Yellow Emperor

Summary

Huangdi or Huáng Dì (Chinese 黃帝

Huangdi”s cult became famous in the late period of the Contested Empires and the early Han Dynasty, when he was portrayed as the originator of the centralized state, a cosmic ruler, and a promoter of the esoteric arts. A large number of texts – such as the Huangdi Neijing, a medical classic, and the Huangdi Sijing, a group of political treatises – were attributed to him. After his influence waned during most of the imperial period, Huangdi became a rallying figure in the early twentieth century for Han Chinese attempts to overthrow the rule of the Qing dynasty, which they considered foreign because its emperors were Manchurians. To this day, the Yellow Emperor is a powerful symbol within Chinese nationalism. Traditionally, the Yellow Emperor is credited with numerous inventions and innovations – from the Chinese calendar to an early form of soccer – and is now considered the initiator of Chinese culture.

“Huangdi”: Yellow Emperor, Yellow Leader

When Qin Shihuang of the Qin dynasty coined the title huangdi (皇帝) – conventionally translated as “emperor” – to refer to himself until 221 BC, the character di 帝 referred not to earthly rulers but to the supreme god of the Shang dynasty pantheon (ca. 1600-1046 BC). In the time of the Disputed Empires (ca. 475-221 BC), the term di alone could also refer to the deities associated with the five Sacred Mountains of China and the colors. Huangdi (黃帝), the “yellow di,” was one of the latter. To emphasize the religious significance of di in the pre-imperial period, historians of early China usually translate the god”s name as “Yellow Leader.”

In the late period of the Contested Empires, the Yellow Emperor was integrated into the Five Phases cosmological scheme, where the color yellow represents the Earth Phase, the Yellow Dragon, and the Center. The correlation of colors associated with different dynasties was mentioned in the Lüshi Chunqiu (late 3rd century BC), where the Yellow Emperor”s reign was considered to be ruled by the Earth. The character huang 黃 (“yellow”) was often used instead of the homophonic huang 皇, meaning “sublime” (in the sense of “distinguished”) or “radiant”.

Xuanyuan and Youxiong

The records of the great historian, compiled by Sima Qian in the first century BC, gives the name of the Yellow Emperor as “Xuan Yuan” (abbreviated 轩辕 Xuān Yuán). The third-century scholar Huangfu Mi, who wrote a work on the rulers of antiquity, thought Xuanyuan was the name of a hill where Huangdi had lived and which he later adopted as his name. The Qing Dynasty scholar Liang Yusheng (梁玉繩, 1745-1819) argued instead that the hill was named after the Yellow Emperor. Xuanyuan in Chinese is also the name of the star Regulus, which is associated with Huangdi in traditional astronomy. It is also associated with the other constellations Leo and Lynx, the latter of which is said to represent the body of the Yellow Dragon (黃龍 Huánglóng), Huangdi”s animal form.

Huangdi was also referred to as “Youxiong” (Yǒuxióng). This name was interpreted as either a place name or a clan name. According to British sinologist Herbert Allen Giles (1845-1935), this name was “taken from that of the hereditary principality” William Nienhauser, a modern translator of the Great Historian”s records, states that Huangdi was originally the head of the Youxiong clan, which lived near present-day Xinzheng in Henan. Rémi Mathieu, a French historian of Chinese myth and religion, translates “Youxiong” as “owner of bears” and connects Huangdi to the broader theme of the bear in world mythology. Ye Shuxian has also linked the Yellow Emperor to bear legends as well as the Dangun legend, which are common throughout Northeast Asia.

Other names

In Sima Qian”s records of the great historian, the Yellow Emperor”s ancestral name is described as Gongsun (公孫).

In Han Dynasty texts, the Yellow Emperor is also referred to as the “Yellow God” (黃神 Huángshén), and some accounts also interpret him as an incarnation of the “Yellow God of the Northern Chariot” (黄神北斗 Huángshén Běidǒu). According to a definition in apocryphal texts referring to the Hétú 河圖, the Yellow Emperor “emerges from the essence of the Yellow God.”

