Yellow Emperor

The Yellow Emperor or Huangdi1 is a legendary ancient Chinese emperor and divine descendant of the celestial Gods, included among the three sovereigns and five emperors. Tradition holds that he reigned from 2697–2597 or 2696–2598 BC. His cult became prominent in the late Warring States and early Han period, when he was portrayed as the originator of the centralized state, a patron of esoteric arts, a cosmic ruler, and a lord of the underworld. Traditionally credited with numerous inventions and innovations, he is regarded as the initiator of Chinese civilization and said to be the ancestor of all Huaxia Chinese.


The great Chinese historian Sima Qian – and much Chinese historiography following him – considered the Yellow Emperor to 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 late Warring States had the Yellow Emperor started to be described as the first ruler of China. Yang thus argued that Huangdi was a late 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 was originally a deity who was later transformed into a human figure. 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 hero."


Clan names

The Yellow Emperor has been referred to as Xuanyan-shi (s 轩辕氏, t 軒轅氏, p Xuānyuán-shì) and Youxiong-shi (c 有熊氏, p Yǒuxióng-shì). Third-century scholar Huangfu Mi commented that Xuanyuan was the name of a hill where Huangdi had lived and that he later took as a name. Qing-dynasty commentator Liang Yusheng (梁玉繩; 1745–1819) argued instead that the hill was named after the Yellow Emperor rather than the opposite.

According to British Sinologist Herbert Allen Giles (1845–1935); Youxiong was a name taken from Huangdi's hereditary principality; Giles also cited sources saying that Xuanyuan was the name of a village where the Yellow Emperor had lived. William Nienhauser, a modern translator of the Shiji, explains that Huangdi was originally the head of the Youxiong Clan, which lived near what is now Xinzheng in Henan .

Yellow Emperor

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 earth, dragons, 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.

Origin and development of the myth


The origin of Huangdi's legend is unclear, but historians have formulated several hypotheses about it. Yang Kuan (楊寬), a member of the Doubting Antiquity School (1920s–1940s), argued that the Yellow Emperor was derived from Shangdi, the highest god of the shang dynasty. Yang's view is based on the series 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.

Historian 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 the Yellow Emperor's title 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 the Yellow Emperor represented the power of rain and clouds, whereas his mythical rival Chi You (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 the 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.

The Yellow Emperor in pre-imperial times

Accounts of the Yellow Emperor started to appear in Chinese texts in the warring states period. "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 of the state of Qi. As Michael Puett points out, this was one of several references to the Yellow Emperor in the fourth and third centuries BC within accounts of the creation of the state.

Elements of Huangdi's myth

Early years

According to 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 Province. Early on, he lived with his tribe in the northwest near the Ji River (thought to be the Fen River in Shanxi ), later migrating to Zhuolu in modern-day Hebei Province. 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). From this, Ye Shuxian associated the Yellow Emperor with bear legends common across northeast Asia people as well as the Dangun legend.

The Yellow Emperor and the Yan emperor were both leaders of a tribe or a combination of two tribes near the Yellow River, in an era that modern Chinese history books often refer to as "primitive society." The Yan emperor hailed from a different area around the Jiang River (thought to be the modern Wei. Both emperors lived in a time of warfare. The Yan emperor proving unable to control the disorder within his realm, the Yellow Emperor took up arms to establish his domination over various warring factions.


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 Chinese cereals, 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 Cangjie into 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 creatures.


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 is decisively defeated. He flees to Zhuolu and begs the Yellow Emperor for help. During the ensuing Battle of Zhuolu, the Yellow Emperor employs his tamed animals and 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 demon Nuba to dispel Chi You's storm. He then destroys the Nine Li and defeated Chi You before falling out with the Yan emperor and defeating him at Banquan and replacing him as the primary ruler.


The Yellow 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 groups in China may have their own myths or not count as descendants of the emperor.

Family and descendants

According to the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in modern-day Shaanxi , the Yellow Emperor shares ancestry with that of a Central Plains race that went by the name Ji from their position along the Ji River.

The Yellow Emperor's father was Shaodian and his mother was Fu Pao (附寶). The Yellow Emperor had a total of 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 younger, lived by the Ruo River (若水).

When the Yellow Emperor died, he was succeeded by Changyi's son, Zhuanxu.

Later sources claimed that several emperors and three subsequent dynasties descended from the Yellow Emperor: Other dynasties besides the first three also claimed descent from the Yellow Emperor.

Emperors Zhuanxu, Ku, Yao, and Shun

xia dynasty

shang dynasty

zhou dynasty

han dynasty

cao wei

song dynasty

According to the Wei Shu and Tung Pa, the Cao family of cao wei were descended from Huangdi via Emperor Zhuanxu, from which the Cao family originated. They were of the same liniage as to Emperor Shun. Another account says that the Cao family was descended from Emperor Shun. This account was attacked by Chiang Chi who claimed it was people of the Tian 田 surname who were descended from Shun and not the Cao. He also claimed (Gui) Kuei 媯 was Shun's family name.

During the reign of Emperor Zhenzong Song Emperors claimed Huangdi as an ancestor.

Gun, Yu, Zhuanxu, Zhong, Li, Shujun, and Yuqiang are various emperors, Gods, and heroes whose ancestor was Huangdi. The Huantou, Miaomin, and Quanrong peoples were said to be descended from Huangdi.

