The Yellow Emperor, also known as the Yellow Thearch, the Yellow God
or the Yellow Lord, or simply by his Chinese name Huangdi (/ˈhwɑːŋ
ˈdiː/), is a deity in Chinese religion, one of the legendary
Chinese sovereigns and culture heroes included among the
Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors
Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors and cosmological
Five Forms of the Highest
Deity (五方上帝 Wǔfāng
Shàngdì).[note 1] First calculated by
Jesuit missionaries on the
basis of Chinese chronicles and later accepted by the
twentieth-century promoters of a universal calendar starting with the
Yellow Emperor, Huangdi's traditional reign dates are 2697–2597 or
Huangdi's cult became prominent in the late
Warring States and early
Han period, when he was portrayed as the originator of the centralized
state, as a cosmic ruler, and as a patron of esoteric arts. A large
number of texts – such as the Huangdi Neijing, a medical classic,
and the Huangdi Sijing, a group of political treatises – were thus
attributed to him. Having waned in influence during most of the
imperial period, in the early twentieth century Huangdi became a
rallying figure for
Han Chinese attempts to overthrow the rule of the
Qing dynasty, which they considered foreign because its emperors were
Manchus. To this day the Yellow
Emperor remains a powerful nationalist
Traditionally credited with numerous inventions and innovations –
ranging from the calendar to an ancestor of football – the Yellow
Emperor is now regarded as the initiator of Chinese civilization,
and said to be the ancestor of all Chinese.
1.1 "Huangdi": Yellow Emperor, Yellow Thearch
1.2 Xuanyuan and Youxiong
1.3 Other names
3 Origin of the myth
4 History of Huangdi's cult
4.1 Earliest mention
Warring States period
4.3 The state of Qin
4.5 Imperial era
4.6 In Taoism
4.7 Twentieth century
4.7.1 Late Qing
4.7.2 Republican period
4.8 Modern significance
5 Elements of Huangdi's myth
6 Meaning as a deity
6.1 Symbol of the centre of the universe
6.2 As ancestor
7 Traditional dates
8 Cultural references
9 See also
11.1 Works cited
11.2 Further reading
Temple of Huangdi in Xinzheng, Zhengzhou, Henan.
"Huangdi": Yellow Emperor, Yellow Thearch
Until 221 BC when the first emperor of a unified
China coined the
title of huangdi (皇帝) – conventionally translated as "emperor"
– to refer to himself, the character di 帝 did not refer to earthly
rulers but to the highest god of the
Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1041 BC)
pantheon. In the
Warring States period (c. 450–221 BC), the term
di on its own could also refer to the deities associated with the five
sacred mountains and colors. Huangdi (黃帝), the "yellow di", was
one of the latter. To emphasize the religious meaning of di in
pre-imperial times, historians of early
China commonly translate the
god's name as "Yellow Thearch" and the first emperor's title as
"August Thearch", in which "thearch" refers to a godly ruler.
In the late
Warring States period, the Yellow
Emperor was integrated
into the cosmological scheme of the Five Phases, in which the color
yellow represents the earth phase, the Yellow Dragon, and the
center. The correlation of the colors in association with different
dynasties was mentioned in the
Lüshi Chunqiu (late 3rd century BC),
where the Yellow Emperor's reign was seen to be governed by earth.
The character huang 黄 ("yellow") was often used in place of the
homophonous huang 皇, which means "august" (in the sense of
'distinguished') or "radiant", giving Huangdi attributes close to
those of Shangdi, the Shang supreme god.
Xuanyuan and Youxiong
The Records of the Grand Historian, compiled by
Sima Qian in the first
century BCE, gives the Yellow Emperor's name as "Xuanyuan" (s 轩辕,
t 軒轅, p Xuānyuán). Third-century scholar Huangfu Mi, who wrote a
work on the sovereigns of antiquity, commented that Xuanyuan was the
name of a hill where Huangdi had lived and that he later took as a
name. Qing-dynasty scholar Liang Yusheng (梁玉繩; 1745–1819)
argued instead that the hill was named after the Yellow Emperor.
Xuanyuan is also the name of the star
Regulus (Alpha Leonis) in
Chinese, the star being associated to Huangdi in traditional
astronomy. He is also associated to the broader constellations Leo
and Lynx, of which the latter is said to represent the body of the
Yellow Dragon (黄龙 Huánglóng), Huangdi's animal form.
Huangdi was also referred to as "Youxiong" (c 有熊, p Yǒuxióng).
This name has been interpreted as either a place name or a clan name.
According to British sinologist
Herbert Allen Giles
Herbert Allen Giles (1845–1935),
that name was "taken from that of [Huangdi's] hereditary
principality". William Nienhauser, a modern translator of the
Records of the Grand Historian, states that Huangdi was originally the
head of the Youxiong clan, which lived near what is now
Henan. Rémi Mathieu, a French historian of Chinese myths and
religion, translates "Youxiong" as "possessor of bears" and links
Huangdi to the broader theme of the bear in world mythology. Ye
Shuxian has also associated the Yellow
Emperor with bear legends
common across northeast Asia people as well as the Dangun
The eagle-faced Thunder God (雷神 Léishén) in a 1923 drawing,
punisher of those who go against the order of Heaven.
Han-dynasty texts the Yellow
Emperor is also called upon as the
"Yellow God" (黄神 Huángshén). Certain accounts interpret him
as the incarnation of the "Yellow God of the Northern Dipper"
(黄神北斗 Huángshén Běidǒu),[note 2] another name of the
universal god (
Shangdi 上帝 or Tiandi 天帝). According to a
definition in apocryphal texts related to the Hétú 河圖, the
Emperor "proceeds from the essence of the Yellow God".
As a cosmological deity, the Yellow
Emperor is known as the "Great
Emperor of the Central Peak" (中岳大帝 Zhōngyuè Dàdì), and
in the Shizi as the "Yellow
Emperor with Four Faces" (黄帝四面
Huángdì Sìmiàn). In old accounts the Yellow
identified as a deity of light (and his name is explained in the
Shuowen jiezi to derive from guāng 光, "light") and thunder, and as
one and the same with the "Thunder God" (雷神 Léishén),
who in turn, as a later mythological character, is distinguished as
the Yellow Emperor's foremost pupil, such as in the Huangdi Neijing.