As a cosmological deity, the Yellow Emperor is known as the “Great Emperor of the Central Peak” (中岳大帝 Zhōngyuè Dàdì), and in Shizi as the “Yellow Emperor with Four Faces” (黃帝四面 Huángdì Sìmiàn). In ancient depictions, the Yellow Emperor is identified as a deity of light (his name is explained in the Shuowen jiezi and derived from guāng 光, “light”) and thunder, and equated with the “Thunder God” (雷神 Léishén). The Thunder God, in turn, is also depicted as a later mythological figure as the most important disciple of the Yellow Emperor (in the Huangdi Neijing).

Chinese historian Sima Qian – and much of Chinese historiography after him – considered the Yellow Emperor a more historical figure than legendary figures such as Fu Xi, Nüwa, and Shennong. Sima Qian”s records of the great historian begin with the Yellow Emperor.

Throughout most of Chinese history, the Yellow Emperor and the other ancient sages were considered historical figures. Their historicity was questioned in the 1920s by historians such as Gu Jiegang, one of the founders of the Doubting Antiquity School in China. In their attempts to prove that the earliest figures in Chinese history were mythological, Gu and his followers argued that these ancient sages were originally gods who were later portrayed as humans by the rationalist intellectuals of the Disputed Empires period. Yang Kuan, a member of the same current of historiography, noted that it was not until the time of the Contested Empires that the Yellow Emperor was described as the first ruler of China. Yang therefore argued that Huangdi was a later transformation of Shangdi, the supreme god of the Shang Dynasty pantheon.

Most scholars today agree that the Yellow Emperor was originally a god who was later portrayed as a historical figure. K.C. Chang sees Huangdi and other cultural heroes as “ancient religious figures” who were “revived” in the late period of the Contested Empires and the Han period. Historian of ancient China Mark Edward Lewis speaks of the Yellow Emperor”s “former nature as a god,” while Roel Sterckx, a professor at Cambridge University, calls Huangdi a “legendary cultural hero.”

The origin of the Huangdi myth is unclear, but historians have formulated several hypotheses about it. Yang Kuan, a member of the Doubting Antiquity School (1920-40s), argued that the Yellow Emperor was derived from Shangdi, the supreme god of the Shang dynasty. Yang reconstructs the etymology as follows: Shangdi 上帝 → Huang Shangdi 皇上帝 → Huangdi 皇帝 → Huangdi 黄帝, arguing that huang 黃 (“yellow”) was either a variant Chinese character for huang 皇 (“august”) or was used as a way to avoid the naming taboo for the latter. Yang”s view was supported by Mitarai Masaru

Historian Mark Edward Lewis agrees that huang 黄 and huang 皇 were often interchangeable, but he disagrees with Yang, claiming that huang appeared first and meant “yellow.” Based on what he admits is a “novel etymology” that compares huang 黄 to the phonetically close wang 尪 (the “burned shaman” in Shang rainmaking rituals), Lewis suggests that “huang” in “huangdi” may have originally meant “rainmaking shaman” or “rainmaking ritual.” Citing late Disputed Empires and early Han versions of the Huangdi myth, he further argues that the Yellow Emperor figure had its origins in ancient rainmaking rituals, in which Huangdi represented the power of rain and clouds, while his mythical rival Chiyou (or the Yan Emperor) represented fire and drought.

Sarah Allan, who also disagrees with Yang Kuan”s hypothesis, finds it unlikely that such a popular myth as that of the Yellow Emperor could have originated with a taboo character. In their view, Huangdi was originally a nameless “Lord of the Underworld” (or the “Yellow Springs”), the mythological counterpart of the Shang sky deity Shangdi. At that time, Shang rulers claimed that their mythical ancestors associated with “the suns, the birds, the east, the life the lord on high” (i.e. Shangdi) had defeated an earlier people associated with “the underworld, dragons, and the west.” After the Zhou dynasty overthrew the Shang dynasty in the 11th century BCE, Zhou leaders reinterpreted Shang myths to mean that the Shang had defeated a real political dynasty, which was eventually called the Xia dynasty. In the Han period – as in Sima Qian”s account in the Shiji – the Yellow Emperor, who was symbolically linked to the Xia as Lord of the Underworld, became a historical ruler whose descendants were believed to have founded the Xia.

