Chinese Civilization: The Five Sage Emperors – Huangdi, Zhuan Xu, Yao, Shun, Yu

Yu the Great, Color on silk at the National Palace Museum

~ Yu the Great, Color on silk at the National Palace Museum

The Five Emperors

Of the great people of the ancient Chinese, there were Fuxi, the Ox-tamer, who thought the ancient Chinese how to domesticate animals. He also emphasized the family institution, and invented the Eight Trigrams of the Book of Changes. Then there was Shen Nong, the Divine Farmer, who invented the plough and hoe. He thought the ancient Chinese the art of agriculture.

Of the Five Emperors, there were Huangdi, Zhuan Xu, Yao, Shun, Yu. Known as the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi was the founding ruler and primordial ancestor of the ancient Chinese. Before the Yellow Emperor, China was in chaos and the various ruling lords brought death and destruction to the people. Raising an army, the Yellow Emperor rode forth and broke the power of the lords and brought order to the realm. Having brought internal stability, the Yellow Emperor then sought to face external challenges. He fought a great battle against the barbarians to secure the Yellow river region for his people. Some legends also spoke of the Yan Emperor who was subdued by the Yellow Emperor as another primordial ancestor of the Chinese people. The Yellow Emperor invented the bow and arrow, boats, carts, ceramics, writing, and silk (invented by his wife).

Of his successor, Zhuan Xu, little can be said except that he invented the patriarchal family institution, forbade close-kin marriages, and passed the mantel of leadership to Yao.

Excerpt from the Canon of Yao from the Book of History translated by W.H. Medhurst concerning Yao (Minford & Lau, 2000):

Now on examining into the ancient Emperor, Yao, we must say that he was vastly meritorious, reverential, and intelligent; his external accomplishments and internal reflections were easy and unconstrained; he was sincerely respectful, and capable of yielding, while his fame extended to the four distant quarters, reaching to heaven above and the earth beneath.

He was able to display superior virtue, in order to bind closer the nine degrees of kindred; the nine kindred’s being rendered harmonious, he equalized and illumined the people of the Imperial domain; his own people having become intelligent, he harmonized the various states of the Empire, and the black-haired people.

Yao invented the calendar and the rituals of the ancient Chinese. Seeing that his son was lacking of merit and not worthy of leadership, Yao selected Shun as his successor.

Shun, a poor peasant, won merit by his filial piety shown in his devotion to his blind father and evil stepmother. He married Yao’s daughters and succeeded him. Both Yao and Shun were unable to prevent floods so Shun appointed Yu for his merit shown in solving the floods.

Excerpt from the Canon of Yao from the Book of History translated by W.H. Medhurst concerning the selection of Shun by Yao (Minford & Lau, 2000):

The Emperor (Yao) said, “Oh! you, President of the four eminences, I have now been on the throne seventy years, and since you are able to follow out my regulations, I will resign my throne to you.”

The President said, “With my poor qualities, I should only disgrace the Imperial throne.” The Emperor replied, “Bring to light those who are in brilliant stations, and set forth those of low rank.” All the courtiers then address the Emperor saying, “There is a solitary individual, in a mean station, called Shun of Yu.” The Emperor said, “Good! I have heard of him; but how are his qualities?” The President said, He is a blind man’s son, his father is stupid, and his mother insincere, while Xiang (his brother) is overbearing; but he has been able to harmonize them by his filial piety, so that they have gradually advanced toward self-government and have not gone to the extreme lengths of wickedness.” The Emperor said, “Had I not better take him on trial! I will marry my daughters to this man, and thus observe his manner of acting with my two daughters.”

Yu, known as Yu the Great, dredged canals to solve the flooding and these became the rivers of north China. According to historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, the legendary engineer-emperor Yu the Great was praised for having mastered the waters and caused them to flow in great channels (Fernandez-Armesto, 2001). He bored through mountains, turned rivers out of their courses, sank landscapes, and made fields rise above the floods (Fernandez-Armesto, 2001). His success in solving the flooding problems was a result of cumulative experience. His father was sentenced to death (some said turned into stone) for trying to staunch floods by building dams with raw materials that expanded when it got wet. Yu learnt from his father that the power of nature could be diverted and not stopped. So he built great channels and drains to allow the waters to flow forth without harming the people.

Being devoted to solving the flood problems, Yu passed his own home several times without pausing to greet his wife and newborn child that he had never met. Being successful in solving the floods, Shun appointed Yu as his successor. Yu divided the realm into nine regions and gave each a bronze vessel as a symbol of authority. When Yu passed away, the people ignored his chosen successor and appointed his son to lead them. Thus, Yu and his son became the first two kings of the Xia dynasty and the system of succession through merit was broken.

The Five Emperors and Three Dynasties Timeframe
Huangdi Unknown
Zhuan Xu Unknown
Yao Unknown
Shun Unknown
Yu Unknown
Xia Dynasty c.2070 BC – c.1600 BC
Shang Dynasty c.1600BC – c.1046 BC
Zhou Dynasty c. 1050 BC – 256 BC

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