Map of tribes and tribal unions in Ancient China, including tribes of
Huang Di (Yellow Emperor), Yan Di (Flame Emperor) and Chiyou.
The Chinese historian Sima Qian – and much Chinese
historiography following him – considered the Yellow
be a more historical figure than earlier legendary figures such as Fu
Xi, Nüwa, and the Yan Emperor. His Records of the Grand Historian
begins with the Yellow Emperor, while passing over the others.
Throughout most of Chinese history, the Yellow
Emperor and the other
ancient sages were considered to be real historical figures. Their
historicity started to be questioned in the 1920s by historians like
Gu Jiegang, one of the founders of the
Doubting Antiquity School in
China. In their attempts to prove that the earliest figures of
Chinese history were mythological, Gu and his followers argued that
these ancient sages were originally gods who were later depicted as
humans by the rationalist intellectuals of the Warring States
period. Yang Kuan, a member of the same historiographical current,
noted that only in the
Warring States period had the Yellow Emperor
started to be described as the first ruler of China. Yang thus
argued that Huangdi was a later transformation of Shangdi, the supreme
god of the Shang pantheon.
Also in the 1920s, French scholars
Henri Maspero and Marcel Granet
published critical studies of China's accounts of high antiquity.
In his Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne ["Dances and legends
of ancient China"], for example, Granet argued that these tales were
"historicized legends" that said more about the time when they were
written than about the time they purported to describe.
Most scholars now agree that the Yellow
Emperor originated as a god
who was later represented as a historical person.
K.C. Chang sees
Huangdi and other cultural heroes as "ancient religious figures" who
were "euhemerized" in the late
Warring States and Han periods.
Historian of ancient China,
Mark Edward Lewis speaks of the Yellow
Emperor's "earlier nature as a god", whereas Roel Sterckx, a professor
at University of Cambridge, calls Huangdi a "legendary cultural
Origin of the myth
Twentieth-century statue of the Yellow
Emperor on display at the
National Palace Museum
National Palace Museum in Taipei
The origin of Huangdi's mythology is unclear, but historians have
formulated several hypotheses about it. Yang Kuan, a member of the
Doubting Antiquity School (1920s–40s), argued that the Yellow
Emperor was derived from Shangdi, the highest god of the Shang
dynasty. Yang reconstructs the etymology as follows:
Shangdi 上帝 → Huang
Shangdi 皇上帝 → Huangdi 皇帝 →
Huangdi 黄帝, in which he claims that huang 黄 ("yellow") either
was a graphic variant of huang 皇 ("august") or was used as a taboo
character for the latter. Yang's view has been criticized by
Mitarai Masaru and by Michael Puett.
Mark Edward Lewis agrees that huang 黄 and huang 皇 were
often interchangeable, but, disagreeing with Yang, he claims that
huang meaning "yellow" appeared first. Based on what he admits is
a "novel etymology" likening huang 黄 to the phonetically close wang
尪 (the "burned shaman" in Shang rainmaking rituals), Lewis suggests
that "Huang" in "Huangdi" might originally have meant "rainmaking
shaman" or "rainmaking ritual." Citing late
Warring States and
early Han versions of Huangdi's myth, he further argues that the
figure of the Yellow
Emperor originated in ancient rain-making rituals
in which Huangdi represented the power of rain and clouds, whereas his
Chiyou (or Yandi) stood for fire and drought.
Also disagreeing with Yang Kuan's hypothesis,
Sarah Allan finds it
unlikely that such a popular myth as the Yellow Emperor's could have
come from a taboo character. She argues instead that pre-Shang
"'history'," including the story of the Yellow Emperor, "can all be
understood as a later transformation and systematization of Shang
myth." In her view, Huangdi was originally an unnamed "lord of the
underworld" (or the "Yellow Springs"), the mythological counterpart of
the Shang sky deity Shangdi. At the time, Shang rulers claimed
that their mythical ancestors, identified with "the [ten] suns, birds,
east, life, [and] the Lord on High" (i.e., Shangdi), had defeated an
earlier people associated with "the underworld, dragons, west."
After the Zhou overthrew the Shang in the eleventh century BC, Zhou
leaders reinterpreted Shang myths as meaning that the Shang had
vanquished a real political dynasty, which was eventually named the
Xia dynasty. By Han times – as seen in Sima Qian's account in
Shiji – the Yellow Emperor, who as lord of the underworld had
been symbolically linked to the Xia, had become a historical ruler
whose descendants were thought to have founded the Xia.
Given that the earliest extant mention of the Yellow
Emperor was on a
fourth-century BC bronze inscription claiming that he was the ancestor
of the royal house of the state of Qi, Lothar von Falkenhausen
speculates that Huangdi was invented as an ancestral figure as part of
a strategy to claim that all ruling clans in the "Zhou culture sphere"
shared common ancestry.
History of Huangdi's cult
A section of the poem from the Tung Shing.
Explicit accounts of the Yellow
Emperor started to appear in Chinese
texts in the
Warring States period (early fifth century – 221 BC).
"The most ancient extant reference" to Huangdi is an inscription on a
bronze vessel made in the first half of the fourth century BC by the
royal family (surnamed
Tian 田) of the state of Qi, a powerful
Harvard historian Michael Puett writes that the Qi bronze inscription
was one of several references to the Yellow
Emperor in the fourth and
third centuries BC within accounts of the creation of the state.
Noting that many of the thinkers who were later identified as
precursors of the
Huang–Lao – "Huangdi and Laozi" – tradition
came from the state of Qi, Robin D. S. Yates hypothesizes that
Huang–Lao originated in that region.
Warring States period
The cult of Huangdi became very popular during the Warring States
period (5th century–221 BC), a period of intense competition between
rival states which ended with the unification of the realm by the
state of Qin. In addition to his role as ancestor, he became
associated with "centralized statecraft" and emerged as a figure
paradigmatic of emperorship.
