Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors were a group of mythological rulers or deities in ancient northern China who in later history have been assigned dates in a period from circa 2852 BC to 2070 BC. Today they are considered culture heroes.[1]

The dates of these mythological figures may be fictitious, but according to some accounts and reconstructions, they preceded the Xia Dynasty (which itself is prehistoric, without writing, and which is likewise also documented only in much later written sources).[2]

Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors
Standard Mandarin
Hanyu Pinyin Sān Huáng Wǔ Dì
Wade–Giles San Huang Wu Ti


The Three Sovereigns, sometimes known as the Three August Ones, were said to be god-kings, demigods or god emperors[3] who used their abilities to improve the lives of their people and impart to them essential skills and knowledge. The Five Emperors are portrayed as exemplary sages who possessed great moral character and 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.

These kings are said to have helped introduce the use of fire, taught people how to build houses and invented farming. The Yellow Emperor's wife is credited with the invention of silk culture. The discovery of medicine, the invention of the calendar and Chinese script are also credited to the kings. After their era, Yu the Great founded the Xia Dynasty.[2]

According to a modern theory with roots in the late 19th century, the Yellow Emperor is supposedly the ancestor of the Huaxia people.[4] The Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor was established in Shaanxi Province to commemorate the ancestry legend.[4]

The Chinese word for emperor, huángdì (皇帝), derives from this, as the first user of this title Qin Shi Huang considered his reunion of all of the lands of the former Kingdom of Zhou to be greater than even the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors.


A related concept appears in the legend of the Four shi (四氏) who took part in creating the world. The four members are Youchao-shi (有巢氏), Suiren-shi (燧人氏), Fuxi-shi (伏羲氏), and Shennong-shi (神農氏). The list sometimes extends to one more member being Nüwa-shi (女媧氏), making Five shi (五氏).[5] Four of these five names appear in different lists of the Three Sovereigns.


Depending on the source, there are many variations of who classifies as the Three Sovereigns or the Five Emperors. There are at least six to seven known variations.[6] Many of the sources listed below were written in much later periods, centuries and even millennia after the supposed existence of these figures, and instead of historical fact, they may reflect a desire in later time periods to create a fictitious ancestry traceable to ancient culture heroes. The Emperors were asserted as ancestors of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties.[7] The following appear in different groupings of the Three Sovereigns: Fuxi (伏羲), Nüwa (女媧), Shennong (神農), Suiren (燧人), Zhurong (祝融), Gong Gong (共工), Heavenly Sovereign (天皇), Earthly Sovereign (地皇), Tai Sovereign (泰皇), Human Sovereign (人皇), and even the Yellow Emperor (黄帝).

The following appear in different groupings of the Five Emperors: Yellow Emperor (黃帝), Zhuanxu (顓頊), Emperor Ku (嚳), Emperor Yao (堯), Emperor Shun (舜), Shaohao (少昊), Taihao (太昊), and Yan Emperor (炎帝).

Source Three Sovereigns Five Emperors
Records of the Grand Historian (史記)
edition by Sima Qian[6]
Heavenly Sovereign (天皇) or Fu Xi (伏羲)
Earthly Sovereign (地皇) or Nüwa (女媧)
Tai Sovereign (泰皇) or Shennong (神農)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Zhuanxu (顓頊)
Emperor Ku (嚳)
Emperor Yao (堯)
Emperor Shun (舜)
Sovereign series (帝王世系)[6] Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Shaohao (少昊)
Zhuanxu (顓頊)
Emperor Ku (嚳)
Emperor Yao (堯)
Emperor Shun (舜)
Shiben[6] Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Baihu Tongyi (白虎通義)[6] Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Zhurong (祝融) or Suiren (燧人)
Fengsu TongYi (風俗通義)[6] Fu Xi (伏羲)
Nüwa (女媧)
Shennong (神農)
Yiwen Leiju (藝文類聚)[6] Heavenly Sovereign (天皇)
Earthly Sovereign (地皇)
Human Sovereign (人皇)
Tongjian Waiji (通鑑外紀) Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Gong Gong (共工)
Chunqiu yundou shu (春秋運斗樞)
Chunqiu yuanming bao (春秋元命苞)
Fu Xi (伏羲)
Nüwa (女媧)
Shennong (神農)
Shangshu dazhuan (尚書大傳) Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Suiren (燧人)
Diwang shiji (帝王世紀)

Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)

I Ching (易經)[6] Taihao (太昊)
Yan Emperor (炎帝)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Emperor Yao (堯)
Emperor Shun (舜)
Comments of a Recluse, Qianfulun (潛夫論)[8] Taihao (太昊)
Yan Emperor (炎帝)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Shaohao (少昊)
Zhuanxu (顓頊)
Zizhi tongjian waiji, (資治通鑒外紀)[8] Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Shaohao (少昊)
Zhuanxu (顓頊)
Emperor Ku (嚳)
Emperor Yao (堯)

Family tree of ancient Five Emperors

Family tree of ancient Five Emperors
(1) Yellow Emperor
(2) Shaohao
Changyi 昌意
Jiaoji 蟜極(3) Zhuanxu
(4) KuQiongchan 窮蟬Gu of Shu
Cheng 称Taowu 梼杌Wangliang
(5) ZhiXie of
(6) Emperor Yao
Houji 后稷Jingkang 敬康Lao Tong
Danzhu 丹朱Juwang 句望
Qiaoniu 橋牛Gun
Gusou 瞽叟(8) YuLuzhong
Ehuang 娥皇(7) ShunNuying 女英Kunwu
Shen H
Peng Zu
Hui Ren
Ji Lian
?Cao 曹
Shangjun 商均



Fuxi and Nüwa

Anonymous-Fuxi and N%C3%BCwa3

Another depiction of Fuxi and Nüwa

See also


  1. ^ Hucker, Charles (1995). China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Stanford University Press. p. 22. ISBN 9780804723534.
  2. ^ a b Morton, W. Scott Morton. Morton, William Scott. Lewis Charlton M. (2005). China: its history and culture. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-141279-4, ISBN 978-0-07-141279-7, p. 14.
  3. ^ Mircea Eliade, Charles J. Adams, The Encyclopedia of religion, Volume 9, Macmillan, 1987, p. 133.
  4. ^ a b 王恆偉. (2005) (2006) 中國歷史講堂 #1 遠古至春秋. 中華書局. ISBN 962-8885-24-3, p. 13.
  5. ^ 王恆偉. (2005) (2006) 中國歷史講堂 #1 遠古至春秋. 中華書局. ISBN 962-8885-24-3. p 4–7.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h 劉煒/著. (2002) Chinese civilization in a new light. Commercial press publishing. ISBN 962-07-5314-3, p. 142.
  7. ^ William Edward Soothill; Dorothea Lady Hosie; G. F. Hudson (2002). The Hall of Light: A Study of Early Chinese Kingship. James Clarke & Co. pp. 146–. ISBN 978-0-227-17123-3.
  8. ^ a b ”CHINAKNOWLEDGE”, Chinese History - The Three Augusts and Five Emperors 三皇五帝
  9. ^ Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian

Further reading

Preceded by
None known
Dynasties in Chinese history
2852–2205 BC
Succeeded by
Xia dynasty

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