China's 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors

Gansu Province, China
Sunrise in Gansu Province, China. BJI / Getty Images

Back in the earliest mists of recorded history, over four thousand years ago, China was ruled by its very first dynasties: the mythical Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. They ruled between about 2852 and 2070 BCE, before the time of the Xia Dynasty

These names and reigns are legendary more than they are strictly historical. For example, the claim that both the Yellow Emperor and Emperor Yao ruled for exactly 100 years immediately raises questions.

  Today, these very earliest of rulers are considered demigods, folk heroes, and sages all rolled into one.

The Three Sovereigns, also sometimes called the Three August Ones, are named in Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian or Shiji from about 109 BC.  According to Sima, they are the Heavenly Sovereign or Fu Xi, the Earthly Sovereign or Nuwa, and the Tai or Human Sovereign, Shennong. 

The Heavenly Sovereign had twelve heads, and ruled for 18,000 years.  He also had 12 sons who helped him rule the world; they divided humanity into different tribes, to keep them organized.  The Earthly Sovereign, who lived for 18,000 years, had eleven heads and caused the sun and moon to move in their proper orbits.  He was the king of fire, and also created several famous Chinese mountains.  The Human Sovereign had only seven heads, but he had the longest life span of all the Three Sovereigns - 45,000 years.

  (In some versions of the story, his whole dynasty lasted that long, rather than just his own life.)  He drove a chariot made of clouds, and coughed the first rice out from his mouth.

Again according to Sima Qian, the Five Emperors were the Yellow Emperor, Zhuanxu, Emperor Ku, Emperor Yao, and Shun.

  The Yellow Emperor, also known as Huangdi, supposedly ruled for an even 100 years, from 2697 to 2597 BCE.  He is considered the originator of Chinese civilization.  Many scholars believe that Huangdi was actually a deity, but was later transformed into a human ruler in Chinese mythology.

The second of the Five Emperors was the Yellow Emperor's grandson, Zhuanxu, who ruled for a modest 78 years.  During that time, he changed China's matriarchal culture to a patriarchy, created a calendar, and composed the first piece of music, which was called "The Answer to the Clouds."

Emperor Ku, or the White Emperor, was the great-grandson of the Yellow Emperor.  He ruled from 2436 to 2366, just 70 years.  He liked to travel by dragon-back, and invented the first musical instruments.

The fourth of the Five Emperors, Emperor Yao, is viewed as the wisest sage-king and a paragon of moral perfection.  He and Shun the Great, the fifth emperor, may have been actual historical figures.  Many modern Chinese historians believe that these two mythological emperors represent folk memories of early, powerful warlords from the era just before the Xia Period.

All of these names, dates, and fabulous "facts" are obviously more mythological than historical.

  Nonetheless, it is fascinating to think that China has some sort of historical memory, if not precise records, from about 2850 BCE - almost five thousand years ago.

The Three Sovereigns:

  • The Heavenly Sovereign (Fuxi)
  • The Earthly Sovereign (Nuwa)
  • The Human Sovereign (Shennong)

 

The Five Emperors

  • Huang-di (The Yellow Emperor), c. 2697 – c. 2597 BCE
  • Zhuanxu, c. 2514 – c. 2436 BCE
  • Emperor Ku, c. 2436 – c. 2366 BCE
  • Emperor Yao, c. 2358 – c. 2258 BCE
  • Emperor Shun, c. 2255 – c. 2195 BCE

 

To learn more, go to the List of Chinese Dynasties.