Earliest mention

Explicit accounts of the Yellow Emperor appeared earliest in Chinese texts during the period of the Disputed Empires. “The oldest surviving reference” to Huangdi is an inscription on a bronze vessel made in the first half of the fourth century BC by the royal family (surnamed Tian 田) of the state of Qi, a powerful eastern state.

Harvard University historian Michael Puett writes that the Qi bronze inscription was one of several references to the Yellow Emperor in the fourth and third centuries BCE within accounts of the founding of the state. Noting that many of the thinkers later identified as precursors of the Huang-Lao (“Huangdi and Laozi” tradition) came from the state of Qi, Robin D. S. Yates hypothesizes that Huang-Lao originated in this region.

Period of the Disputed Empires

The cult of Huangdi became very popular during the period of the Disputed Empires (5th century-221 BC), a period of intense competition between rival states that ended with the unification of the empire by the state of Qin. In addition to his role as an ancestor, he became associated with “centralized statecraft” and emerged as a paradigmatic figure of the imperial state.

The State of Qin

In his Shiji, Sima Qian claims that the state of Qin began to worship the Yellow Emperor in the fifth century BC – along with Yandi, the Fiery Emperor. The altars were erected in Yong 雍 (near modern Fengxiang County in Shaanxi Province), which was the capital of Qin from 677 to 383 BC. By the time of King Zheng, who became king of Qin in 247 and first emperor of unified China in 221 BC, Huangdi had become by far the most important of the four “leaders” (di 帝) worshipped in Yong at that time.

The Shiji version

The figure of Huangdi had appeared sporadically in texts of the Disputed Empires. Sima Qian”s Shiji (or Records of the Great Historian, completed around 94 BCE) was the first work to transform these myth fragments into a systematic and consistent narrative of the Yellow Emperor”s “life.” The account in the Shiji was extremely influential in shaping the way the Chinese viewed the origin of their history.

The shiji begins its chronological account of Chinese history with the life of Huangdi, which portrays him as a wise ruler from ancient times. It relates that Huangdi”s father Shaodian The Yellow Emperor had four wives. His first wife Leizu of Xiling bore him two sons. His other three wives were his second wife Fenglei (封嫘), third wife Tongyu (彤魚) and fourth wife Momu (嫫母). The emperor had a total of 25 sons, 14 of whom were given their own surnames and clans. The eldest was Shao Hao or Xuan Xiao, who lived in Qingyang on the Yangtze River. Chang Yi, the youngest, lived on the Ruo River. When the Yellow Emperor died, he was succeeded by Chang Yi”s son, Zhuan Xu.

The timetables in Chapter 13 of the Shiji depict all past rulers-legendary ones such as Yao and Shun, the first ancestors of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, and the founders of the major ruling houses in the Zhou area-as descendants of Huangdi, giving the impression that Chinese history is the story of a single great family.

Imperial period

The Yellow Emperor has been credited with an enormous number of cultural legacies and esoteric teachings. While Taoism in the West is often considered to have emerged from Laozi, Chinese Taoists claim that the Yellow Emperor formulated many of their precepts. The Yellow Prince”s Inner Classic (黃帝內經 Huángdì Nèijīng), which is the doctrinal foundation of traditional Chinese medicine, was named after him. He is also credited with writing the “Four Books of the Yellow Emperor” (黃帝四經 Huángdì Sìjīng), the “Yellow Emperor”s Book of the Hidden Symbol” (黃帝陰符經 Huángdì Yīnfújīng), and the “Poem of the Four Seasons of the Yellow Emperor,” which is included in the Tung Shing divination almanac.

“Xuanyuan” is also the Chinese name for Regulus and other stars of the constellations Leo and Lynx, the latter of which is said to represent the body of the Yellow Dragon. In the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City in Beijing, there is also a mirror called “Xuanyuan Mirror”.

In the second century CE, Huangdi”s role as a deity was diminished by the emergence of a deified Laozi. A state sacrifice offered to “Huang-Lao jun” was not offered to Huangdi and Laozi, as the term Huang-Lao would have meant a few centuries earlier, but to a “yellow Laozi.” Nevertheless, Huangdi continued to be regarded as an immortal: He was considered a master of longevity techniques and a god who could reveal new teachings – in the form of texts such as the sixth-century Huangdi Yinfujing – to his earthly followers.

