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” in 1894: “ Instead of treating of the prehistoric period of their race, 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. *

Books: “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present” by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2004); “Shang Civilization” by K.C. Chang (Yale, 1980). According to Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University: “There are several introductory essays on the nature of oracle inscriptions. David Keightley, the foremost Western authority in the field, has written two, of which the more accessible appears in Wm. Theodore de Bary et al., ed., “Sources of Chinese Tradition” (NY: 2000, 2nd edition). No book has been more influential for oracle text studies in the West than Keightley’s “Sources of Shang Tradition” (Berkeley: 1977). Although it is exceptionally technical, because it is very thoroughly illustrated and covers a wide range of topics it can be fun to page through even for the non-specialist. Keightley, also wrote “The Origins of Chinese Civilization” (Berkeley: 1983). His “The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200-1045 B.C.)” (Berkeley: 2000) is an excellent source on Shang history, society and culture

Legendary Chinese Rulers and Their Gifts

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 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 theshiof 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.” -

Image Sources: Yellow Emperor, China Page; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; 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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