was the Yellow Emperor. Neither Xuanxiao nor Jiaoji had become emperor, but Gaoxin assumed the emperor’s throne. Gaoxin was a fellow clansman of Zhuanxu. [Source: Robert Eno,/+/ ]

According to the “Shiji” by the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian: “Gaoxin was a prodigy and spoke his own name at birth. Everywhere he benefited things, but took no profit for himself. His brilliance of listening allowed him to know that which was far away, and his brilliance of sight let him penetrate to the slightest thing. He followed the righteousness of heaven and understood the plight of the people. He was humane but awesome, giving of grace and reliable; he cultivated his person and the empire submitted to him. He obtained the goods of the earth and judiciously employed them. He succored the myriad peoples with education and so taught them. He determined the motions of the sun and moon and had them greeted and sent off. He understood the spirits and respectfully served them. He was solemn of mien and towering in virtue. In action he was timely and the "shi" of the land submitted to him. Like a stream, he kept to the middle ground and journeyed throughout the world. What the sun and moon shone upon, what the wind and rain touched, all submitted to him. [Source: “Shiji” 1.1-14 -]

“The Emperor Ku married a woman of the Chenfeng clan who gave birth to Fangxun. He married a woman of the Zouzi clan who gave birth to Zhi. When the Emperor Ku died, his position was taken by Zhi. But once he ascended the throne, the Emperor Zhi did not rule with goodness, and his younger brother Fangxun was enthroned in his stead. This was the Emperor Yao.” -

Three Great Sage Kings: Emperors Yao, Shun and Yu

One imagining of Emperor Yao

The last two of the Five Legendary Emperors — Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun — plus Emperor Yu — the first legendary ruler of the Xia Dynasty, which itself is regarded by most scholars as legendary, with a few links to archeology evidence — are sometimes called the Great Sage Kings, based on their virtues and skills as leaders. Most scholars regard them as moralistic constructs conceived during the Classical Period of Chinese history, around the 5th century B.C., about 2,000 years before the sage kings were said to have lived, to reflect prevailing views of good governance and ethics.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The three model sage kings, Yao, Shun, and Yu, were expressions of the political ideals of the philosophers who celebrated them and who elaborated on their “historical” achievements. Their sage actions made the distant past a model for the future. In actuality, of course, the exemplary tales of these legendary figures were designs for the future invented, or re-invented, by the thinkers of the Classical present.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Venerated as the first emperor of China, Yu had thousands of concubines because he believed the more sex partners he had the longer he would live. He reputedly became immortal after he made love to a thousand young virgins. Emperor Yao was famous for his benevolent rule and lifestyle of a simple farmer.

Emperor Yao

Emperor Yao was the fourth of the Five Emperors. His ancestral name was Yi Qi or Qi and his given name was Fangxun. Also known as Tang Yao, he was the second son to Emperor Ku and Qingdu, Yao's mother, who has been worshipped as the goddess Yao-mu. Often extolled as the morally perfect and intelligent sage-king, Yao's benevolence and diligence served as a model to future Chinese monarchs and emperors. According to the legend, Yao became the ruler at 20 and died at 119 when he passed his throne to Shun the Great, to whom he had given his two daughters in marriage. According to the Bamboo Annals, Yao abdicated his throne to Shun in his 73rd year of reign, and continued to live during Shun's reign for another 28 years. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Early Chinese often speak of Yao, Shun and Yu the Great as historical figures, and contemporary historians believed they may represent leader-chiefs of allied tribes who established a unified and hierarchical system of government in a transition period to the patriarchal feudal society. In the Classic of History, one of the Five Classics, the initial chapters deals with Yao, Shun and Yu. +

Another version of Emperor Yao

Dr. Eno wrote: “Examining into antiquity, we find the Emperor Yao was named Fangxun. He was reverent, intelligent, patterned, and thoughtful, with a manner of graceful ease. He was sincerely reverent and able to yield to those worthy of it. His brilliance pervaded the four quarters of the land and reached to all on high and below. He shone forth his heroic virtue and thereby cleaved to all in the many lineages of his kin. Once his kin were in harmonious accord, he brought order and decorum to the many clans of his people, whose excellence shone forth. Finally, he united and harmonized the myriad states. In this way, the black-haired people were transformed in a timely peace. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Although Yao is said to have inherited the throne of China from his father, during the Classical period, history really begins with the Emperor Yao. Yao appears originally to have been the hero of a myth about astronomy. The great act of cultural creation for which he was deemed responsible was the determination of the movements of the sun and the creation of a calendar that matched the schedule of the human world with the rhythm of the natural seasons. In this way, Yao gets credit for three great achievements: 1) He adapted the “patterns” of the heavens to fashion a pattern for social activity; 2) He facilitated the rise of agriculture by giving farmers a reliable clock for planting and harvesting; 3) He invented government institutions to disseminate information about the schedule of society and supervise administration of social activity. In the view of Classical Chinese, these accomplishments amounted to the invention of civilized behavior, the promotion of economic prosperity, and the creation of bureaucratic government. /+/