Twentieth century

The Yellow Emperor became a powerful national symbol in the last decade of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and remained dominant in Chinese nationalist discourse during the Republican period (1911-49). The early twentieth century is also the time when the Yellow Emperor was first referred to as the ancestor of all Chinese.

Beginning in 1903, radical publications began using the projected date of his birth as the first year of the Chinese calendar. Intellectuals such as Liu Shipei (1884-1919) considered this practice necessary to protect “the race” (baozhong 保種) from both Manchu dominance and foreign encroachment. Revolutionaries motivated by anti-Manchuism, such as Chen Tianhua (1875-1905), Zou Rong (1885-1905), and Zhang Binglin (1868-1936), sought to promote the racial consciousness they believed was lacking among their compatriots and thus portrayed Manchus as racially inferior barbarians unfit to rule over Han Chinese. Chen”s widely circulated pamphlets claimed that the “Han race” formed one large family descended from the Yellow Emperor. The first issue (Nov. 1905) of Minbao 民報 (“People”s Gazette”), founded in Tokyo by Tongmenghui revolutionaries, featured the Yellow Emperor on the cover and called Huangdi “the world”s first great nationalist.” It was one of several nationalist magazines that depicted the Yellow Emperor on their covers in the early twentieth century. The fact that Huangdi meant “yellow emperor” also served to bolster the theory that he was the originator of the “yellow race.

Many historians interpret this sudden popularity of the Yellow Emperor as a reaction to the theories of the French scholar Albert Terrien de Lacouperie (1845-94), who claimed in his book The Western Origin of the Early Chinese Civilization, from 2300 B.C. to 200 A.D. (1892) that Chinese civilization was founded by Babylonian immigrants around 2300 B.C. The Sino-Babylonianism of the Sino-Chinese civilization is a theory of the Chinese civilization. Lacouperie”s “Sino-Babylonianism” postulated that Huangdi was a Mesopotamian tribal leader who led a massive migration of his people to China around 2300 B.C. and founded what later became Chinese civilization. European Sinologists were quick to reject these theories, but in 1900 two Japanese historians, Shirakawa Jirō and Kokubu Tanenori, set aside these criticisms and published a long summary that presented Lacouperie”s views as the most advanced Western scholarship on China. Chinese scholars were quickly attracted to the “historicization of Chinese mythology” advocated by the two Japanese authors.

Anti-Manchu intellectuals and activists seeking China”s “national essence” (guocui 國粹) adapted Sino-Babylonism to their needs. Zhang Binglin explained Huangdi”s struggle with Chi You as a conflict between the newly arrived civilized Mesopotamians and the backward local tribes. Zhang”s reinterpretation of Sima Qian”s account “underscored the need to recover the glory of early China.” Liu Shipei also portrayed these early times as the golden age of Chinese civilization. In addition to tying the Chinese to an ancient center of human civilization in Mesopotamia, Lacouperie”s theories suggested that China should be ruled by Huangdi”s descendants. In a controversial essay entitled History of the Yellow Race (1873-1935), that the “Han race” was the true ruler of China because it was descended from the Yellow Emperor. Reinforced by the values of filial piety and the Chinese patrilineal clan, the racial vision defended by Huang and others transformed revenge against the Manchus into a duty to the ancestors.

The Yellow Emperor continued to be revered even after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Thus, in 1912, banknotes bearing Huangdi”s likeness were issued by the new republican government. After 1911, however, the Yellow Emperor transformed as a national symbol from the first progenitor of the Han race to the ancestor of China”s entire multiethnic population. Under the ideology of Five Races Under One, Huangdi became the common ancestor of the Han Chinese, Manchu people, Mongols, Tibetans, and Hui people, who would form the Zhonghua minzu (a broadly understood Chinese nation). Sixteen state ceremonies were held between 1911 and 1949 to Huangdi as the “founding ancestor of the Chinese nation” (中華民族始祖) and even “the founding ancestor of human civilization” (人文始祖).