The state of Qin
Further information: Qin (state)
In his Shiji,
Sima Qian claims that the state of Qin started
worshipping the Yellow
Emperor in the fifth century BC, along with
Yandi, the Fiery Emperor. The altars were established at Yong 雍
Fengxiang County in
Shaanxi province), which was the
capital of Qin from 677 to 383 BC. By the time of King Zheng, who
became king of Qin in 247 and
First Emperor of a unified
China in 221
BC, Huangdi had become by far the most important of the four
"thearchs" (di 帝) that were then worshiped at Yong.
The figure of Huangdi had appeared sporadically in Warring States
texts. Sima Qian's
Shiji (or Records of the Grand Historian, completed
around 94 BC) was the first work to turn these fragments of myths into
a systematic and consistent narrative of the Yellow Emperor's
"career". The Shiji's account was extremely influential in shaping
how the Chinese viewed the origin of their history.
Shiji begins its chronological account of Chinese history with the
life of Huangdi, whom it presents as a sage sovereign from
antiquity. It recounts that Huangdi's father was Shaodian and
his mother was Fu Pao (附寶). The Yellow
Emperor had four wives.
His first wife
Leizu of Xiling bore him two sons. His other three
wives were his second wife Fenglei (封嫘), third wife Tongyu
(彤魚) and fourth wife Momu (嫫母). The emperor had a
total of 25 sons, 14 of whom began their own surnames and
clans. The oldest was
Shaohao or Xuanxiao, who lived in Qingyang by
the Yangtze River. Changyi, the youngest, lived by the Ruo River.
When the Yellow
Emperor died, he was succeeded by Changyi's son,
The chronological tables found in chapters 13 of the
all past rulers – legendary ones like Yao and Shun, the first
ancestors of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, as well as the
founders of the main ruling houses in the Zhou sphere – as
descendants of Huangdi, giving the impression that Chinese history was
the history of one large family.
Inquiring of the Dao at the Cave of Paradise, hanging scroll, color on
silk, 210.5 x 83 cm by
Dai Jin (1388–1462). This painting is
based on the story, first recounted in the Zhuangzi, that the Yellow
Emperor traveled to the
Kongtong Mountains to inquire about the Dao
Daoist sage Guangchengzi.
Emperor was credited with an enormous number of cultural
legacies and esoteric teachings. While
Taoism is often regarded in the
West as arising from Laozi, Chinese Taoists claim the Yellow Emperor
formulated many of their precepts. The Yellow Emperor's Inner
Canon (黃帝內經 Huángdì Nèijīng), which presents the doctrinal
basis of traditional Chinese medicine, was named after him. He was
also credited with composing the Four Books of the Yellow Emperor
(黃帝四經 Huángdì Sìjīng), the Yellow Emperor's Book of the
Hidden Symbol (黃帝陰符經 Huángdì Yīnfújīng), and the
"Yellow Emperor's Four Seasons Poem" included in the Tung Shing
"Xuanyuan (+ number)" is also the Chinese name for
Regulus and other
stars of the constellations Leo and Lynx, of which the latter is said
to represent the body of the Yellow Dragon. In the Hall of Supreme
Harmony in Beijing's Forbidden City, there is also a mirror called the
In the second century AD, Huangdi's role as a deity was diminished
because of the rise of a deified Laozi. A state sacrifice offered
to "Huang-Lao jun" was not offered to Huangdi and Laozi, as the term
Huang-Lao would have meant a few centuries earlier, but to a "yellow
Laozi". Nonetheless, Huangdi kept being considered as an immortal:
he was seen as a master of longevity techniques and as a god who could
reveal new teachings – in the form of texts like the sixth-century
Huangdi Yinfujing – to his earthly followers.
Emperor became a powerful national symbol in the last
decade of the
Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and remained dominant in
Chinese nationalist discourse throughout the Republican period
(1911–49). The early twentieth century is also when the Yellow
Emperor was first referred to as the ancestor of all Chinese.
Starting in 1903, radical publications started using the projected
date of his birth as the first year of the Chinese calendar.
Liu Shipei (1884–1919) found this practice
necessary in order to "preserve the [Han] race" (baozhong 保種) from
both Manchu dominance and foreign encroachment. Anti-Manchu
Chen Tianhua (1875–1905), Zou Rong
Zhang Binglin (1868–1936) tried to foster the
racial consciousness they thought was missing from their compatriots,
and thus depicted the Manchus as racially inferior barbarians who were
unfit to rule over Han Chinese. Chen's widely circulated pamphlets
claimed that the "Han race" formed one big family descended from the
Yellow Emperor. The first issue (Nov. 1905) of the Minbao 民報
("People's Journal"), which was founded in Tokyo by
revolutionaries of the Tongmenghui, featured the Yellow
Emperor on its
cover and called Huangdi "the first great nationalist of the
world." It was one of several nationalist magazines that featured
Emperor on their cover in the early twentieth century.
The fact that Huangdi meant "yellow" emperor also served to buttress
the theory that he was the originator of the "yellow race".
Many historians interpret this sudden popularity of the Yellow Emperor
as a reaction to the theories of French scholar Albert Terrien de
Lacouperie (1845–94), who in a book called The Western Origin of the
Early Chinese Civilization, from 2300 B.C. to 200 A.D.
(1892) had claimed that Chinese civilization was founded around 2300
BC by Babylonian immigrants. Lacouperie's "Sino-Babylonianism"
posited that Huangdi was a Mesopotamian tribal leader who had led a
massive migration of his people into
China around 2300 BC and
founded what later became Chinese civilization. European
sinologists quickly rejected these theories, but in 1900 two Japanese
historians, Shirakawa Jirō and Kokubu Tanenori, omitted these
criticisms and published a long summary that presented Lacouperie's
views as the most advanced Western scholarship on China. Chinese
scholars were quickly attracted by "the historicization of Chinese
mythology" that the two Japanese authors advocated.