“The Emperor Yao became a very important figure to Confucianism, and it is probably the Confucians of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. who embellished his legend into the text we have here. “The Canon of Yao” is the opening section of the “Book of Documents”, which became one of the five most sacred Confucian texts. The style of the text itself is so consciously archaic that it is nearly unreadable (it purports, after all, to date from about 2000 B.C.). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Archeological Proof of Emperor Yao’s Existence?

In September 2105, the China Daily reported: “Archeological findings on the ruins of Taosi in Linfen stand a good chance of being the location of the capital of the Yao period, which would extend Chinese history 300 hundreds years ahead of the Xia Dynasty (c.21st century-16th century B.C.), Chinese archeologists announced at press conference in Beijing on Thursday. Yao was one of the sage emperors living in the middle reaches of the Yellow River in Chinese mythology. Excavation of the Taosi site in Linfen city, North China's Shanxi province, began in 1978. [Source: China Daily, September 19, 2015 ||||]

“Wang Wei, head of the institute of archeology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that many experts in the archaeological circle have reached a consensus that Taosi is the capital of the Yao period. Latest excavations also showed the ancient city of Taosi covered an area of 2.8 million square meters with various functional divisions, including a royal palace, residential areas for nobles, the king’s mausoleum, and a ritual platform. Meanwhile, the concept of kingship,etiquette, private ownership, and an ancient calendar were also developed in the period of Yao, according to Wang's report. ||||

“Wang said that a series of archeological findings at the Taosi site proves that it matches the capital of the Yao period 4,200 years ago in terms of the period, location, scale, and level of civilization. Although the findings may still face some disputes, Chinese archeologists believe that through archaeological excavation and research, the legendary Emperor of Yao will become a true part of the history of China.” ||||

Emperor Shun

Emperor Shun

Emperor Shun was the fifth of Five Emperors. Oral tradition holds that he lived sometime between 2294 and 2184 B.C. Shun is sometimes referred to as the Great Shun or as Yu Shun. The "Yu" in "Yu Shun" was the name of the fiefdom, which Shun received from Yao; thus, providing him the title of "Shun of Yu". Shun's given name was Chonghua. According to traditional sources, Shun became leader at the age of 53, and then died at the age of 100 years. Before his death Shun is recorded as relinquishing his seat of power to Yu: an event which is supposed to have eventuated in the establishment of the Xia Dynasty. Shun's capital was located in Puban, presently located in Shanxi. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Under Emperor Yao, Shun was appointed successively Minister of Instruction, General Regulator and chief of the Four Peaks, and put all affairs in proper order within three years. Yao was so impressed that he appointed Shun as his successor to the throne. Shun wished to decline in favour of someone more virtuous, but eventually assumed Yao's duties. It was said that "those who had to try a lawsuit did not go to Danzhu, but to Shun." Danzhu was the son of Yao.

After ascending to the throne, Shun offered sacrifices to the god Shang Di, as well as to the hills, rivers, and the host of spirits. Then he toured the eastern, the southern, the western, and the northern parts of the country; in each place he offered burnt-offering to Heaven at each of the four peaks (Mount Tai, Mount Huang, Mount Hua and Mount Heng), sacrificed to the hills and rivers, set in accord the seasons, months, and days, established uniform measurements of length and capacities, and reinforced ceremonial laws. Shun divided the land into twelve provinces, raising altars upon twelve hills, and deepening the rivers. Shun dealt with four criminals: banishing the Minister of Works to You island, confining Huan-dou on Mount Chong; driving San-Miao into San-Wei, and holding Gun a prisoner till his death on Mount Yu.

According to the Canon of Shun, Shun began to reign at the age of 30, reigned with Yao for 30 years, and reigned 50 more years after Yao's abdication, then Shun died. The Bamboo Annals state that Yao chose Shun as his heir three years before abdicating the throne to him. Both sources agree that after abdicating, Yao lived for another 28 years in retirement during Shun's reign. In later centuries, Yao and Shun were glorified for their virtue by Confucian philosophers. Shun was particularly renowned for his modesty and filial piety.

