Huang Di 黃帝, the Yellow Emperor ( -
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Huang Di 黃帝, the Yellow Emperor

Jan 23, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

The Yellow Emperor (Huang Di 黃帝, occasionally written 皇帝 "August Ancestor") is the mythological ancestor of the Chinese people and one of the Five Emperors 五帝.

Chinese historians of the early 20th century believed that there was a certain Chinese tribe living in the region of River Ji 姬水 (around Qingdi 青地, Shaanxi) that venerated the Huang Di as their common ancestor (di 帝 is a deified ancestor). This is the so-called Qijia Culture 齊家文化. The people from this culture are believe to have regularly intermarried with the people of the Jiang River 姜水 valley (around modern Qishan 岐山 and Wugong 武功, Shaanxi, called the Hua people 華) that venerated the Yan Di 炎帝, the "Red Emperor", as their common ancestor. Descendants of the Huang Di people migrated to the southern part of modern Shanxi province, where they founded the Xia Culture 夏文化, from which the Xia dynasty 夏 (17th-15th cent. BCE) originated.

Another people or tribe that derived their origin from the Huang Di people were the Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) that founded the dynasty with the same name, which can be seen in the surname of the rulers, which is Ji 姬.

So-called apocryphal texts from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) show that it is quite probable that the Yellow Emperor was originally a deity controlling lightning and thunder and was represented in the shape of the constellation of the Big Dipper. As a such, he also represented the centre of Heaven and the world and controlled all other directions and the deities attributed to them. The latter were seen as an element of disturbance that the Yellow Emperor had to calm down.

The ancient writings Guoyu 國語, Shiben 世本 and Da Dai Liji 大戴禮記 say that Huang Di was the son of Shao Dian 少典 and Fu Bao 附寳. The history book Shiji 史記 says, his family name was Gongsun 公孫, his name Xuanyuan 軒轅 and the name of his state Youxiong 有熊 (or Xiong 熊).

Other tribal names of him are Lord Jinyun 縉云氏 or Dihong 帝鴻氏. The historian Cui Shu 崔述 (1740-1816) pointed at the fact that the family name Gongsun did not exist in highest antiquity but is of a younger date, so that this statement can not be true. Xuanyuan is likely to be a place name (identified with modern Xinzheng 新鄭, Henan), probably his residence, but is by the Han period commentator Wang Yi 王逸 (89-158 CE) explained as the result of his invention of cart and wagon (compare the characters, written with the radical 車 "cart"). The name Youxiong does not appear in the oldest lists like that in the various Shiben editions. Any statements about Huang Di thus have to be seen as a part of mythology rather than as historical facts.

In most versions of the genealogical Shiben books, there are lists of inventors (zuo 作), a large part of which are said to have lived during the age of the Yellow Emperor. Such cultural inventions are the boring of wells, the mortar, bow and arrow, oxen as draught animals and horses as riding animals, carts and ships, clothing, caps and banners, fans, shoes, the calendar, mathematics, astrology, the pitch pipes, musical instruments, medicine, or the Chinese script. Of course, these inventions, too are part of a mythology, but all took place in a culturally advanced period of the neolithic age.

Mythological stories narrate the Yellow Emperor's battle with Chi You 蚩尤 (who was, according to a fragment of the Xinshu 新書 quoted in the Yishi 繹史, a half-brother of the Yellow Emperor) in Zhuolu 涿鹿 (close to modern Beijing), or his battle with the Hunzhou tribes 葷粥 (ancestors of the Xiongnu 匈奴) in the north, or the battle with the "Red Emperor" Chi Di 赤帝 (same as Yan Di) in Banquan 阪泉 (near modern Zhuolu, Hebei).

He is so the first in a series or cycle of victorious rulers that subdued vile and depraved kings. Later books like the Shanhaijing 山海經 mention the generals Ying Long 應龍 and Nü Ba 女魃 which attacked Chi You, but such a battle is also mentioned in older documents like the Yizhoushu 逸周書 and the Classic Shangshu 尚書, so that there must be some historical truth behind, probably a regular warfare (or one single battle) of the Xia people with tribes in the north, probably as a result of the northward migration of the Xia Chinese. Historians commenting on these stories bring forward that Banquan was likely the tribal name of Chi You, and not a place name. Others say that the river source Banquan and Mt. Zhuolu are located in the same area, so that the battle has been given different names by different authors or in different times.

