Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

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Era of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

c. 2852 BCE–c. 2070 BCE
Huang Di.png
Map of tribes and tribal unions in Ancient China, including the tribes led by Huang Di, Yan Di and Chiyou.
Status Legendary Kingdom
Capital Qufu
Common languages Old Chinese, Sinitic Languages
Government Tribal kingship, Chiefdom
 2698–2598 BCE
 2514–2436 BCE
 2436–2366 BCE
 2366–2358 BCE
 2356–2255 BCE
 2255–2208 BCE
c. 2852 BCE
c. 2070 BCE
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Blank.png Neolithic China
Xia dynasty Blank.png
Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors
History of China.png
History of China
Neolithic c. 8500 – c. 2070 BC
Xia c. 2070 – c. 1600 BC
Shang c. 1600 – c. 1046 BC
Zhou c. 1046 – 256 BC
  Western Zhou
  Eastern Zhou
    Spring and Autumn
    Warring States
Qin 221–207 BC
Han 202 BC – 220 AD
  Western Han
  Eastern Han
Three Kingdoms 220–280
  Wei , Shu and Wu
Jin 266–420
  Western Jin
  Eastern Jin Sixteen Kingdoms
Northern and Southern dynasties
Sui 581–618
Tang 618–907
  (Wu Zhou 690–705)
Five Dynasties and
Ten Kingdoms

Liao 916–1125
Song 960–1279
  Northern Song Western Xia
  Southern Song Jin Western Liao
Yuan 1271–1368
Ming 1368–1644
Qing 1636–1912
Republic of China on mainland 1912–1949
People's Republic of China 1949–present
Republic of China on Taiwan 1949–present

The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors were two groups of mythological rulers or deities in ancient northern China. The Three Sovereigns lived before The Five Emperors, who have been assigned dates in a period from circa 2852 BC to 2070 BC. Today they may be considered culture heroes. [1]


The dates of these mythological figures may be fictitious, but according to some accounts and reconstructions, they preceded the Xia Dynasty. [2]


The Three Sovereigns, sometimes known as the Three August Ones, were said to be god-kings, demigods or god emperors [3] who used their abilities to improve the lives of their people and impart to them essential skills and knowledge. The Five Emperors are portrayed as exemplary sages who possessed great moral character and lived to a great age and ruled over a period of great peace. The Three Sovereigns are ascribed various identities in different Chinese historical texts.

These kings are said to have helped introduce the use of fire, taught people how to build houses and invented farming. The Yellow Emperor's wife is credited with the invention of silk culture. The discovery of medicine, the invention of the calendar and Chinese script are also credited to the kings. After their era, Yu the Great founded the Xia Dynasty. [2]

According to a modern theory with roots in the late 19th century, the Yellow Emperor is supposedly the ancestor of the Huaxia people. [4] The Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor was established in Shaanxi Province to commemorate the ancestry legend. [4]

The Chinese word for emperor, huángdì (皇帝), derives from this, as the first user of this title Qin Shi Huang considered his reunion of all of the lands of the former Kingdom of Zhou to be greater than even the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors.


A related concept appears in the legend of the Four shi (四氏) who took part in creating the world. The four members are Youchao-shi (有巢氏), Suiren-shi (燧人氏), Fuxi-shi (伏羲氏), and Shennong-shi (神農氏). The list sometimes extends to one more member being Nüwa-shi (女媧氏), making Five shi (五氏). [5] Four of these five names appear in different lists of the Three Sovereigns. shi(氏) is the meaning of clan or tribe in china, so none of them are a single person in prehistoric times.

There is a saying that the Three Sovereigns are Suiren-shi (燧人氏), Youchao-shi (有巢氏), Shennong-shi (神農氏). The Suiren taught people to drill wood for fire so people could easily migrate. The Youchao taught people to build houses out of wood, so that people could leave caves to expand into the plains. After the number of people grew, Shennong tried a variety of grasses to find suitable cereals to solve people's food problems. The tribes also used the sovereigns' respective contributions as the name of the tribes.


