An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Sanhuang wudi 三皇五帝, the Three Augusts and Five Emperors

Feb 5, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

The so-called "Three Augusts" and "Five Emperors" (sanhuang wudi 三皇五帝) were persons in early Chinese mytholgy. The "Five Emperors" or "Five Sovereigns" (wudi 五帝) were often seen as worldly, yet historically not tangible, rulers, while the Three Augusts ever had a more divine nature. The term wudi came up during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), while the term "Three Augusts" was created in the 3rd centry BCE. This trinity was chronologially antedated to the Five Emperors during the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE).

The original meaning of huang 皇 is "great, impressive" and was used to denote a higher being (or a god) from the late Warring States period on. The term di 帝, originally referring to an ancestor deity, was at that time already used for an earthly ruler (an emperor).

In southern China, tradition as reflected in the poetry collection Chuci 楚辭 knew three sacred emperors (sanhuang 三皇), namely the Celestial Emperor (Tianhuang 天皇), the Terrestrial Emperor (Dihuang 地皇), and the Grand Emperor (Taihuang 泰皇) or Human Emperor (Renhuang 人皇), but also three worldly emperors, namely that of the west (Xihuang 西皇), that of the east (Donghuang 東皇) and the Superior Emperor (Shanghuang 上皇).

The terms huang and di also appear in the books Zhouli 周禮, Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋, Zhuangzi 莊子 and Guanzi 管子, for both ruling persons and for deities.

There are five different versions of who were the Three Augusts:

Table 1. The Three Augusts according to various sources
Sui Ren 燧人
Fu Xi 伏羲 (Pao Xi 庖犧)
Shen Nong 神農
Shangshu dazhuan 尚書大傳, Li hanwenjia 禮含文嘉, Chunqiu mingli xu 春秋命歷序 (in the latter two, Sui Ren listed second)
Fu Xi 伏羲
Nü Wa 女媧
Shen Nong 神農
Chunqiu yundou shu 春秋運斗樞
Fu Xi 伏羲
Zhu Rong 祝融
Shen Nong 神農
Li haoshi ji 禮號謚記, Xiaojing gouming jue 孝經鈎命決 (Zhu Rong standing at the end)
Fu Xi 伏羲
Shen Nong 神農
Sui Ren 燧人
Baihutong 白虎通
Fu Xi 伏羲
Shen Nong 神農
Huang Di 黃帝 (Yellow Emperor)
Li jimingzheng 禮稽命徵, Huangfu Mi's 皇甫謐 Diwang shiji 帝王世紀 (This constellation came into being during the Han period, when Shao Hao 少昊, tribal name Jintian 金天氏, was added to the Five Emperors. In his place, the Yellow Emperor was elevated to one of the "Augusts")

All versions include the two deities Fu Xi and Shen Nong. Because the preface (xu 序) of the Classic Shangshu 尚書 favoured the last version, with the Yellow Emperor as one of the Three Augusts, this constellation also became the commonly accepted one, while the trinities mentioned in the various apocryphal texts mentioned in the above listing became obsolete. Other apocryphal classics like the Chunqiu mingli xu 春秋命曆序, Chunqiu wei 春秋緯, Sanwu liji 三五曆記 and the Shixuepian 始學篇 do not provide names but only mention the Tianhuang, Dihuang and Renhuang.

The apocryphal text Chunqiu wei speaks of nine Renhuang brothers that divided the earth under themselves. The book Shiyiji 拾遺記 narrates the story of a gargantuan tree that one broke apart in a thunderstorm. East of the tree was a stone cave, on the wall of which one could see the picture of the Three Augusts, the Celestial August (Tianhuang, also called Tiandi 天帝 "Celestial Emperor" or Shangdi 上帝 "Superior Emperor", eventually identical to Fu Xi) with 13 (or 12) heads, the Terrestrial August (Dihuang) with 11 (or 9) heads, and the the Human August (Renhuang) with 9 heads, yet all of them had the body of a snake. The heads represented brothers that lived and reigned for more than ten thousand years. Each of the Celestial and Terrestrial brothers reigned for 18,000 years.

Of the Terrestrial brothers it is known that their faces had a female appearance and that they were born in Mt. Longmen 龍門山. The Human brothers rode on winged cloud chariots and divided the earth into nine provinces (jiuzhou 九州), each one of them reigning over one part. They were born in Mt. Xingma 刑馬山 and ruled for 45,600 years.