Claims of descent

During the tang dynasty, the Yellow Emperor, symbolic as the ancestor of the Han Chinese and founder of Chinese civilization, was also claimed by various other rulers who were not Han Chinese to be their ancestors, in order to connect themselves to the Tang. "Prestige" for the individual and "status" for their country was the goal of those non Han who made claims of descent from these prominent Han figures.

Claiming descent from Huangdi and the other five emperors was set during the western han dynasty in Sima Qian's time. The claim that Shennong and Huangdi was ancestors of the Chinese was written about during Tang and Song. 14 out of 25 sons of Huangdi received twelve different family names. Shennong and Huangdi were regarded as the ancestor for the majority of Chinese surnames. The practice of Chinese claiming Huangdi as an ancestor was well established in Tang and Song China, with many Chinese families writing about their ancestry from Huangdi's sons and great-grandsons, Emperor Shun, and Emperor Yao. Emperor Yao was also claimed to be the ancestor of the han dynasty Emperor Liu Bang. Most Chinese noble families claimed descent from Huangdi.

The 5th century BC is the starting point at which Chinese genealogies are considered accurate. Most Chinese genealogies trace their family ultimately to Huangdi. New families were founded by the younger sons of older families. When compared together, different Chinese genealogies frequently confirm these founding events by younger sons. Lynn Pan claims that descent from Huangdi is commonly claimed by some overseas Chinese clans. Many Chinese clans in overseas areas will have genealogies displaying their descent from Huangdi with their different surnames being explained by name changes. Huangdi granted 14 of his 25 sons different family names, These 14 family names are from which all other Chinese family names are traced to. Both many overseas Chinese and Chinese in China use genealogies which show the Huangdi as their ancestor to reinforce their being Chinese.

In 1963 during the Qingming Festival Huang Zhenduo wrote the genealogy of the Huang clan. He attacked the Taipings, Yuan Shikai, Chiang Kai-shek, the Japanese, and the Communists in the preface of his genealogy, all of whom virtually destroyed China and destroyed ancient historic genealogies of various Chinese families. He lamented the destruction and despaired at how people no longer knew their ancestors. The genealogist Huang Zhenduo claimed Huangdi's six generation descendants as the ancestors of the Huang lineage of the town Huang Cun. Their surname Huang was derived from the Huang region, where they quarreled with each other. Various members of generations of the Huang family had important posts in government under King Wu of Zhou, under whom Huang Liangze served, and the governor of Xin'an (Huizhou) in 322 AD, was Huang Li of Huang Dun town. This town was near Huang Cun. One of the Huang's had no children so he adopted Cheng Keyuan, and Cheng Keyuan became Huang Keyuan and started the new Huang clan lineage from which the present day Huang clan descended.

The Yu (Yee) family of Zhangwan village, Xinhui district, Guangdong claimed descent from Huangdi's son Xuan xiao. Emperor Shun's agriculture minister, Duke Qi, was of one of the originally 15th generations of the family. The family adopted the last name Yu 30 generations after that. The Kings of Chin and Jin honored their ancestor You Yu. You moved to Shandong , he was originally from the norther China plain. Another ancestor named Yu Rui moved near the Lo river in Shaanxi province. He became a censor for the State of Qin. The family moved into Guangdong during the Ten Kingdoms and five dynasties.

Societal influence

Imperial era

The Yellow 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. In addition the texts mentioned above, he was also credited with composing the Four Classics of the Yellow Emperor, the Yellow Emperor's Hidden Talisman Classic, and the "Yellow Emperor's Four Seasons Poem" included in the Tung Shing fortune-telling almanac. The Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon, which presents the doctrinal basis of traditional Chinese medicine, was also named after him.

"Xuanyuan 12" (s 轩辕十二, t 軒轅十二) is also the Chinese name for Gamma Leonis. In the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing 's Forbidden City, there is also a mirror called the "Xuanyuan Mirror".

Twentieth century

The Yellow 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 Chinese Republican period (1911–1949). The early twentieth century is also when the Yellow Emperor was first referred to as the ancestor of all Chinese.

Late Qing

Starting in 1903, radical publications started using the projected date of his birth as the first year of the Chinese calendar. Intellectuals like 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 revolutionaries like Chen Tianhua (1875–1905), Zou Rong (1885–1905), and 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 the Yellow Emperor on their cover in the early twentieth century. The Hanzu (han nationality) were viewed as all being descended from Huangdi by anti Manchu revolutionaries during the qing dynasty, a pin with Huangdi's pictures was worn by anti Manchu members of an association of Chinese students in Japan. 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 (1845–1894), 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 had been founded about 4200 years earlier by Mesopotamian 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 needs. 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 early China." 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 ancestors.

Republican period

The Yellow 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 civilization" (人文始祖).

Modern significance

The cult of the Yellow Emperor was forbidden in the People's Republic of China from 1949 to 1980. The Communists originally attacked Huangdi when they took power, with PRC historians criticizing Huangdi and other early leaders and even claimed they did not exist, in Hunan the Red Guards vandalized Yandi's tomb. This 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 argued for 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.

After retreating to Taiwan in late 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai-shek ruled that the Republic of China 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 2009 President Ma Ying-jeou presided over these rites in person and 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 who is now Honorary Chairman of the Kuomintang – and his wife Lien Fang Yu paid homage at the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in Huangling, Yan'an, in mainland China.

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.

Last update 15-06-2012

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