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HUANGDI , the Yellow Emperor, is a pan-Chinese culture hero and the mythic first emperor of history. In order to avoid the very narrow connotations of the term emperor, the word di is often rendered lord, monarch, thearch, ancestor, or god. The complex mythology of Huangdi is roughly composed of three traditions that evolved during the first millennium bce and that appear together in the first universal history of China, the Shiji (Records of the historian), in the second century bce: Huangdi as celestial deity, as perfect sovereign, and as patron of the esoteric arts.

As the personification of the central part of heaven, surrounded by the four "emperors" of the four orients, Huangdi received a cult from feudal lords in the Zhou kingdom. After the unification of the empire by the Qin (221 bce), the Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce) affirmed its heaven-ordained rule by unifying the cults to the five emperors and their celestial regions (corresponding to the Han dominion of "all under heaven"). Besides being the color associated with the center of the four directions, huang ("yellow") also means "radiant"; there are traces of a sun god myth of Huangdi. More important is the fact that the graph huang ("yellow") is often used for another huang ("august, sovereign"), thus blurring the distinction between the Yellow Emperor and the "August Emperor," that is, the supreme celestial deity Shangdi of the feudal religion. This might explain why, by the second century bce, the majority of feudal clans claimed Huangdi as their ancestor. From the same period dates Huangdi's place in Chinese astronomy. Under his personal name, Xianyuan, and in the form of a yellow dragon (the imperial emblem) he is an asterism in the southern section of the sky (Jin shu 11A).

Huangdi's reign at the dawn of history was a "golden age of perfect peace," or taiping (Shiji 1). Although the Daoists saw in this first ruler the initiator of humanity's decline into artificial and superficial civilization (Zhuangzi), Huangdi became for them the paragon of emperors who heed the advice of their counselors. The Daoist traditions of Han times propagated the "teachings of Huang (-di) and Lao (-zi)," hence their name: Huang-Lao Dao. The association of Huangdi with the paragon sage Laozi signifies the double relationship between the ruler-disciple and his adviser-master. Although the adviser is socially inferior to the ruler, the latter's charisma is but a manifestation of the sage's wisdom. Like a puppet moved by invisible hands, the emperor is the tool of the sage; their interplay symbolizes the invisible Dao and its manifest efficacy (de). Inspired by these teachings, the millenarian Taiping rebels of 184 ce aimed at the re-creation of Huangdi's golden age and wore yellow head scarves (hence the name Yellow Turban Rebellion) as a sign of the imminent rule under the aegis of the "yellow agent" (earth) of Huangdi. In the many sacred scriptures attributed to him, Huangdi is always the disciple being instructed by a sage or divine master. These scriptures concern not only philosophy and the art of government but also longevity techniques and the martial arts.

The earliest alchemists taught the Han emperor Wu (14087 bce) the art of making gold and becoming immortal "like Huangdi," who had cast a sacred crucible and ascended to heaven on a dragon (Shiji 28). Daoist lore contains traces of Huangdi's role in archaic confraternities of metalworkers and in medical, pharmaceutical, and yogic traditions that all contributed to the formation of Daoist immortality techniques. The oldest book on medicine, Huangdi neijing suwen (The pure questions of Huangdi, esoteric canon of medicine), is a dialogue between Zhi Bo, a Celestial Master, and his disciple Huangdi. Other texts present him as being instructed by two female deities in the related arts of sexual and military techniques. Xuannü ("the dark woman") taught him a magic dance to overcome the rebel Chi You and, according to later legend, revealed to him a Daoist manual of military strategy, the Yinfu jing (Classic of the yin talisman; c. eighth century ce). Xuannü or Sunü ("the clear woman") taught the emperor the immortality-conferring "arts of the bedchamber." A Sunü jing (Classic of the clear woman), now lost, was popular in the Middle Ages; it probably contained Sunü's sexual instructions to the emperor. Furthermore, Xuannü is his teacher in one of the earliest Daoist treatises on alchemy, the Huangdi jiuding shendan jing (Yellow Emperor's canon of the nine vessel magical elixir).

In the official traditions throughout history Huangdi's image has been pale but distinct. His prestige as ancestor of the Chinese people and founder of their culture has recently been reasserted in a syncretist movement, the Xianyuan Jiao. Under the shock of defeat and flight to Taiwan in 1949, its founder, Wang Hansheng, had a vision of Huangdi and his sacred crucible (which is also a symbol of dynastic legitimation). Established in Taibei in 1957 and claiming one hundred thousand followers in 1981, the Xianyuan Jiao teaches a mixture of Daoist, Confucian, and Moist ideas and labors for a renaissance of Chinese culture and for the reunification of the empire.

See Also

Chinese Religion, article on Mythic Themes; Kingship, article on Kingship in East Asia.


For the ancient mythology of Huangdi, Marcel Granet's Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne (1926; reprint, Paris, 1959) is still the best reference. Huangdi's role in Han state cults and in the Daoist Huang-Lao school is described in Anna Seidel's La divinisation de Lao-tseu dans le taoïsme des Han (Paris, 1969), pp. 3458; see also Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge, 19541983), especially vols. 2, 3, and 5, part 2. The modern religion of Huangdi is studied in Shinohara Hisao's article in Makiō Ryōkai hakase shōju kinen ronshū: Chūgoku no shūkyō, shisō to kagaku (Tokyo, 1984), pp. 203217.

New Sources

Chang, C.U., and Y. Feng. The Four Political Treatises of the Yellow Emperor: Original Mawangdui Texts with Complete English Translations and an Introduction. Honolulu, 1998.

Ni, M. The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine: A New Translation of the Neijing Suwen with Commentary. Boston, 1995.

Anna Seidel (1987)

Revised Bibliography