Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

Last updated
Era of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors
c. 3162 BC–c. 2070 BC
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
c. 3162 BC
c. 2070 BC
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Blank.png Neolithic China
Xia dynasty Blank.png
Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors
Literal meaningthree huang ("magnificent ones"), five di ("lords of heaven")

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 3162 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 supposedly preceded the Xia Dynasty. [2]


The Three Sovereigns, sometimes known as the Three August Ones, were said to be god-kings or demigods [3] who used their abilities to improve the lives of their peoples and impart to them essential skills and knowledge. The Five Emperors are portrayed as exemplary ancestral sages who possessed a great moral character and lived to a great old 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. Leizu, wife of Huangdi, 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 5 Emperors. 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) means clan or family, 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 herbs 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 (黃帝).

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

SourceDate of sourceThree SovereignsFive Emperors
Records of the Grand Historian (《史記》)
edition by Sima Qian [note 1]
94 BC
Sovereign series (帝王世系)(book written by Huangfu Mi) [6]
Shiben [6] 475–221 BC (the Warring States period) according to the Book of Han (AD 111)
Baihu Tongyi (白虎通義) [6]
Fengsu TongYi (風俗通義) [6] AD 195
Yiwen Leiju (藝文類聚) [6] AD 624
Tongjian Waiji (通鑑外紀)
Shangshu dazhuan (尚書大傳)
Diwang shiji(book written by Huangfu Mi) (帝王世紀)
I Ching (易經) [6] 800s BC
Comments of a Recluse, Qianfulun (潛夫論) [8]
Zizhi tongjian waiji, (資治通鑒外紀) [8]

Lineage of the Five Emperors

Family tree of ancient Five Emperors

太昊 [9] [10] [11]
有熊 [12]
少典 [13] [14]
Yellow Emperor
黃帝 [15]
Flame Emperor
炎帝 [16]
Emperor Ku
King of
Gu Shu
Emperor Zhi
Xie of


Lao Tong
Juwang 句望Luo Ming [17]
Ehuang  [ zh ]
Emperor Shun
Nuying  [ zh ]
Shen Hu
Peng Zu
Hui Ren
Yan An
Ji Lian
Shangjun  [ zh ]

Numbers in parenthesis mark a possible enthronement order of the emperors that are considered by one or more authorities to be among the "Five Emperors".

See also


  1. Sima Qian only lists the names of the Three Sovereigns fleetingly in the "Basic Annals of Qin Shihuang" (《秦始皇本紀》): "古有天皇,有地皇,有泰皇". Details were supplied by the "Basic Annals of the Three Sovereigns" (《三皇本紀》), written centuries later by Sima Zhen as a supplement to the Records (《補史記》). The 《三皇本紀》 has sometimes been conflated with the Records proper (e.g., by the Gujin Tushu Jicheng ), but the original Records begins with the Basic Annals of the Five Emperors (《五帝本紀》), without mentioning the Three Sovereigns.

Related Research Articles

Qin Shi Huang First emperor of the Qin Dynasty (r. 221–210 BCE)

Qin Shi Huang, or Shi Huangdi, was the founder of the Qin dynasty, and first emperor of a unified China. Rather than maintain the title of "king" borne by the previous Shang and Zhou rulers, he ruled as the First Emperor (始皇帝) of the Qin dynasty from 221 to 210 BCE. His self-invented title "emperor" would continue to be borne by Chinese rulers for the next two millennia. Historically, he was often portrayed as a tyrannical ruler and strict Legalist, in part from the Han dynasty's scathing assessments of him. Since the mid 20th-century, scholars have begun to question this evaluation, inciting considerable discussion on the actual nature of his policies and reforms. Regardless, according to sinologist Michael Loewe "few would contest the view that the achievements of his reign have exercised a paramount influence on the whole of China's subsequent history, marking the start of an epoch that closed in 1911".


Fuxi or Fu Hsi is a culture hero in Chinese legend and mythology, credited along with his sister and wife Nüwa with creating humanity and the invention of music, hunting, fishing, domestication, and cooking as well as the Cangjie system of writing Chinese characters around 2,000 BC. Fuxi was counted as the first of the Three Sovereigns at the beginning of the Chinese dynastic period.

<i>Records of the Grand Historian</i> Monumental history of ancient China written in the 1st century BC

Records of the Grand Historian, also known by its Chinese name Shiji, is a monumental history of ancient China that is the first of China's 24 dynastic histories. The Records was written in the early 1st century BC by the ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian, whose father Sima Tan had begun it several decades earlier. The work covers a 2,500-year period from the age of the legendary Yellow Emperor to the reign of Emperor Wu of Han in the author's own time, and describes the world as it was known to the Chinese of the Western Han dynasty.

Nüwa Mother goddess of Chinese mythology

Nüwa, also read Nügua, is the mother goddess of Chinese mythology. She is credited with creating humanity and repairing the Pillar of Heaven.