Modern meaning

The Cult of the Yellow Emperor was banned in the People”s Republic of China until the end of the Cultural Revolution. The ban was lifted in the 1980s when the government did an about-face and revived the “Cult of the Yellow Emperor.” Beginning in the 1980s, the cult was revived and expressions referring to the “descendants of Yan and Huang” were sometimes used by the Chinese state when referring to people of Chinese descent. In 1984, for example, Deng Xiaoping argued for Chinese reunification by saying “Taiwan is rooted in the hearts of the descendants of the Yellow Emperor,” while in 1986 the PRC celebrated Chinese-American astronaut Taylor Wang as the first descendant of the Yellow Emperor in space. In the first half of the 1980s, the Party had internally debated whether ethnic minorities would feel excluded by this usage. After consulting experts at Peking University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and the Central Institute of Nationalities, the Central Propaganda Department recommended on March 27, 1985, that the Party should refer to the Zhonghua Minzu-the “Chinese nation” in the broadest sense-in official statements, but that the phrase “sons and grandsons of Yandi and the Yellow Emperor” could be used in informal statements by Party leaders and in “relations with compatriots in Hong Kong and Taiwan and with Chinese compatriots overseas.”

After returning to Taiwan in late 1949, at the end of the Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (KMT) decreed that the Republic of China (ROC) would continue to pay homage to the Yellow Emperor on April 4, National Tomb Sweeping Day, but neither he nor the three presidents who followed him ever paid homage in person. In 1955, the KMT, led by Mandarin speakers and still bent on retaking the mainland from the Communists, sponsored the production of the film Children of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi zisun 黃帝子孫), which was filmed largely in Taiwanese Hokkien and featured extensive passages of Taiwanese folk opera. Directed by Bai Ke (1914-1964), a former assistant to Yuan Muzhi, it was a propaganda attempt to convince Taiyu speakers that they were linked to mainlanders by common blood. In 2009, Ma Ying-jeou became the first ROC president to personally celebrate the Tomb Sweeping Day rituals for Huangdi, taking the opportunity to proclaim that both Chinese culture and common descent from the Yellow Emperor united people from Taiwan and the mainland. Later that year, Lien Chan – a former vice president of the Republic of China who is now honorary chairman of the Kuomintang – and his wife Lien Fang Yu paid homage at the Yellow Emperor”s mausoleum in Huangling, Yan”an, on the Chinese mainland.

Gay Studies scholar Louis Crompton, in his popular Notes from the Yuewei Hermitage (1800), cited Ji Yun”s account that some claimed the Yellow Emperor was the first Chinese to take male bedfellows, a claim Ji Yun rejected.

As with any myth, there are numerous versions of Huangdi”s story that emphasize different themes and interpret the meaning of the main character in different ways.

Birth

According to Huangfu Mi (215-282), the Yellow Emperor was born at Shou Qiu (“Longevity Hill”), which is now on the outskirts of the city of Qufu in Shandong. Early on, he lived with his tribe near the Ji River – Edwin Pulleyblank notes that “there seems to be no record of a Ji River outside of myth” – and later migrated to Zhuolu in present-day Hebei. He then became a farmer and tamed six different special animals: the bear (羆), the pí (貔) and xiū (貅) (which later combined to form the mythical Pixiu), the wild chū (貙), and the tiger (虎).

Huangdi is sometimes said to have been the fruit of an extraordinary birth, as his mother Fubao became pregnant with him when she was impregnated by lightning from the Big Dipper while walking in the countryside. She gave birth to her son on Mount Shou (Longevity) or Mount Xuanyuan, after which he was named.

Achievements

In traditional Chinese accounts, the Yellow Emperor is credited with improving the livelihood of the nomadic hunters of his tribe. He teaches them how to build dwellings, tame wild animals, and cultivate the Five Seeds, although other accounts attribute the latter to Shennong. He invents carts, boats, and clothing.

Other inventions attributed to the emperor include the Chinese diadem (冠冕), throne rooms (宮室), the bow sling, early Chinese astronomy, the Chinese calendar, mathematical calculations, the code of laws of sound (音律), and Cuju, an early Chinese version of soccer. He is also sometimes credited with being partly responsible for the invention of the guqin zither, although others credit the Yan emperor with inventing the instruments for Ling Lun”s compositions.

