An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zhuan Xu 顓頊

Jan 23, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Zhuan Xu 顓頊, also called Gao Yang 高陽, was one of the Five Emperors 五帝 in Chinese mythology. Gao Yang "High Brilliance" is the honorific title of Zhuan Xu.

In the southern poetry collection Chuci 楚辞, he is seen as ancestor of the rulers of Chu 楚. A story in the book Shanhaijing 山海經 says that he was a descendant of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝 and his consort Lei Zu 雷祖 from the lands Ruoshui 若水, Chaoyun 朝雲 and Siyi 司彘 in the far west. Lei Zu gave birth to Chang Yi 昌意, who in turnfathered Han Liu 韓流, a half-human creature parts of whose body were that of animals. Han Liu married Zhuozi 淖子, also called Anü 阿女, who was the mother of Zhuan Xu.

The book Diwang shiji 帝王世紀 says that Zhuan Xu was a son of Chang Yi and Jingpu 景僕 (also called Nüshu 女樞), a daughter of Lord Shushan 蜀山氏. Zhuan Xu was born during the late years of the reign of Lord Jintian 金天氏 (i.e. Shao Hao 少皞). With the age of ten he already helped Emperor Shao Hao in government affairs, was capped with the age of 12 and mounted the throne with 20, ruling from Diqiu 帝丘 (modern Puyang 濮陽, Henan).

Zhuan Xu is in the book Guoyu 國語 credited with the correct positioning of stars and sun towards the north. Riding on a dragon, he inspected the whole empire and was received by all subjects, including nature, with the greatest respect, as the Da Dai Liji 大戴禮記 says. He is astronomically connected with the direction north and therefore also called the "Black Emperor" (Xuan Di 玄帝 or Hei Di 黑帝).

His sons Zhong 重 and Li 黎 (see Zhong Li 重黎) supported him in the fixing of Heaven and Earth, as the Shanhaijing says. According to the Guoyu, Zhong was appointed "corrector of the south" (nanzheng 南正) and was responsible for the sacrifices to Heaven and the spirits, while Li was appointed "corrector of the hearth fires" (huozheng 火正) or "corrector of the north" (beizheng 北正) and was resonsible for the administration of the human households.

Zhuan Xu is said to have ruled for 78 years.

According to another story, he had eight sons, namely Cang Shu 蒼舒, Kui Ai 隤敳, Daoyan 禱戭, Da Lin 大臨, Long Jiang 龍降, Ting Jian 庭堅 (or Gao Yao 皋陶), Zhong Rong 仲容, and Shu Da 叔達. All of them later became ministers of Emperor Shun 舜. Zhuan Xu was succeeded by Emperor Di Ku 帝嚳. A hill in Gaoyang 高陽, Hebei, is said to be his tomb mound.

The Guoyu tells a yet another story that when the spiritual power of Emperor Shao Hao declined, the Nine Li (Jiuli 九黎, sons of Zhuan Xu?) brought the whole world into turmoil, so that the security of daily life of the southern Miao 苗 people (at that time a common reference for southerners) was endangered and the altars were deserted. Zhuan Xu thereupon restored order and punished Zhong and Li. A similar story is told in the Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents", where the distance between humans the and gods gave Chi You 蚩尤 the opportunity to rebel against the Yellow Emperor. Yet Zhong and Li are here again seen as supporters of order and virtue that is claimed by the Yellow Emperor and Zhuan Xu (called huangdi 皇帝 or shangdi 上帝 in these stories, without referring to concrete names).

In the Shanhaijing, Zhong and Li are called grandsons of Zhuan Xu and sons of Lao Tong 老童. While Zhong was ordered to bring tributes to Heaven, Li was ordered to appease the earth. The much younger collection Soushenji 搜神記 speaks of three sons of Zhuan Xu that died and became demons of pestilence (yigui 疫鬼), the first was Nüegui 瘧鬼, the second Wanglianggui 魍魎鬼, and the third professed in threatening small children and was therefore called Xiaoergui 小兒鬼.

The Shenyijing 神異經 reports the story of a fierce half-human in the western regions with the name of Daowu 禱杌, which might likewise be an evil son of Zhuan Xu. In the book Duduan 獨斷, Zhuan Xu is called the god of pestilence (yishen 疫神).

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