According to legend, the beginning of the Three Augusts age was in a year with the cyclical sign yin 寅 (a shetige 攝提格 year, when Jupiter culminates in Gemini, see calendar). Instead of the Human August, the history book Shiji 史記 speaks of the Supreme August (Taihuang) who was also in a higher position than the two others. Commentators are not sure if the character 泰 (or 太) "superior" can simply be replaced with the character 人 "man" for it might be that this constellation of the Three Augusts preferred the role of a principal deity surpassing even cosmic phenoma like Heaven and Earth and so represented the Daoist supreme unity (taiyi 太一).

In some Daoist scriptures, there are three sets of trinities, namely the First Augusts (chu sanhuang 初三皇) with a human nature, the Central Augusts (zhong sanhuang 中三皇), dragons with human faces (among them Sui Ren and Chao 巢氏), and the Last Augusts (hou sanhuang 後三皇), half man, half dragon (among them Fu Xi, Nü Wa and Shen Nong). These fabulous creatures are to be found in many illustration of brick stones from the Han period.

The Three Augusts were creator deities that participated in the creation of the world, either by constructing it (like Fu Xi), saving it from disaster (like Nü Wa), inventing agriculture and medicine (like Shen Nong) or taming the floods (like Gong Gong 共工), who is sometimes also counted among the Three Augusts.

The combination of a trinity and five persons was also common in historiography of the Warring States period, where the Three Kings and the Five Hegemons (san wang wu ba 三王五霸) are often mentioned. The three kings were Yu the Great 大禹 of the Xia dynasty 夏 (17th-15th cent. BCE), Tang the Perfect 成湯 of the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), and King Wen 周文王 or King Wu 周武王 of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE).

Similary, the three/five combination was drawn up during the same time for the mythical rulers of high antiquity. The philosopher Xunzi 荀子 (c. 316-c. 237 BCE) was the first who mentioned five emperors, but he also names the Four Emperors (sidi 四帝) Yao 堯, Shun 舜, Yu the Great and Tang the Perfect.

The military strategist Sunzi 孫子 (545-470 BCE) says that the Yellow Emperor defeated the sidi (four emperors), yet in this place, the character di 帝 might be an error for jun 軍 "army". Neither the Guanzi nor the Zhuangzi list the names of the Five Emperors they mention throughout the text. In fact, there were already a lot of mythological rulers or tribesleaders or demi-gods mentioned in various written sources of the Zhou period.

The most important of them were the following:

Table 2. Tribal leaders or deified ancestors
West Huang Di 黃帝 (Yellow Emperor), Yan Di 炎帝 (also called Chi Di 赤地, Red Emperor), Bo Yi 伯夷, Gong Gong 共工, Gun 鯀, Yu the Great 大禹, the Four Sacred Mountains (siyue 四岳), Hou Ji 后稷 (or Qi 弃), Gao Yu 高圉, Tai Wang 太王, Xuan Ao 玄囂, Jiao Ji 蟜極, Chang Yi 昌意 and Qing Yang 青陽
East Tai Hao 太昊 (or 太皞 or 太皓), Shao Hao 少昊 (or 少皞, also Zhi 摯), Zhuan Xu 顓頊, Gao Yang 高陽, Gao Xin 高辛, Yao 堯, Yi 羿, Zhuo 浞, Jiao 澆, Jun 俊 (better known as Shun 舜, also called Ku 嚳 or Kui 夔), Xie 契, Ming 冥 and Shang Jia Wei 上甲微
others Di Hong 帝鴻, Jinyun 縉雲, Jintian 金天, Lieshan 烈山, Tao Tang 陶唐, Bo Yi 伯翳, Feizi 非子, Zhu Rong 祝融 (or Zhong Li 重黎)

The book Zhuangzi mentions the names of more than a dozen of demigods, the military treatise Liutao 六韜 fifteen, and the history book Yizhoushu 逸周書 even 26. This multitude of various local heroes, tribal ancestors and sovereigns were reduced to five, when the cosmologic philosophy of the correlating Five Agents (wuxing 五行) became prevalent in China, which made it necessary to adapt the number of ancient rulers to the number five.

