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Historian's depiction of the Yellow Emperor
The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors ( ) were mythological rulers of Chinamarker during the period from c. 2852 BC to 2205 BC, which is the time preceding the Xia Dynasty.

The actual translation of 帝 is problematic in that it is most often translated using its modern sense, which did not arise until after the advent of an imperial state under Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇 Qínshĭhuáng). Its original meaning, and the most likely translation thereof, is that of supreme being, a kind of Übermensch, rather than 'emperor'. The character 帝 originally represented a way of wearing a liturgical mantle.

The 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 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.

The Three Sovereigns are ascribed various identities in different Chinese historical texts. The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, in a chapter added by Sima Zhen, states that they were:

The Chunqiu yundou shu (春秋運斗樞) and Chunqiu yuanming bao (春秋元命苞) identify them as:

Fuxi and Nüwa are respectively the god and goddess, husband and wife credited with being the ancestors of humankind after a devastating flood. The invention of the Primal Arrangement of the Eight Trigrams (Xian Tian Ba Gua, 先天八卦) is attributed to Fuxi. Shennong invented farming and was the first to use herbs for medical purposes.

The I Ching starts like this: “In the old times of King Fuxi’s regime, he observed sky and the stars when he looked upwards, and researched the earth when he looked downwards, and watched the birds and beasts to see how they lived in their environment. He took examples from nearby and far away, and then made 8 Yin Yang signs (the 8 trigrams that constitute the Ba gua)to simulate the rules of universe...After Fuxi died, Shennong rose. He made Plow and taught people how to grow crops and fish. He invented money and market for the exchange of goods."

The Shangshu dazhuan (尚書大傳) and Baihu tongyi (白虎通義) replace Nüwa with Suiren (燧人), the inventor of fire. The Diwang shiji (帝王世紀) replaces Nüwa with the Yellow Emperor (黄帝), the supposed ancestor of all Han Chinese people.

The Five Emperors

The Five Emperors were legendary, morally perfect sage-kings. According to the Records of the Grand Historian they were:

Yao and Shun are also known as the Three Emperors, and, along with Yu the Great (禹), founder of the Xia dynasty, were considered to be model rulers and moral exemplars by Confucians in later Chinese history. The Shangshu Xu (尚書序) and Diwang shiji include Shaohao (少昊) instead of the Yellow Emperor.

The Songs of Chu (楚辭) identifies the Five Emperors as directional gods:

The Book of Rites (禮記) equates the Five Emperors with the Five Lineages (五氏), which comprise:

All these "emperors" were only people with great contributions or famous rulers of tribal unions. From the Bamboo Annals and Classic of History, their positions are known to have been attained by election by other chiefs in the tribal unions. When they die, their children may succeed the positions of the ruler of their own tribe, but not the position of the ruler of the tribal union. Their power is much less than the historical Chinese emperors, generally commencing with the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), who coined a new term for "Emperor" (huangdi 皇帝) by combining the titles of "sovereign" (huang 皇) and "god-king" (di 帝) who had absolute power over the people.

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