Anti-Manchu intellectuals and activists who searched for China's
"national essence" (guocui 國粹) adapted
Sino-Babylonianism to their
Zhang Binglin explained Huangdi's battle with
Chi You as a
conflict opposing the newly arrived civilized Mesopotamians to
backward local tribes, a battle that transformed
China into one of the
most civilized places in the world. Zhang's reinterpretation of
Sima Qian's account "underscored the need to recover the glory of
Liu Shipei also presented these early times as the
golden age of Chinese civilization. In addition to tying the
Chinese to an ancient center of human civilization in Mesopotamia,
Lacouperie's theories suggested that
China should be ruled by the
descendants of Huangdi. In a controversial essay called History of the
Yellow Race (Huangshi 黃史), which was published serially from 1905
to 1908, Huang Jie (黃節; 1873–1935) claimed that the "Han race"
was the true master of
China because it was descended from the Yellow
Emperor. Reinforced by the values of filial piety and the Chinese
patrilineal clan, the racial vision defended by Huang and others
turned vengeance against the Manchus into a duty owed to one's
Top image: A five-yuan banknote carrying the effigy of the Yellow
Emperor, issued in 1912 by the government of the newly established
Republic of China
Bottom image: A 100-yuan banknote displaying the Yellow Emperor,
issued in 1938 by the Federal Reserve Bank of
China of the Provisional
Government of the
Republic of China
Republic of China (1937–40), a Japanese puppet
regime in North China
Emperor continued to be revered after the Xinhai Revolution
of 1911, which overthrew the Qing dynasty. In 1912, for instance,
banknotes carrying Huangdi's effigy were issued by the new Republican
government. After 1911, however, the Yellow
Emperor as national
symbol changed from first progenitor of the Han race to ancestor of
China's entire multi-ethnic population. Under the ideology of the
Five Races in Unity, Huangdi became the common ancestor of the Han,
the Manchus, the Mongols, the Tibetans, and the Hui Muslims, who were
said to form the Zhonghua minzu, a broadly understood Chinese
nation. Sixteen state ceremonies were held between 1911 and 1949
to Huangdi as the "founding ancestor of the Chinese nation"
(中華民族始祖) and even "the founding ancestor of human
Xuanyuan Temple, dedicated to the worship of Huangdi, in Huangling,
The cult of the Yellow
Emperor was forbidden in the People's Republic
China until the end of the Cultural Revolution. The prohibition
was halted during the 1980s when the government reversed itself and
resurrected the "Yellow
Emperor cult". Starting in the 1980s, the
cult was revived and phrases relating to the "Descendants of Yan and
Huang" were sometimes used by the Chinese state when referring to
people of Chinese descent. In 1984, for example, Deng Xiaoping
Chinese reunification saying "
Taiwan is rooted in the
hearts of the descendants of the Yellow Emperor," whereas in 1986 the
PRC acclaimed the Chinese-American astronaut
Taylor Wang as the first
of the Yellow Emperor's descendants to travel in space. In the
first half of the 1980s, the Party had internally debated whether this
usage would make ethnic minorities feel excluded. After consulting
experts from Beijing University, the Chinese Academy of Social
Science, and the Central Nationalities Institute, the Central
Propaganda Department recommended on March 27, 1985, that the Party
speak of the Zhonghua Minzu – the "Chinese nation" broadly
defined – in official statements, but that the phrase "sons and
Yandi and the Yellow Emperor" could be used in informal
statements by party leaders and in "relations with Hong Kong and
Taiwanese compatriots and overseas Chinese compatriots".
After retreating to
Taiwan in late 1949 at the end of the Chinese
Chiang Kai-shek and the
Kuomintang (KMT) ruled that the
Republic of China
Republic of China (ROC) would keep paying homage to the Yellow Emperor
on April 4, the National Tomb Sweeping Day, but neither he nor the
three presidents that succeeded him ever paid homage in person. In
1955, the KMT, which was led by Mandarin speakers and still poised on
retaking the mainland from the Communists, sponsored the production of
the movie Children of the Yellow
Emperor (Huangdi zisun 黃帝子孫),
which was filmed mostly in
Taiwanese Hokkien and showed extensive
passages of Taiwanese folk opera. Directed by Bai Ke (1914–1964), a
former assistant of Yuan Muzhi, it was a propaganda effort to convince
speakers of Taiyu that they were linked to mainland people by common
blood. In 2009
Ma Ying-jeou was the first ROC president to
celebrate the Tomb Sweeping Day rituals for Huangdi in person, on
which occasion he proclaimed that both
Chinese culture and common
descent from the Yellow
Emperor united people from
Taiwan and the
mainland. Later the same year, Lien Chan – a former
Vice President of the
Republic of China
Republic of China who is now Honorary Chairman
of the Kuomintang – and his wife
Lien Fang Yu
Lien Fang Yu paid homage at
Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor
Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in Huangling, Yan'an, in mainland
Gay studies researcher Louis Crompton has cited Ji Yun's
report in his popular Notes from the Yuewei Hermitage (1800), that
some claimed the Yellow
Emperor was the first Chinese to take male
bedmates, a claim that
Ji Yun dismissed.
Ji Yun argued that this
was probably a false attribution.
Elements of Huangdi's myth
One of the two turtle-based steles at Shou Qiu, Qufu, Shandong, the
legendary birthplace of the Yellow Emperor.
As with any myth, there are numerous versions of Huangdi's story,
emphasizing different themes and interpreting the main character's
significance in different ways.
Huangfu Mi (215–282), the Yellow
Emperor was born in
Shou Qiu ("Longevity Hill"), which is today on the outskirts of
the city of
Qufu in Shandong. Early on, he lived with his tribe near
the Ji River –
Edwin Pulleyblank states that "there seems to be no
record of a Ji River outside the myth" – and later migrated to
Zhuolu in modern-day Hebei. He then became a farmer and tamed six
different special beasts: the bear (熊), the brown bear (s 罴, t
羆), the pí (貔) and xiū (貅) (which later combined to form the
mythical Pixiu), the ferocious chū (貙), and the tiger (虎).