With the growing cultural unity of the Chinese realm, the tribal background of the Yellow Emperor became less obvious, and all persons living in the Zhou empire accepted him as their mythological ancestor. The descendants of the Yellow Emperor became the forefathers of all Chinese, or at least their ruling houses. The earlier difference between the Huang Di and the Yan Di was blurred, and both became one single person, and the Xia and Hua peoples merged to one, the Hua-Xia people 華夏.

Traditional historians narrate that the Yellow Emperor, after defeating Chi You and the Red Emperor, established a kind of government and appointed rulers ("nobles") over the various regions of his empire (the "ten thousand states" wanguo 萬國). He adopted the title of "Son of Heaven" (tianzi 天子) as successor of Shen Nong 神農, the "Divine Husbandman". The Yellow Emperor thereupon established the "hundred state offices" (baiguan 百官), issued law canons and statutes (dianzhang 典章) and had for the first time built an imperial palace.

Huang Di had four consorts, namely Lei Zu 嫘祖, Nü Jie 女節, Lady Tongyu 彤魚氏女 and Mo Mu 嫫母. He fathered 25 children or sons, 14 of which were bestowed 12 family names (Ji 姬, You 酉, Qi 祁, Ji 己, Teng 滕, Qian 葴, Ren 任, Xun 荀, Xi 僖, Jie 佶, Huan 儇 and Yi 依).

The Yellow Emperor also belongs to the cultural heroes by the many inventions he made, like bronze tripods, boats and carts, and even the compass cart (zhinanche 指南車). His wife Lei Zu is the inventor of silk spinning, his minister Cang Jie 倉頡 invented the script, Xi He 羲和 (two persons, Xi and He?), Chang Yi 常儀, Sou Qu 臾區 astonomy and astrology, Ling Lun 伶倫 (also written 泠綸) the musical pitch pipes, Da Rao 大擾 the sexagenary cycle of the calendar, and Li Shou 隸首 mathematics. The Yellow Emperor ruled for one hundred years. His tomb mound Huangling 黄陵 is to be found in Huangling 黄陵, Shaanxi.

The book Shanhaijing says that the Yellow Emperor consumed a jade paste (yugao 玉膏) making him immortal (?). According to the history book Shiji, he collected ores and cast a tripod, under which a dragon appeared. The Yellow Emperor then mounted the animal, and so the dragon became a symbol of imperial power.

The Yellow Emperor is sometimes referred to as Tai Di 太帝 "Great Emperor" or Tian Di 天帝 "Celestial Emperor" (see Heaven), or Shang Di 上帝 "Supreme Emperor".

The Yellow Emperor in Daoism

The Yellow Emperor is also venerated as a Daoist deity.

The bizarre geography Shanhaijing was the first book in which the Yellow Emperor was described as a supernatural person. It says that he lived from the jades and the waters of Mt. Mishan 峚山. The Daoist book Zhuangzi 莊子 says that the Yellow Emperor was concerned with the search for the "Way" (dao 道) and asked the Daoist master Guangchengzi 廣成子 on Mt. Kongdong 崆峒 for instruction (chapter Zaiyou 在宥). He explained to his imperial disciple that one had to give up attention to sight and hearing (wu ting, wu shi 無視無聽), and to keep silence and purity (bi jing, bi qing 必靜必清).

On Mt. Juci 具茨 the Yellow Emperor visited Lord Da Wei 大隗君 (also called Da Wei 大隗). On the way to his site a boy herding horses told him how to govern the world – by eliminating the bad ones (chapter Xu Wugui 徐無鬼). Thus enlightened, he was able to define the method to find the Way (chapter Zhibeiyou 知北遊): Knowledge can only be attained by not deliberating. Peace can only by achieved by "not acting" (wuwei 無爲), and the Way can only be found by not traveling anywhere. The Dao was, he explained, the most minuscule object, virtually nothing, and yet able to perfect everything. The Way embraces all emotions (qing 情) and characters (xing 性). It is not acting and has no shape. Having this understood, he was able to ascend to Heaven (chapter Dazongshi 大宗師).