In the traditional tales, he also gets the historian Cangjie to create the first Chinese writing system, the oracle bone script, and his main wife Leizu invents sericulture (silk cultivation) and teaches his people to weave silk and dye clothes.

At one point in his reign, the Yellow Emperor supposedly visited the mythical East Sea and met a talking animal named Bai Ze, who taught him the knowledge of all supernatural creatures. This animal told him that there were 11,522 (or 1,522) kinds of supernatural creatures.

Battles

The Yellow Emperor and the Yan Emperor were both leaders of a tribe or combination of two tribes near the Yellow River. The Yan Emperor came from another area around the Jiang River, which was identified in a geographical work called Shuijingzhu as a river near Qishan. This was the homeland of the Zhou was before they defeated the Shang. Both emperors lived in a time of wars. As the Yan Emperor proved unable to control the unrest in his empire, the Yellow Emperor took up arms to establish his rule over various warring parties.

According to traditional lore, the Yan Emperor encounters the force of the “Nine Li” (九黎) under their bronze-headed leader Chi You and his 81 horned and four-eyed brothers and suffers a decisive defeat. He flees to Zhuolu and asks the Yellow Emperor for help. During the ensuing Battle of Zhuolu, the Yellow Emperor uses his tamed animals and Chi You darkens the sky by exhaling a thick mist. This prompts the Emperor to develop the Compass Chariot, which he uses to lead his army out of the miasma. Next, he calls upon the drought demon Nüba to dispel Chi You”s storm. Then he destroys the Nine Li and defeats Chi You. Later, he takes up the fight with the Yan Emperor, defeating him at Banquan and replacing him as the main ruler.

Death

The Yellow Emperor is said to have lived for over a hundred years before meeting a phoenix and a qilin and then dying. Two tombs were built in Shaanxi in the Yellow Emperor”s mausoleum, in addition to others in Henan, Hebei and Gansu.

Today”s Chinese sometimes refer to themselves as “descendants of Yan and the Yellow Emperor,” although non-Han minorities in China have their own myths or are not descendants of the emperor.

Symbol for the center of the universe

As the Yellow Deity with Four Faces (黃帝四面 Huángdì Sìmiàn), he represents the center of the universe and the vision of unity that controls the four directions. In the Huangdi Sijing (“Four Writings of the Yellow Emperor”), it is explained that the regulation of the “heart within brings order without.” To rule, one must “reduce” oneself by giving up emotions, “drying up like a corpse,” and never allowing oneself to be carried away, as the Yellow Emperor himself did, according to myth, during his three-year retreat on Mount Bowang to find himself. This practice creates an inner void in which all the vital forces of creation gather, and the more indeterminate they remain, the more powerful they will be.

The Great Deity of the Central Peak (中岳大帝 Zhōngyuèdàdì) is another epithet that represents Huangdi as the center of creation – the axis mundi (in Chinese mythology Kunlun), which is the manifestation of the divine order in physical reality – opening to immortality.

As ancestor

Throughout history, several rulers and dynasties claimed (or were claimed) to be descended from the Yellow Emperor. Sima Qian”s Shiji presented Huangdi as the ancestor of the two legendary rulers Yao and Shun, and traced various lines of descent from Huangdi to the founders of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. He claimed that Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, was a descendant of Huangdi. He accepted that the ruling house of the Qin Dynasty was also descended from the Yellow Emperor. But he claimed that Qin Shihuang was actually the child of Qin Chancellor Lü Buwei. Thus, he may have wanted to remove the first emperor from the lineage of Huangdi.

Claiming descent from illustrious ancestors remained a common means of political legitimacy in subsequent ages. Wang Mang (c. 45 BCE-23 CE) of the short-lived Xin Dynasty claimed descent from the Yellow Emperor to justify his overthrow of the Han, proclaiming in January 9 CE: “I possess no virtues, I rely on the fact that I am a descendant of my exalted original ancestor, the Yellow Emperor.” About two hundred years later, a ritual specialist named Dong Ba 董巴, who worked at the court of the Cao Wei, who had succeeded the Han shortly before, promoted the idea that the Cao family was descended from Huangdi through Emperor Zhuanxu.