Huangdi is sometimes said to have been the fruit of extraordinary
birth, as his mother Fubao conceived him as she was aroused, while
walking in the country, by a lightning bolt from the Big Dipper. She
delivered her son on the mount of Shou (Longevity) or mount Xuanyuan,
after which he was named.
Emperor as depicted in a tomb from the mid second century
AD. The inscription reads: "The Yellow
Emperor created and changed a
great many things; he invented weapons and the wells and fields
system; he devised upper and lower garments, and established palaces
In traditional Chinese accounts, the Yellow
Emperor is credited with
improving the livelihood of the nomadic hunters of his tribe. He
teaches them how to build shelters, tame wild animals, and grow the
Five Grains, although other accounts credit
Shennong with the last. He
invents carts, boats, and clothing.
Other inventions credited to the emperor include the Chinese diadem
(冠冕), throne rooms (宮室), the bow sling, early Chinese
astronomy, the Chinese calendar, math calculations, code of sound laws
(音律), and cuju, an early Chinese version of football. He
is also sometimes said to have been partially responsible for the
invention of the guqin zither, although others credit the Yan
Emperor with inventing instruments for Ling Lun's compositions.
In traditional accounts, he also goads the historian
creating the first
Chinese character writing system, the Oracle bone
script, and his principal wife
Leizu invents sericulture and teaches
his people how to weave silk and dye clothes.
At one point in his reign the Yellow
Emperor allegedly visited the
mythical East sea and met a talking beast called the
Bai Ze who taught
him the knowledge of all supernatural creatures. This beast
explained to him there were 11,522 (or 1,522) kinds of supernatural
Chi You, the mythical opponent of the Yellow
Emperor at the Battle of
Zhuolu, here depicted in a
Han-dynasty tomb relief.
Battle of Zhuolu
Battle of Zhuolu and Battle of Banquan
Emperor and the
Yan Emperor were both leaders of a tribe or
a combination of two tribes near the Yellow River. The Yan Emperor
hailed from a different area around the Jiang River, which a
geographical work called the
Shuijingzhu identified as a stream near
Qishan in what was the Zhou homeland before they defeated the
Shang. Both emperors lived in a time of warfare. The Yan
Emperor proving unable to control the disorder within his realm, the
Emperor took up arms to establish his domination over various
According to traditional accounts, the
Yan Emperor meets the force of
the "Nine Li" (九黎) under their bronze-headed leader, Chi You, and
his 81 horned and four-eyed brothers and suffers a decisive defeat.
He flees to Zhuolu and begs the Yellow
Emperor for help. During the
Battle of Zhuolu
Battle of Zhuolu the Yellow
Emperor employs his tamed animals
Chi You darkens the sky by breathing out a thick fog. This leads
the emperor to develop the south-pointing chariot, which he uses to
lead his army out of the miasma. He next calls upon the drought
Nüba to dispel Chi You's storm. He then destroys the Nine Li
and defeats Chi You. Later he engages in battle with the Yan
Emperor, defeating him at Banquan and replacing him as the primary
Main article: Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor
Emperor was said to have lived for over a hundred years
before meeting a phoenix and a qilin and then dying. Two tombs
were built in
Shaanxi within the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor, in
addition to others in Henan,
Hebei and Gansu.
Modern-day Chinese people sometimes refer to themselves as the
"Descendants of Yan and Yellow Emperor", although non-Han minority
China may have their own myths or not count as descendants
of the emperor.
Meaning as a deity
Symbol of the centre of the universe
Temple of Huangdi in Jinyun, Lishui, Zhejiang, China.
As the Yellow
Deity with Four Faces (黃帝四面 Huángdì Sìmiàn)
he represents the centre of the universe and vision of the unity which
controls the four directions. It is explained in the Huangdi Sijing
("Four Scriptures of the Yellow Emperor") that regulating "heart
within brings order without". In order to reign one must "reduce
himself" abandoning emotions, "drying up like a corpse", never
allowing oneself to be carried away, as according to the myth the
Emperor himself did during his three years of refuge on Mount
Bowang in order to find himself. This practice creates an internal
void where all the vital forces of creation gather, and the more
indeterminate they remain and the more powerful they will be.
It is from this centre that equilibrium and harmony emanate,
equilibrium of the vital organs which becomes harmony between the
person and the environment. As sovereign of the centre, the Yellow
Emperor is the very image of the concentration or re-centering of the
self. By self-control, taking charge of his own body one becomes
powerful without. The centre is also the vital point in the microcosm
by means of which the internal universe viewed as an altar is created.
The body is a universe, and by going into himself and by incorporating
the fundamental structures of the universe, the sage will gain access
to the gates of Heaven, the unique point where communication between
Heaven, Earth and Man can occur. The centre is the convergence of
within and without, the contraction of chaos on the point which is
equidistant from all directions. It is the place which is no place,
where all creation is born and dies.
Deity of the Central Peak (中岳大帝 Zhōngyuèdàdì) is
another epithet representing Huangdi as the hub of creation, the axis
mundi (which in
Chinese mythology is Kunlun) that is the manifestation
of the divine order in physical reality, that opens to immortality.
Further information: Chinese emperors family tree (ancient)
Throughout history, several sovereigns and dynasties claimed (or were
claimed) to descend from the Yellow Emperor. Sima Qian's Shiji
presented Huangdi as ancestor of the two legendary rulers Yao and
Shun, and traced various lines of descent from Huangdi to the founders
of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. He claimed that Liu Bang, the
first emperor of the Han dynasty, was a descendant of Huangdi. He
accepted that the ruling house of the
Qin dynasty was also issued from
the Yellow Emperor, but by stating that
Qin Shihuang was in fact the
child of Qin chancellor Lü Buwei, he perhaps meant to leave the First
Emperor out of Huangdi's descent.
Claiming descent from illustrious ancestors remained a common tool of
political legitimacy in the following ages.
