Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

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Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors
c. 2852 BC (traditionally)–c. 2070 BC (start of Xia dynasty)
  • Various locations during different reigns
Government Monarchy
 c.2852 2737 BC or c.2952 2836 BC
 c.2495 2437 BC
 c.2436 2366 BC
 c.2356 2255 BC
 c.2355 2241 BC
Shun (last)
c. 2852 BC (traditionally)
c. 2070 BC (start of Xia dynasty)
Succeeded by
Xia dynasty Blank.png
Today part of China
Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (Chinese :三皇五帝; pinyin :sānhuáng wǔdì) were a group of mythological rulers and sheng (sages) from ancient China. [1] [2] Today, they are considered culture heroes, [3] [4] but they were widely worshipped as divine "ancestral spirits" in ancient times. According to received history, the period they existed in preceded the Xia dynasty, [5] although they were thought to exist in later periods to an extent [6] in incorporeal forms that aided the Chinese people, especially with the stories of Nüwa existing as a spirit in the Shang dynasty [7] and Shennong being identified as the godly form of Hou Ji and a founder of the Zhou. [8]


In myth, the Three Sovereigns were demigods who used their abilities to help create mankind and impart to them essential skills and knowledge. The Five Emperors were exemplary sages who possessed great moral character, and were from a golden age when "communications between the human order and the divine were central to all life" and where the sages were embodiments of the divine or aided humans in messaging divine forces. [9]

In this period the abdication system was used before Qi of Xia violently seized power and established a hereditary monarchy. [10]


Taoist mythos and parables involving shamanistic themes were inspired by Tungus shaman folklore, and the most ancient stories about Fuxi, Nüwa, and Shennong as the Three Sovereigns were also inspired by that mythos. [11]


Map of tribes and tribal unions in Ancient China, including the tribes led by Huang Di, Yan Di and Chiyou. Huang Di.png
Map of tribes and tribal unions in Ancient China, including the tribes led by Huang Di, Yan Di and Chiyou.

Depending on the source, there are many variations of who classifies as the Three Sovereigns or the Five Emperors. There are six to seven known variations. [12] Many of the sources listed below were written from much later dynasties.

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). [2]

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

Three Sovereigns

The Three Sovereigns, sometimes known as the Three August Ones, were said to be god-kings or demigods who used their magical powers, divine powers, or being in harmony with the Tao to improve the lives of their people. Because of their lofty virtue, they lived to a great age and ruled over a period of great peace.

They have elements in common with xian, such as the Human Sovereign's cloud-chariot and their supernatural abilities. Upon his death, the Yellow Emperor was "said to have become" a xian. [13]

The Three Sovereigns are ascribed various identities in different Chinese historical texts. The Yellow Emperor is supposedly the ancestor of the Huaxia people. [14] The Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor was established in Shaanxi Province to commemorate the ancestry legend. [14]

According to sourceThree Sovereigns
Records of the Grand Historian (史記), addition by Sima Zhen Heavenly Sovereign (天皇), Earthly Sovereign (地皇), Tai Sovereign (泰皇) [12] or Fu Xi (伏羲), Nüwa (女媧), Shennong (神農)
Sovereign series (帝王世系) Fu Xi (伏羲), Shennong (神農), Yellow Emperor (黃帝) [12]
The book of Lineages (世本) Fu Xi (伏羲), Shennong (神農), Yellow Emperor (黃帝) [12]
Baihu Tongyi (白虎通義)(1st variation)
Fu Xi (伏羲), Shennong (神農), Zhurong (祝融) [12]

(2nd variation)
Fu Xi (伏羲), Shennong (神農), Suiren (燧人) [12]
Fengsu TongYi (風俗通義) Fu Xi (伏羲), Nüwa (女媧), Shennong (神農) [12]
Yiwen Leiju (藝文類聚) Heavenly Sovereign (天皇), Earthly Sovereign (地皇); Human Sovereign (人皇) [12]
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)

Five Emperors

The Five Emperors were traditionally thought to have invented "fire, writing and irrigation." [15]

According to sourceFive Emperors
Records of the Grand Historian (史記) Yellow Emperor (黃帝), Zhuanxu (顓頊), Emperor Ku (嚳), Emperor Yao (堯), Shun (舜) [12]
Sovereign Series (帝王世紀) Shaohao (少昊), Zhuanxu (顓頊), Emperor Ku (嚳), Emperor Yao (堯), Shun (舜) [12]
I Ching (易經)Taihao (太昊), Yan Emperor (炎帝), Yellow Emperor (黃帝), Emperor Yao (堯), Shun (舜) [12]
Comments of a Recluse, Qianfulun (潛夫論)Taihao (太昊), Yan Emperor (炎帝), Yellow Emperor (黃帝), Shaohao (少昊), Zhuanxu (顓頊) [16]
Zizhi tongjian waiji, (資治通鑒外紀) Yellow Emperor (黃帝), Shaohao (少昊), Zhuanxu (顓頊), Emperor Ku (嚳), Emperor Yao (堯) [16]

Family tree of ancient Five Emperors

(1) Yellow Emperor 黃帝 [17]
(2) Shaohao 少昊 Changyi 昌意
Jiaoji 蟜極(3) Zhuanxu 顓頊
(4) Ku Qiongchan 窮蟬Sb.
(5) Zhi(6) Emperor Yao Houji 后稷Jingkang 敬康Sb.
Danzhu 丹朱Juwang 句望Sb.
Qiaoniu 橋牛 Gun
Gusou 瞽叟(8) Yu
Ehuang 娥皇(7) Shun Nuying 女英
Shangjun 商均

Creation myth

There is 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), Fu Xi-shi (伏羲氏), and Shennong-shi (神農氏). [18]


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. [5]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chinese mythology</span> Myths and practices of the Chinese people

Chinese mythology is mythology that has been passed down in oral form or recorded in literature throughout the area now known as Greater China. Chinese mythology encompasses a diverse array of myths derived from regional and cultural traditions. Populated with engaging narratives featuring extraordinary individuals and beings endowed with magical powers, these stories often unfold in fantastical mythological realms or historical epochs. Similar to numerous other mythologies, Chinese mythology has historically been regarded, at least partially, as a factual record of the past.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fuxi</span> Culture hero in Chinese legend

Fuxi or Fu Hsi (伏羲) is a culture hero in Chinese 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 2900 BC or 2000 BC. Fuxi was counted as the first mythical emperor of China, "a divine being with a serpent’s body" who was miraculously born, a Taoist deity, and/or a member of the Three Sovereigns at the beginning of the Chinese dynastic period.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yellow Emperor</span> Mythical Chinese sovereign, member of the Wufang Shangdi

The Yellow Emperor, also known as the Yellow Thearch or by his Chinese name Huangdi, is a mythical Chinese sovereign and cultural hero included among the legendary Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, and an individual deity (shen) or part of the Five Regions Highest Deities in Chinese religion. Calculated by Jesuit missionaries, who based their work on various 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chiyou</span> Tribal leader of the Nine Li tribe in ancient China

Chiyou is a mythological being that appears in Chinese mythology. He was a tribal leader of the Nine Li tribe in ancient China. He is best known as a king who lost against the future Yellow Emperor during the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors era in Chinese mythology. According to the Song dynasty history book Lushi, Chiyou's surname was Jiang (姜), and he was a descendant of the Flame Emperor.

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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.

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may refer to:


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Further reading

Preceded by
None known
Dynasties in Chinese history
2852–2070 BC
Succeeded by