During the Tang dynasty, non-Han rulers also claimed descent from the Yellow Emperor, both for individual and national prestige and to associate themselves with the Tang. Most Chinese noble families also claimed descent from Huangdi. This practice was well established in the Tang and Song periods, when hundreds of clans claimed such lineage. The main support for this theory-as recorded in the Tongdian (801 AD) and the Tongzhi (mid-12th century)-was the Shiji”s statement that Huangdi”s 25 sons were given 12 different surnames, and that these surnames had diversified into all Chinese surnames. After Emperor Zhenzong (r. 997-1022) of the Song Dynasty dreamed of a figure he was told was the Yellow Emperor, the Song imperial family began to claim Huangdi as their first ancestor.

A number of overseas Chinese clans that maintain genealogies also ultimately trace their family back to Huangdi, explaining their various surnames with name changes supposedly derived from the fourteen surnames of Huangdi”s descendants. Many Chinese clans, both overseas and in China, claim Huangdi as their ancestor to reinforce their sense of being Chinese.

Gun, Yu, Zhuanxu, Zhong, Li, Shujun and Yuqiang are various emperors, gods and heroes whose ancestor is also said to have been Huangdi. The Huantou, Miaomin and Quanrong peoples are said to be descended from Huangdi.

Although the traditional Chinese calendar did not mark years continuously, some Han Dynasty astronomers attempted to determine the years of the Yellow Emperor”s life and reign. In 78 B.C., during the reign of Emperor Zhao of Han, an official named Zhang Shouwang (the court rejected his proposal for reform and countered that only 3,629 years had elapsed. In the proleptic Julian calendar, the court”s calculations would have placed the Yellow Emperor in the late 38th century BCE, rather than the 27th century BCE.

During the Jesuit missions to China in the seventeenth century, the Jesuits tried to determine which year should be considered the epoch of the Chinese calendar. In his Sinicae historiae decas prima (first published in Munich in 1658), Martino Martini (1614-1661) dated the royal ascension of Huangdi at 2697 B.C. However, he began the Chinese calendar with the reign of Fuxi, which he believed began in 2952 B.C. Philippe Couplet”s (1623-1693) “Chronological Table of Chinese Monarchs” (1686) also gave the same date for the Yellow Emperor. The Jesuits” dates attracted great interest in Europe, where they were used for comparisons with biblical chronology. Modern Chinese chronology has generally accepted Martini”s dates, with the exception that it usually places Huangdi”s reign in 2698 BC and omits Huangdi”s predecessors Fuxi and Shennong, who are considered “too legendary to be included.”

Helmer Aslaksen, a mathematician who teaches at the National University of Singapore and specializes in the Chinese calendar, explains that those who use 2698 B.C. as the first year probably do so because they want “a year 0 as a starting point” or because “they assume that the Yellow Emperor began his year with the winter solstice of 2698 B.C.,” hence the difference from the year 2697 B.C. calculated by the Jesuits.

Beginning in 1903, radical publications began using the projected birth date of the Yellow Emperor as the first year of the Chinese calendar. Different newspapers and magazines proposed different dates. Jiangsu, for example, counted 1905 as year 4396 (which made 2491 B.C. the first year of the Chinese calendar), while the Minbao (the organ of the Tongmenghui) reckoned 1905 as 4603 (first year: 2698 B.C.). Liu Shipei (1884-1919) created the Yellow Emperor calendar to show the unbroken continuity of the Han race and Han culture from earliest times. There is no evidence that this calendar was used before the 20th century. Liu”s calendar began with the birth of the Yellow Emperor, estimated to be in 2711 BCE. When Sun Yat-sen announced the founding of the Republic of China on January 2, 1912, he decreed that this was the 12th day of the 11th month of the year 4609 (epoch: 2698 BCE), but that the state would now use the solar calendar and count 1912 as the first year of the Republic. Chronological tables published in the 1938 edition of the Cihai (辭海) dictionary followed Sun Yat-sen in using 2698 as the year of Huangdi”s accession; this chronology is now “widely reproduced, with minor variations.”

Sources

  1. Huangdi
  2. Yellow Emperor