Wang Mang (c. 45 BC – 23
AD), of the short-lived Xin dynasty, claimed to descend from the
Emperor in order to justify his overthrow of the Han. As
he announced in January of 9 A.D.: "I possess no virtue, [but] I rely
upon the fact that] I am a descendant of my august original ancestor,
the Yellow Emperor..." About two hundred years later a ritual
specialist named Dong Ba 董巴, who worked for at the court of the
Cao Wei, which had recently succeeded the Han, promoted the idea that
the Cao family was descended from Huangdi via
During the Tang dynasty, non-Han rulers also claimed descent from the
Yellow Emperor, for individual and national prestige, as well as to
connect themselves to the Tang. Most Chinese noble families also
claimed descent from Huangdi. This practice was well established
in Tang and Song times, when hundreds of clans claimed such descent.
The main support for this theory – as recorded in the
AD) and the Tongzhi (mid 12th century) – was the Shiji's statement
that Huangdi's 25 sons were given 12 different surnames, and that
these surnames had diversified into all Chinese surnames. After
Emperor Zhenzong (r. 997–1022) of the Song dynasty dreamed of a
figure he was told was the Yellow Emperor, the Song imperial family
started to claim Huangdi as its first ancestor.
A number of overseas Chinese clans that keep a genealogy also trace
their family ultimately to Huangdi, explaining their different
surnames as name changes claimed to have derived from the fourteen
surnames of Huangdi's descendants. Many Chinese clans, both
overseas and in China, claim Huangdi as their ancestor to reinforce
their sense of being Chinese.
Gun, Yu, Zhuanxu, Zhong, Li, Shujun, and
Yuqiang are various emperors,
gods, and heroes whose ancestor was also supposed to be Huangdi. The
Huantou, Miaomin, and
Quanrong peoples were said to be descended from
Martino Martini, a seventeenth-century
Jesuit who, based on Chinese
historical records, calculated that the Yellow Emperor's reign began
in 2697 BC. Martini's dates are still used today.
Although the traditional
Chinese calendar did not mark years
Han-dynasty astronomers tried to determine the
years of the life and reign of the Yellow Emperor. In 78 BC,
under the reign of
Emperor Zhao, an official called Zhang Shouwang
(張壽望) calculated that 6,000 years had passed since the time of
Huangdi; the court refused his proposal for reform, countering that
only 3,629 years had elapsed. In the proleptic Julian calendar,
the court's calculations would have placed the Yellow
Emperor in the
late 38th century BC rather than in the 27th century BC that is
During their missions in
China in the seventeenth century, the Jesuits
tried to determine what year should be considered the epoch of the
Chinese calendar. In his Sinicae historiae decas prima (first
Munich in 1658),
Martino Martini (1614–1661) dated the
royal ascension of Huangdi to 2697 BC, but started the Chinese
calendar with the reign of Fuxi, which he claimed started in
2952 BC. Philippe Couplet's (1623–1693) "Chronological
table of Chinese monarchs" (Tabula chronologica monarchiae sinicae;
1686) also gave the same date for the Yellow Emperor. The
Jesuits' dates provoked great interest in Europe, where they were used
for comparisons with Biblical chronology. Modern Chinese
chronology has generally accepted Martini's dates, except that it
usually places the reign of Huangdi in 2698 BC (see next
paragraph) and omits Huangdi's predecessors
Fuxi and Shennong, who are
considered "too legendary to include."
Helmer Aslaksen, a mathematician who teaches at the National
University of Singapore and specializes in the Chinese calendar,
explains that those who use 2698 BC as a first year probably do
so because they want to have "a year 0 as the starting point", or
because "they assume that the Yellow
Emperor started his year with the
Winter solstice of 2698 BC", hence the difference with the year
2697 BC calculated by the Jesuits.
Starting in 1903, radical publications started using the projected
date of birth of the Yellow
Emperor as the first year of the Chinese
calendar. Different newspapers and magazines proposed different
dates. Jiangsu, for example counted 1905 as year 4396 (making
2491 BC the first year of the Chinese calendar), whereas the
Minbao (the organ of the Tongmenghui) reckoned 1905 as 4603 (first
year: 2698 BC).
Liu Shipei (1884–1919) created the Yellow
Emperor Calendar to show the unbroken continuity of the Han race and
Han culture from earliest times. There is no evidence that this
calendar was used before the 20th century. Liu's calendar started
with the birth of the Yellow Emperor, which was reckoned to be
2711 BC. When
Sun Yat-sen declared the foundation of the
Republic of China
Republic of China on January 2, 1912, he decreed that this was the
12th day of the 11th month of year 4609 (epoch: 2698 BC), but
that the state would now be using the solar calendar and count 1912 as
the first year of the Republic. Chronological tables published in
the 1938 edition of the
Cihai (辭海) dictionary followed Sun Yat-sen
in using 2698 as the year of Huangdi's accession; this chronology is
now "widely reproduced, with little variation."
The emperor appears as an ancestor hero in the strategy game Emperor:
Rise of the Middle Kingdom made by Sierra Entertainment. In the game,
he is a patron of acupuncturist and silk weaver, and has the skills
needed for leading men into battle, especially the Chariot-Fort
The emperor serves as the hero in Jorge Luis Borges' story, "The Fauna
of the Mirror". British fantasy writer
China Miéville used this story
as the basis for his novella "The Tain", which describes a
post-apocalyptic London. "The Tain" was included in Miéville's
short-story collection "Looking For Jake" (2005).
The popular Chinese role-playing video game series for the PC,
Xuanyuan Jian, revolves around the legendary sword used by the
The emperor is an important NPC in the action RPG Titan Quest, The
player must reach the emperor to learn the truth about Typhon's
imprisonment. He also reveals a bit of information about the war
between the gods and the titans, while also revealing that he has been
following the players actions since the beginning of the Silk Road
A 2016 Chinese drama film about the story of the Yellow
titled "Xuan Yuan: The Great Emperor" (軒轅大帝).
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Yellow Emperor.
Chinese folk religion
^ In Chinese thought mythological history and cosmology are two points
of view to describe the same reality. In other words, mythology and
history and theology and cosmology are all interrelated.
^ A 斗 dǒu in Chinese is an entire semantic field meaning the shape
of a "dipper", as the
Big Dipper (北斗 Běidǒu), or a "cup",
signifying a "whirl", and also has martial connotations meaning
"fight", "struggle", "battle".