The following constellations are to be found in ancient literature:

Table 3. The Five Emperors according to various sources
Huang Di 黃帝
Zhuan Xu 顓頊
Di Ku 帝嚳
Yao 堯
Shun 舜
Da Dai Liji 大戴禮記
Shiben 世本 genealogies
Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋
Shiji 史記
Mi Hu 宓戱 (or Mi Xi 宓戲, i.e. Fu Xi 伏羲)
Shen Nong 神農
Huang Di 黃帝
Yao 堯
Shun 舜
Zhanguoce 戰國策
Yijing 易經
Zhuangzi 莊子
Huainanzi 淮南子
Santongli 三統曆
Tai Hao 太昊
Yan Di 炎帝
Huang Di 黃帝
Shao Hao 少昊
Zhuan Xu 顓頊
Lüshi chunqiu
Liji 禮記
Qianfulun 潛夫論
(Huang Di 黃帝)
Shao Hao 少昊
Zhuan Xu 顓頊
Di Ku 帝嚳
Yao 堯
Shun 舜
Shijing 世經 XXX
Diwang shiji 帝王世紀
Liji 禮記 chapter Yueling 月令
Shiji (These are six persons. Huang Di was seen as one of the Three Augusts and so made place for Shao Hao, a reorganisation of the pantheon made during the Later Han period under the influence of apocryphal speculations.)
Huang Di 黃帝
Shao Hao 少昊
Zhuan Xu 顓頊
Ku 嚳
Yao 堯
(the youngest listing, allegedly from the Liang period 梁, 502-557, preserved in Zizhi tongjian waiji 資治通鑒外紀)

Although virtually all persons of this listing are historically seen ancestral deities in patriarchal genealogies or mythical tribesleaders, the term wudi was during the late Warring States and the Han periods also used for impersonal deities residing in Heaven, like in the Chuci poems, the Shanhaijing 山海經, the Yanzi chunqiu 晏子春秋 or the chapter Fengshan shu 封禪書 of the Shiji. Whith the rise of the Five Agents thought, the Five Emperors represented a coulour each, so that the Five Emperors are identified as:

Table 4. The Five Emperors and cardinal directions
White Emperor (Bai Di 白帝) Shao Hao 少昊, Zhu Xuan 朱宣 west
Bluegreen Emperor (Qing Di 青帝, Cang Di 蒼帝) Tai Hao 太昊, Fu Xi 伏羲 east
Yellow Emperor (Huang Di 黃帝) centre
Red Emperor (Chi Di 赤帝) Yan Di 炎帝, Zhu Rong 祝融, Shen Nong 神農 south
Black Emperor (Hei Di 黑帝, Xuan Di 玄帝) Zhuan Xu 顓頊 north

The apocryphal classic Chunqiu wei 春秋緯 even lists the somewhat strange names of the five colour-gods, namely (in the same sequence) Baizhaoju 白招拒, Lingweiyang 靈威仰, Hanshuniu 含樞紐, Chibiaonu 赤熛怒, Zhiguangji 汁光紀.

The following list gives an overview of those of the mythical emperors that were interpreted as historical persons and to whom Chinese historiographers of the early 20th century attributed hypothetical reign dates.

Table 5. The Mythical Emperors
name residence reign length
traditional reign dates (BCE)
Tai Hao 太昊, called Fu Xi 伏羲 or Pao Xi 庖羲
Yan Di 炎帝, called Shen Nong 神農 or Lie Shan 烈山
Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor 黃帝, family name Xuanyuan 軒轅氏 Youxiong 有熊 100 years
Shao Hao 少昊, family name Jintian 金天氏 84 years
Zhuan Xu 顓頊, family name Gaoyang 高陽氏 Pu 濮 78 years
Di Ku 帝嚳, family name Gaoxin 高辛氏 Bo 亳 63 years
Di Zhi 帝摯, family name Gaoxin 高辛氏
This person is not by all historians accepted as one of the mythological emperors.
Xifang 西方 9 years
Yao 帝堯, family name Tang 唐 or Taotang 陶唐氏, called Fang Xun 放勛 Ji 冀 100 years
2356-2256 BCE
Shun 帝舜, family name Yu 虞 or Youyu 有虞氏, called Chong Hua 重華 Ji 50 years

Li Jianping 李劍平, ed. (1998). Zhongguo shenhua renwu cidian 中國神話人物辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 25, 67, 179, 217, 278, 380, 520, 635, 654.
Liu Qiyu 劉起釪 (1992). "Sanhuang wudi 三皇五帝", 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. 2, 874.
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), 1.
Yuan Ke 袁珂, ed. (1985). Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), 19, 67, 71, 151.
Zhongguo da cidian bianzuan chu 中國大辭典編纂處, ed. (1936). Guoyu cidian 國語辭典 (Beiping [Beijing]: Shangwu yinshuguan, rev. ed. Chongqing 1947), Vol. 4]. [For the traditional reign dates. These can also be found in otherChinese and Western dictionaries of an older date.]