Depending on the source, there are many variations of who classifies as the Three Sovereigns or the Five Emperors. There are at least six to seven known variations. [6] Many of the sources listed below were written in much later periods, centuries and even millennia after the supposed existence of these figures, and instead of historical fact, they may reflect a desire in later time periods to create a fictitious ancestry traceable to ancient culture heroes. The Emperors were asserted as ancestors of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. [7] The following appear in different groupings of the Three Sovereigns: Fuxi (伏羲), Nüwa (女媧), Shennong (神農), Suiren (燧人), Zhurong (祝融), Gong Gong (共工), Heavenly Sovereign (天皇), Earthly Sovereign (地皇), Tai Sovereign (泰皇), Human Sovereign (人皇), and even the Yellow Emperor (黄帝).

The following appear in different groupings of the Five Emperors: Yellow Emperor (黃帝), Zhuanxu (顓頊), Emperor Ku (), Emperor Yao (), Emperor Shun (), Shaohao (少昊), Taihao (太昊), and Yan Emperor (炎帝).

SourceDate of sourceThree SovereignsFive Emperors
Records of the Grand Historian (史記)
edition by Sima Qian [6]
94 BCE Heavenly Sovereign (天皇) or Fu Xi (伏羲)
Earthly Sovereign (地皇) or Nüwa (女媧)
Tai Sovereign (泰皇) or Shennong (神農)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Zhuanxu (顓頊)
Emperor Ku ()
Emperor Yao ()
Emperor Shun ()
Sovereign series (帝王世系) [6] Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Shaohao (少昊)
Zhuanxu (顓頊)
Emperor Ku ()
Emperor Yao ()
Emperor Shun ()
Shiben [6] 475-221 BCE (the Warring States period) according to the Book of Han (111 CE) Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Baihu Tongyi (白虎通義) [6] Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Zhurong (祝融) or Suiren (燧人)
Fengsu TongYi (風俗通義) [6] 195 CE Fu Xi (伏羲)
Nüwa (女媧)
Shennong (神農)
Yiwen Leiju (藝文類聚) [6] 624 CE Heavenly Sovereign (天皇)
Earthly Sovereign (地皇)
Human Sovereign (人皇)
Tongjian Waiji (通鑑外紀) Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Gong Gong (共工)
Chunqiu yundou shu (春秋運斗樞)
Chunqiu yuanming bao (春秋元命苞)
Fu Xi (伏羲)
Nüwa (女媧)
Shennong (神農)
Shangshu dazhuan (尚書大傳) Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Suiren (燧人)
Diwang shiji (帝王世紀)

Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)

I Ching (易經) [6] 800s BCETaihao (太昊)
Yan Emperor (炎帝)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Emperor Yao ()
Emperor Shun ()
Comments of a Recluse, Qianfulun (潛夫論) [8] Taihao (太昊)
Yan Emperor (炎帝)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Shaohao (少昊)
Zhuanxu (顓頊)
Zizhi tongjian waiji, (資治通鑒外紀) [8] Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Shaohao (少昊)
Zhuanxu (顓頊)
Emperor Ku ()
Emperor Yao ()

Family tree of ancient Five Emperors

Family tree of ancient Five Emperors
(1) Yellow Emperor
黃帝 [9]
(2) Shaohao
Changyi 昌意
Jiaoji 蟜極(3) Zhuanxu
(4) Ku Qiongchan 窮蟬King of Gu Shu
Cheng Taowu 梼杌 Wangliang
(5) Zhi Xie of
(6) Emperor Yao
Houji 后稷Jingkang 敬康Lao Tong
Danzhu 丹朱 Juwang 句望
Qiaoniu 橋牛 Gun
Gusou 瞽叟(8) Yu Luzhong
Ehuang 娥皇(7) Emperor Shun Nuying 女英Kunwu
Shen Hu
Peng Zu
Hui Ren
Ji Lian
Shangjun 商均

See also

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  9. Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian

Further reading

Preceded by
None known
Dynasties in Chinese history
2852–2205 BC
Succeeded by
Xia dynasty