^ a b c d e f g h Sima Qian,
Records of the Grand Historian
Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji
史記, c. 100 BC), Chapter 1, "Wudi benji" 五帝本紀 ("Annals of
the Five Emperors"); on
Chinese Text Project
Chinese Text Project (retrieved on
^ Huang Ti". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
^ a b c Fowler (2005), pp. 200-201.
^ a b c d Chang 1983, p. 2
^ a b c d Wang 2005, pp. 11–13.
^ Allan 1984, p. 245 ("Only after the 'First Emperor' of Qin
styled himself Shi Huangdi, did huangdi come to refer to an earthly
ruler rather than the August Lord").
^ Major 1993, p. 18 ("Thearch captures well the character of
ancient Chinese thought wherein divinities might be (simultaneously
and without internal contradiction) high gods, mythical/divine rulers,
or deified royal ancestors: beings of enormous import, straddling the
numinous and the mundane.").
^ a b Allan 1991, p. 65.
^ Walters 2006, p. 39.
^ Engelhardt (2008), pp. 504-505.
^ a b Nienhauser 1994, p. 1, note 6.
^ Ho, Peng Yoke. Li, Qi and Shu: An Introduction to Science and
Civilization in China. Courier Corporation, 2000.
ISBN 0486414450. p. 135
^ Sun & Kistemaker (1997), pp. 120–123.
^ a b Giles 1898, p. 338, cited in Unschuld & Tessenow 2011,
^ Nienhauser 1994, p. 1, note 3.
^ Mathieu 1984, p. 29, p. 243.
^ Ye 2007.
^ Poo 2011, p. 20.
^ Espesset 2007, p. 1080.
^ Espesset (2007), pp. 22-28.
^ Sun & Kistemaker (1997), p. 120.
^ SCPG Publishing Corp. The Deified Human Face Petroglyphs of
Prehistoric China. World Scientific, 2015. ISBN 1938368339. p.
239: in the Hetudijitong and the Chunqiuhechengtu the Yellow Emperor
is identified as the Thunder God.
^ Yang, Lihui; An, Deming. Handbook of Chinese Mythology. ABC-CLIO,
2005. ISBN 157607806X. p. 138
^ Wu 1982, pp. 49–50, and chapter endnotes.
^ Puett 2001, p. 93 (description of Gu's general purpose); Lewis
2007, p. 545 (rest of the information).
^ Allan 1991, p. 64.
^ Lewis 2007, p. 545.
^ Lewis 2007, pp. 545–46.
^ Lewis 2007, p. 556: "modern scholars of myth generally agree
that the sage kings were partially humanized transformations of
earlier, supernatural beings who figured in shamanistic rituals,
cosmogonic myths or tales of the origins of tribes and clans."
^ Lewis 2007, p. 565; Sterckx 2002, p. 95.
^ a b Lewis 1990, p. 314, note 116.
^ a b c Allan 1991, p. 65.
^ Puett 2001, p. 97.
^ Lewis 1990, p. 314, note 116 (huang 黄 as variant); Allan
1991, p. 65 (huang 黄 as taboo character).
^ Mitarai 1967.
^ Puett 2001, pp. 246–47, note 16..
^ Lewis 1990, p. 194.
^ Lewis 1990, pp. 179–82.
^ Allan 1991, p. 175.
^ a b Allan 1991, p. 73.
^ Allan 1991, pp. 64, 73, 175: "In the Xia annals of the Shiji,
the Xia ancestry is traced from Yu 禹 back to Huang Di, the Yellow
Lord"; "the lord of the underworld and Yellow Springs and thus closely
associated with the Xia"; "By the Han, their [the Xia] ancestor, the
Yellow Emperor, originally the lord of the underworld, had been
transformed into an historical figure who, with his descendant Zhuan
Xu, ruled before Yao".
^ von Falkenhausen 2006, p. 165 ("
Warring States texts document a
variety of attempts to coordinate all or most of the clans of the Zhou
culture sphere under a common genealogy descended from the mythical
Emperor (Huangdi), who may have been invented for that very
^ LeBlanc 1985–1986, p. 53 (quotation); Seidel 1969, p. 21
(who calls it "the most ancient document on Huangdi" ["le plus ancient
document sur Houang Ti"]); Jan 1981, p. 118 (who calls the
inscription "the earliest existing and datable source of the Yellow
Emperor cult" and claims that the vessel dates either from 375 or
356 BC; Chang 2007, p. 122 (who gives the date as
356 BC); Puett 2001, p. 112 (Huangdi's "first appearance in
early Chinese literature is a passing reference in a bronze
inscription, where he is mentioned as an ancestor of the patron of the
vessel"); Yates 1997, p. 18 ("earliest extant reference" to
Huangdi is "in a bronze inscription dedicated by King Wei" (r.
357–320); von Glahn 2004, p. 38 (which calls Qi "the dominant
state in eastern China" at the time).
^ Puett 2001, p. 112.
^ Yates 1997, p. 19.
^ Sun 2000, p. 69.
^ Puett 2002, p. 303 ("centralized statecraft"; LeBlanc
1985–1986, pp. 50–51 ("paradigmatic emperorship").
^ von Glahn 2004, p. 38; Lewis 2007, p. 565. Both scholars
rely on a claim made in chapter 28 of the Shiji, p. 1364 of the
Zhonghua Shuju edition.
^ von Glahn 2004, p. 43.
^ von Glahn 2004, p. 38 ("By the reign of King Zheng, the future
First Emperor of Qin, the cult of Huangdi overshadowed all of its
rivals for the attention of the Qin rulers").
^ Yi 2010, in section titled "Yan–Huang chuanshuo 炎黄传说"
("The legends of
Yandi and Huangdi") (original:
Lewis 1990, p. 174 ("the earliest surviving sequential narrative
of the career of the Yellow Emperor"); Birrell 1994, p. 86
("[Sima Qian] composed a seamless biographical account of the deity
that had no basis in the earlier classical texts that recorded myth
^ Loewe 1998, p. 977.