The immortality of the Yellow Emperor was during the Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Han period a paradigm for some emperors who sought to achieve the same status. The First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇帝 (r. 246-210 BCE) and Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) of the Han dynasty employed magicians (fangshi 方士) in their search for immortality. Li Shaojun 李少君, for instance, suggested making gold out of cinnabar, which consumed would render immortality or at least longevity. The real effect of his recicipes could be seen in the many imortals that lived on the island of Penglai 蓬莱 in the Eastern Sea.

Another means of evocating such helpful spirits, like the Yellow Emperor, were the fengshan offerings 封禪. Gongsun Qing 公孫卿 transmitted a story how the Yellow Emperor became an immortal after having produced immortality pills in a cauldron (ding 鼎). He cast the tripod at the foot of Mt. Jingshan 荆山 in a place later called Dinghu 鼎湖. When finished, a bearded yellow dragon (huanglong chui huran 黄龍垂鬍髯) appeared and invited him to ride on their back and ascend to Heaven. More than 70 ministers followed him. These stories are to be found in the history Shiji.

In the early phase of religious Daoism, in the later Han period, the pre-natal phase was called the "Way of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi" (Huang-Lao dao 黄老道).

Zhang Ling 張陵, founder of the Five-Pecks-of-Grain Sect 五斗米道, elevated Laozi 老子 to the highest position in his pantheon and saw the Yellow Emperor as an immortal, not a god.

More than a century later Ge Hong 葛洪, author of the book Baopuzi 抱朴子, defined the Yellow Emperor as a "mysterious saint" (xuansheng 玄聖) who had deepest knowledge of the universe and its functions. He transmitted sacred texts to humans and was interpreted as the sole secret ruler of the earth from time immemorial. While Confucius 孔子 and the Duke of Zhou 周公 had been "saints" caring for the rule of the world (zhi shi zhi shengren 治世之聖人), the Yellow Emperor was a "saint" who had found the Dao (de dao zhi shengren 得道之聖人) after having ruled the world. He thus had united two functions in a single person.

In the course of time the Yellow Emperor had visited many mountains where he asked Daoist masters about the Way, and finally achieved immortality himself and ascended to Heaven. Except the above-mentioned mountains he also brought offerings to the "Central Yellow" (zhonghuang 中黄) on Mt. Dongdai 東岱 (i.e. Taishan 泰山), was instructed by Juanzi 涓子 in the Golden Vales 金谷, asked questions to the Pure Maiden 素女 and the Mysterious Maiden 玄女, visited Shan Xi 山稽 and Li Mu 力牧 and became a disciple of the "Lord of the Winds" Feng Hou 風后, who taught him everything about divination. His instructor in medicine was Lei Qi 雷岐, his method in war was to apply the "five sounds" (music).

The scripture of the White Pond (Baize zhi ci 白澤之辭) helped to control the spirits, and the teachings of "Master Green Crow" Qingwu 青烏 were useful for geomancy. Diseases could be cured with the help of melting gold. His character as a person "naturally endowed by Heaven" (tian shou ziran zhi ti 天授自然之體) could be seen in the fact that he was able to speak just after being born, and his ability to make the "hundred spirits" (bailing 百靈) serve him.

The stories about the Yellow Emperor became ever more detailed between the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589) and the Tang 唐 (618-907) periods. The text Taiyi zazi 泰壹雜子 (only surviving in fragments), for instance, said that he visited Mt. Emei 峨眉 where he encountered the Tianzhen huangren 天真皇人 "Celestial Perfect August Man" and asked him what was the "Way of the Three-and-One" (san-yi zhi dao 三一之道). The god gave along answer demonstrating in a chain of causation that the peace of the empire depended in the end on the ruler's own position and his ability to attract talents.

The book Huangdi neizhuan 黄帝内傳 imitated the older texts Mu Tianzi zhuan 穆天子傳, a phantastic account of the travel of King Mu of Zhou 周穆王 (10th cent. BCE), to the Queen Mother of the West 西王母, and the Han Wudi neizhuan 漢武帝内傳.