Emperor Wu of Jin Emperor of the Jin Dynasty from 266 to 290

Emperor Wu of Jin, personal name Sima Yan, courtesy name Anshi (安世), was the grandson of Sima Yi, nephew of Sima Shi and son of Sima Zhao. He became the first emperor of the Jin dynasty after forcing Cao Huan, last emperor of the state of Cao Wei, to abdicate to him. He reigned from 266 to 290, and after conquering the state of Eastern Wu in 280, was the emperor of a reunified China. Emperor Wu was also known for his extravagance and sensuality, especially after the unification of China; legends boasted of his incredible potency among ten thousand concubines.

Yellow Emperor Chinese deity, member of the Wufang Shangdi

The Yellow Emperor, also known as the Yellow Thearch, or by his Chinese name Huangdi, is a deity (shen) in Chinese religion, one of the legendary Chinese sovereigns and culture heroes included among the mytho-historical Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors and cosmological Five Regions' Highest Deities. 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 2698–2598 BC.

Yu the Great Xia Dynasty king and founder

Yu the Great (大禹) was a legendary king in ancient China who was famed for his introduction of flood control, his establishment of the Xia dynasty which inaugurated dynastic rule in China, and his upright moral character. He figures prominently in the Chinese legend of "Great Yu Who Controlled the Waters".

Shennong Legendary Chinese ancestral deity

Shennong (神農), variously translated as "Divine Farmer" or "Divine Husbandman", born Jiang Shinian (姜石年), was a mythological Chinese ruler known as the first Yan Emperor who has become a deity in Chinese and Vietnamese folk religion. He is venerated as a culture hero in China and Vietnam. In Vietnamese he is referred to as Thần Nông.


Zhuanxu, also known as Gaoyang, was a mythological emperor of ancient China.

Yan Emperor Legendary ancient Chinese ruler

The Yan Emperor or the Flame Emperor was a legendary ancient Chinese ruler in pre-dynastic times. Modern scholarship has identified the Sheep's Head Mountains just north of Baoji in Shaanxi Province as his homeland and territory.

Youyu-shi, also called Youyu clan or the Yu dynasty, was a ruling dynasty of China that could have existed prior to the Xia dynasty. The territory controlled by the Yu dynasty is hypothesized to have been located southwest of Pinglu County, in Shanxi Province, China. Its last monarch is believed to be Emperor Shun.

Emperor Ku

, usually referred to as Dì Kù, also known as Gaoxin or Gāoxīn Shì or Qūn, was a descendant of the Yellow Emperor. He went by the name Gaoxin until receiving imperial authority, when he took the name Ku and the title Di, thus being known as Di Ku. He is considered the ancestor of the ruling families of certain subsequent dynasties. Some sources treat Ku as a semi-historical figure, while others make fantastic mythological or religious claims about him. Besides varying in their degree of historicizing Ku, the various sources also differ in what specific stories about him they focus on, so that putting together the various elements of what is known regarding Ku results in a multifaceted story. Di Ku was one of the Five Emperors of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors of Chinese mythology. Ku, or Gaoxin, is also known as the "White Emperor".

Youchao is the inventor of houses and buildings, according to China's ancient mythology. He is said to have been one of The Three August Ones in ancient China. He is an obscure figure, also known as Da Chao (大巢). Tradition holds that he ruled over China for 200 years. According to Han Feizi, people could avoid harm from animals with the help of buildings made from wood, which was taught by Youchao.

Zhang Chunhua was a Chinese noble lady and aristocrat. She was the wife of Sima Yi, a prominent military general and regent of the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period of China. She was posthumously honoured as Empress Xuanmu in 266 by her grandson Sima Yan, who ended the Cao Wei state and established the Jin dynasty that year.

Shaodian was the father of Huangdi (黄帝), the Yellow Emperor according to the Records of the Grand Historian. He started the Youxiong family (有熊氏), whilst Shaodian's wives were Fubao and Nüdeng of the Youjiao clan. Fubao later gave birth to Huangdi and Nüdeng gave birth to Yandi.

Emperor Yuwang (帝榆罔), surname Jiang (姜), was the eighth and the last legendary Yan Emperor during the era of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors.

Xun Yue (148–209), courtesy name Zhongyu, was an official, historian and Confucian scholar of the Eastern Han dynasty of China. Born in the influential Xun family of Yingchuan Commandery, Xun Yue served in the Han government as a historian and wrote 13 chapters of the historical text Annals of Han (漢紀), which covered the history of the Western Han dynasty.

Jiaoji was an ancient Chinese figure and the son of Shaohao.

Chidi (god) Chinese deity, member of the Wufang Shangdi

Chìdì or Chìshén, also known as the Nándì or Nányuèdàdì, as a human was Shénnóng, who is also the same as Yándì, a function occupied by different gods and god-kings in mytho-history. Shennong is also one of the Three Patrons, specifically the patron of humanity, and the point of intersection of the Three Patrons and Huangdi.


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Further reading

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