^ Nienhauser 1994, p. 18 (in "Translators' note").
^ a b Chinareviewnews.com, "The ugliest among the empresses and
consorts of past ages" 歷代后妃中的超級醜女 (in Chinese).
Retrieved on August 8, 2010.
^ Big5.huaxia.com, "Momu and the Yellow
Emperor invent the mirror"
嫫母與軒轅作鏡 (in Chinese). Retrieved on 2010-09-04.
^ Sautman 1997, p. 81.
^ Vankeerberghen 2007, pp. 300–301.
^ a b Windridge & Fong 2003, pp. 59 and 107.
^ Unschuld & Tessenow 2011, p. 5.
^ Sun & Kistemaker (1997), pp. 120-123.
^ Maine.edu, "Hall of Supreme Harmony." Retrieved on 2010-08-29.
^ Singtao.ca, "The Xuanyuan mirror in the Imperial Throne Room – the
Hall of Supreme Harmony
Hall of Supreme Harmony where the emperor held court"
金鑾寶座軒轅鏡 御門聽政太和殿 (in Chinese). Retrieved on
^ Engelhardt 2008, p. 506.
^ Lagerwey 1987, p. 254.
^ Komjathy 2013, pp. 173 (date of the Yinfujing and 186, note 77
(rest of the information).
^ Duara 1995, p. 76.
^ Sun 2000, p. 69
则是20 世纪的产品": "The claims that the 5000-year-old Chinese
civilization was inaugurated by Huangdi and that Chinese people are
the descendants of Huangdi are products of the twentieth century.").
^ a b c Dikötter 1992, p. 116.
^ Dikötter 1992, pp. 117–18.
^ Dikötter 1992, p. 117.
^ Chow 1997, p. 49.
^ Sun 2000, pp. 77–78; Dikötter 1992, p. 116, note 73.
^ Dikötter 1992, p. 116, note 73.
^ Chow 2001, p. 59.
^ Hon 2010, p. 140.
^ Hon 2010, p. 145.
^ Hon 2010, pp. 145–47.
^ Hon 2010, p. 149.
^ Hon 2010, p. 150.
^ Hon 2010, pp. 151–52.
^ Hon 2010, p. 153.
^ Hon 2010, p. 154.
^ Hon 2003, pp. 253–54.
^ Duara 1995, p. 75.
^ Dikötter 1992, pp. 71 and 117 ("racial loyalty was perceived
as an extension of lineage loyalty"; Hon 2010, p. 150 ("call to
arms.... to wage a racial war against the Manchus").
^ a b Liu 1999, pp. 608–9.
^ a b Liu 1999, p. 609.
^ Sautman 1997, pp. 79–80.
^ Sautman 1997, p. 80.
^ Sautman 1997, pp. 80–81.
^ Sautman 1997, p. 81.
^ Schoenhals 2008, pp. 121–22.
^ a b c "President Ma pays homage in person to the Yellow Emperor",
China post, Formosa, September 4, 2010 .
^ Zhang 2013, p. 6.
^ Tan 2009, p. 40.
^ "10,000 Chinese pay homage to Yellow Emperor",
September 4, 2010 .
^ Louis Crompton (1925–2009), UNL .
^ "Louis Crompton Scholarship", LGBTQA Programs & Services .
^ Louis Crompton Scholarship Fund, NU foundation .
^ Crompton 2003, p. 214.
^ Yun, Ji, "12. "Huaixi zazhi er" 槐西雜志二 [Miscellaneous
records from Huaixi, Part 2]", 閱微草堂筆記 [Yuewei caotang
biji], 雜說稱孌童始黃帝, 殆出依托 .
^ Nienhauser 1994, p. 1, note 6.
^ a b Pulleyblank 2000, p. 14, note 39.
^ Yves Bonnefoy, Asian Mythologies. University of Chicago Press, 1993.
ISBN 0226064565. p. 246
^ Birrell 1993, p. 48.
^ Wang 1997, p. 13.
^ Liu Xiang (77–6 BC), Bielu 别录："It is said that cuju was
invented by Huangdi; others claim that it arose during the Warring
(蹴鞠者，传言黄帝所作，或曰起戰國之時); cited in
Book of the Later Han (5th century), chapter 34, p. 1178 of the
standard Zhonghua shuju edition. (in Chinese)
^ Yin 2001, pp. 1–10.
^ Huang 1989, vol. 2[page needed].
^ a b iFeng.com, "The traitor Bai Ze" 背叛者白澤 (in Chinese);
from Xu 2008. Retrieved on 2010-09-04.
^ a b Ge 2005, p. 474.
^ a b c Haw 2007, pp. 15–16.
^ Roetz 1993, p. 37.
^ China.org.cn, "Mausoleums of the Yellow Emperor." Retrieved on
^ Sautman 1997, p. 83.
^ a b Lévi (2007), p. 674.
^ Loewe 2000, p. 542.
^ Wang 2000, pp. 168-169.
^ Goodman 1998, p. 145.
^ Lewis 2009, p. 202; Abramson 2008, p. 154.
^ Engelhardt 2008, p. 505.
^ Ebrey 2003, p. 171.
^ Lagerwey 1987, p. 258.
^ Pan 1994, pp. 10–12.
^ Sautman 1997, p. 79.
^ Yang & An 2005, p. 143.
^ Loewe 2000, p. 691, referring to Book of Later Han, chapter
21A, p. 978 of the standard Zhonghua shuju edition.
^ Mungello 1989, p. 132.
^ Lach & van Kley 1994, p. 1683.
^ Mungello 1989, p. 133.
^ Mungello 1989, pp. 131–32 (the citation is on p. 132).
^ Helmer Aslaksen, "The Mathematics of the Chinese Calendar," section
"Which Year is it in the Chinese Calendar?" (retrieved on 2011-11-18)
^ Wilkinson 2013, p. 519.
^ Cohen (2012), pp. 1, 4.
^ Kaske 2008, p. 345.
^ Wilkinson 2013, p. 507.
^ Mungello 1989, p. 131, note 78.
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ISNI: 0000 0000 1368 4254