Similarly, the Yellow Emperor was thought to meet the Queen Mother of the West. She instructed him in the "art of the seven darkenings" (qi mei zhi shu 七昧之術) to be avoided: eyes, ears, mouth, nose, hands, feet and heart were not to be obstructed. If only one failed, the others would be of not use in the search for the Dao. She also gave him the shape of five bodies in white jade (bai yu xiang wu shen 白玉像五軀) that was the perfect appearance of the Yuanshi tianzun 元始天尊, the highest deity in Daoism. She handed over to him a chart of the two powers Yin and Yang (eryi benxing tu 二儀本形圖), together with nineteen recipes for the pill of immortality. The Yellow Emperor thereupon ascenced to a high (gao 高) summit, from which everything could be observed (guan 觀; or a place name: Gaoguan 高觀) where he cultivated his self, unseen by everyone, but only perceived in the shape of a multi-coloured cloud and the scent of incense. In later time the character of name of this spot was used as a term for Daoist temple, namely daoguan 道觀.

The Daoist encyclopaedia Yunji qiqian 雲笈七簽 (chapter Daojiao suo qi 道教所起) says that the Yellow Emperor transmitted the scripture Lingbaojing 靈寶經 that he had obtained on Mt. Emei.

In 881 the Daoist master Wang Guan 王瓘 compiled a collection of all statements about the Yellow Emperor in various texts and compiled the Guang Huangdi benxing ji 廣黄帝本行記.

In the Daoist pantheon, the Yellow Emperor occupies the position of an assistant spirit with the name Taiji jinjue dijun 太極金闕帝君 "Holy Lord of the Golden Tower Gate of the Utmost Extreme", the third-highest deity in the Daoist pantheon. Tao Hongjing's 陶弘景 enumeration Zhenling weiye tu 真靈位業圖 calls him Xuanpu zhenren 玄圃真人 "Perfect Man of the mysterious orchard".

The Yellow Emperor's name was often used in book titles which gave these writings a more cometent and sacred character. Such were, for instance, the outer alchemy texts Huangdi Yinfu jing 黄帝陰符經 (Yinfujing 陰符經), Huangdi jiuding shendan jingjue 黄帝九鼎神丹經訣, the divination books Huangdi longshou jing 黄帝龍首經, Huangdi jingui yuheng jing 黄帝金匱玉衡經 and Huangdi shou sanzi xuannü jing 黄帝授三子玄女經 (Xuannüjing 玄女經), the geomantic text Huangdi zhaijing 黄帝宅經 (Zhaijing 宅經), or various scriptures like Huangdi taiyi bamen rushi jue 黄帝太乙八門入式訣, Huangdi taiyi bamen rushi miju 黄帝太一八門入式秘訣 and Huangdi taiyi bamen nishun shengsi jue 黄帝太一八門逆順生死訣.

In some regions in China there were shrines of the Yellow Emperor called Huangdimiao 黄帝廟 or Xuanyuanmiao 軒轅廟. The local gazetteers Shanxi tongzhi 山西通志 and Henan tongzhi 河南通志, for instance, list several such places, like in Quwo 曲沃, Yiyang 宜陽 or Wenxiang 閿鄉. Most Daoist temples include a Hall of the Yellow Emperor 黄帝殿 or a Xuan Yuan shrine 軒轅祠. In the Changdao Temple 常道觀 on Mt. Qingsheng 青城山, Sichuan, for example, is a Hall of the Three Augusts 三皇殿, one of them the Yellow Emperor, and a Xuan Yuan shrine.

Liu Qiyu 劉起釪 (1992). "Huang Di 黃帝", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 405.
Qing Xitai 卿希泰, ed. (1994). Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 3, nnn.
Xiong Tieji 熊鐵基, Yang Youli 楊有禮, ed. (1994). Zhongguo diwang zaixiang cidian 中國帝王宰相辭典 (Wuhan: Hubei jiaoyu chubanshe), 5.
Yuan Ke 袁珂, ed. (1985). Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), 61, 67, 187, 347.