Legends of Emperor Shun

Emperor Shun performs divination

Legend has it that Shun's birth mother died when Shun was very young. His father was blind and remarried soon after Shun's mother's death. Shun's stepmother then gave birth to Shun's half brother Xiang and a half sister. Shun's stepmother and half brother treated Shun terribly, often forcing Shun to do all the hard work in the family and only giving him the worst food and clothing. Shun's father, being blind and elderly, was often ignorant of Shun's good deeds and always blamed Shun for everything. Yet, despite these conditions, Shun never complained and always treated his father, his stepmother, and his half brother with kindness and respect. [Source: Wikipedia +]

When he was barely an adult, his stepmother threw him out of the house. Shun was forced to live on his own. Yet, because of his compassionate nature and his natural leadership skills, everywhere he went, people followed him, and he was able to organize the people to be kind to each other and do the best they could. When Shun first went to a village that produced pottery, after less than one year, the pottery became more beautiful than they had ever been. When Shun went to a fishing village, the people there were at first fighting amongst themselves over the fishing grounds, and many people were injured or killed in the fights. Shun taught them how to share and allocate the fishing resources, and soon the village was prospering and all hostilities ceased. +

When Emperor Yao became old, he became distressed over the fact that his 9 sons were all useless, only knew how to spend their days enjoying themselves with wine and song. Yao asked his administers, the Four Mountains, to propose a suitable successor. Yao then heard of Shun's tales. Wise Yao did not want to simply believe in the tales about Shun, so he decided to test Shun. Yao gave a district to Shun to govern and married his two daughters to him, with a small dowry of a new house and some money. Though given an office and money, Shun still lived humbly. He continued to work in the fields every day. Shun even managed to convince his two brides, the two princesses, Yao's daughters, named Ehuang (Fairy Radiance) and Nüying (Maiden Bloom), who were used to good living, to live humbly and work along the people.

For the Rest of This Story See the Wikipedia article on Emperor Shun Wikipedia

Emperor Yu the Great

Yu the Great was a legendary ruler in ancient China famed for his introduction of flood control, inaugurating dynastic rule in China by founding the Xia Dynasty, and for his upright moral character. The dates proposed for Yu's reign precede the oldest known written records in China, the oracle bones of the late Shang dynasty, by nearly a millennium. No inscriptions on artifacts from the supposed era of Yu, nor the later oracle bones, make any mention of Yu; he does not appear in inscription until vessels dating to the Western Zhou period (c. 1045–771 B.C.). [Source: Wikipedia +]

The lack of anything remotely close to contemporary documentary evidence has led to some controversy over the historicity of Yu. Proponents of the historicity of Yu theorise that stories about his life and reign were transmitted orally in various areas of China until they were recorded in the Zhou dynasty, while opponents believe the figure existed in legend in a different form - as a god or mythical animal - in the Xia dynasty, and morphed into a human figure by the start of the Zhou dynasty. Many of the stories about Yu were collected in Sima Qian's famous Records of the Grand Historian. Yu and other "sage-kings" of Ancient China were lauded for their virtues and morals by Confucius and other Chinese teachers. +

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: Yu was “a semi-divine figure, part man and part beast, who tamed the flood by dredging the river beds of mud. This Yu of myth came to be identified with the founder of what was traditionally known as China’s earliest dynastic ruling line: the Xia Dynasty – Yu the man-beast became Emperor Yu. In “The Canon of Shun” we see him rewarded for his flood-taming skills by being promoted to Minister of Works under the Emperor Shun. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University/+/ ]

Emperor Shun with elephants by Kuniyoshi Utagawa

Emperor Yu as the Ruler of China

King Shun passed the throne to Yu instead of to his own son. Yu is said to have initially declined the throne, but was so popular with other local lords and chiefs that he agreed to become the new emperor, at the age of fifty-three. He established a capital at Anyi, the ruins of which are in modern Xia County in southern Shanxi Province, and founded what would be called the Xia Dynasty, traditionally considered China's first dynasty. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Yu's flood control work is said to have made him intimately familiar with all regions of what was then Han Chinese territory. According to his Yu Gong treatise in the Book of Documents, Yu divided the Chinese "world" into nine zhou or provinces. These were Jizhou, Yanzhou, Qingzhou, Xuzhou, Yangzhou, Jingzhou, Yuzhou, Liangzhou and Yongzhou. Once he had received bronze from these nine territories, he created ding vessels called the Nine Tripod Cauldrons. Yu then established his capital at Yang City. According to the Bamboo Annals, Yu killed one of the northern leaders, Fangfeng to reinforce his hold on the throne.

According to the Bamboo Annals, Yu ruled the Xia Dynasty for forty-five years and, according to Yue Jueshu, he died from an illness. It is said that he died at Mount Kuaiji, south of present-day Shaoxing, while on a hunting tour to the eastern frontier of his empire, and was buried there. The Yu mausoleum known today was first built in the A.D. 6th century (Southern and Northern Dynasties period) in his honor. It is located four kilometers southeast of Shaoxing city.

After the Legendary Emperors

Dr. Eno wrote: “After the era of the three sage kings, the chronology of the Chinese past begins to resemble history rather than legend. But the ideas that people of Classical times had about great men and events of the post-legendary era were not necessarily accurate, and sometimes resemble legend as much as the tales of Yao, Shun, and Yu. In particular, narratives about the founding of the Zhou must be seen as moral tales rather than as factual accounts. Though the events are clearly based on fact, the stories have more to contribute to our understanding of early Chinese ethics than early Chinese history. /+/ [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The Classical thinkers did not make much use of the histories of the Xia and Shang Dynasties. For our purposes, these two long eras can be reduced to a single story, told twice. In the case of each dynasty, the main theme of the story is simply this: The ruling house was established by a sage, whose great work was perpetuated by a series of wise successors. Ultimately, however, there arose a king who was evil, lustful, and who fell under the influence of an alluring evil wife and a clever evil minister. The people suffered, and a virtuous hero arose from among them to overthrow the oppressive ruler and establish a new dynasty. /+/

“The outline of these historical fables makes it clear that three issues were key to their creation: First, women should have no role in government because the sexual attraction of women can sink government into debauchery. Second, the wise exercise of power by a legitimate ruler can be undermined by the wiles of evil ministers, so virtue rather than competence must be the chief criterion for holding high office. Third, although it is appropriate that kings should pass their thrones on to their sons, if a legitimate ruler lacks ethical virtues to the extent that his governance becomes oppressive to his people, he loses legitimacy, and may be overthrown by an unrelated successor who possesses virtue appropriate to the royal office. /+/

Xia Dynasty Emperors

Sima Qian wrote in Shiji 2.83-88: “Emperor Yu had bestowed the realm upon Yi. After the period of three years mourning was complete, Yi yielded the throne to Qi, the son of Yu, and retired to live on the south face of Mt. Chi. Because the son of Yu was worthy, the empire attached its loyalty to him. When Yu had died, although he had entrusted the realm to Yi, Yi had not long served as aide to Yu and the empire was to yet attached to him. The patrician lords all left Yi and presented themselves at the court of Qi, saying, “This is the son of our former ruler, Yu.” And so Qi ascended the throne as the Son of Heaven, Emperor Qi of the Xia. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Emperor Qi of the Xia was the son of Yu. His mother was a woman of the Tushan clan. The clan of the Yushi would not submit to the Xia and Qi attacked them, fighting a great battle at Gan. On the eve of battle, Qi swore the “Oath at Gan.” He summoned his six high ministers and laid the oath forth before them. Oh, you men of the six offices. I swear to you now, the clan of Youhu has transgressed. It has disgraced the five regularities and cast away the example of the three upright emperors. Heaven has therefore cut off its mandate. Today I merely exact with reverence the punishment of Heaven. /+/

“Should those on the left not attack on the left or those on the right not attack on the right, then you shall not have carried out my orders. If any should drive their chariot horses other than in the proper manner, then you shall not have carried out my orders. If you follow my orders, then I shall reward you before the ancestral tablets. If you do not follow my orders, you shall be cut down before the altars of state and I shall destroy your families. Thereupon, the clan of Youhu was annihilated and all in the empire attended at the court of the Emperor Qi. /+/

“When Emperor Qi of the Xia died, he was succeeded by Emperor Taikang. The Emperor Taikang lost control of his state. His five brothers awaited him at the bend of the River Luo and composed the “Song of the Five Brothers.” When Emperor Taikang died, he was succeeded by his younger brother, who ruled as Emperor Zhongkang. In the time of Emperor Zhongkang, the clans of the Xi and the He sank into lustful license. They discarded their office of calendrical observations and through time out of joint. Yin led a righteous campaign against them and composed “The Campaign of Yin.” /+/

When Emperor Zhongkang died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Xiang. When Emperor Xiang died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Shaokang. When Emperor Shaokang died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Yu. When Emperor Yu died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Huai. When Emperor Huai died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Mang. When Emperor Mang died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Xie. When Emperor Xie died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Bujiang. When Emperor Bujiang died, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Emperor Qiong. When Emperor Qiong died, he was succeeded by his son, Emperor Jin. When Emperor Jin died, he was succeeded by the son of Emperor Bujiang, Emperor Kong-. /+/

Image Sources: Yellow Emperor, China Page; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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