Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors
• c. 2852 – c. 2737 BC or c. 2952 – c. 2836 BC
• c. 2495 – c. 2437 BC
• c. 2436 – c. 2366 BC
• c. 2356 – c. 2255 BC
• c. 2355 – c. 2241 BC
Succeeded by
Xia dynasty
Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

According to Chinese mythology and traditional Chinese historiography, the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (Chinese: 三皇五帝; pinyin: Sān huáng wǔ dì) were a series of sage rulers, and the first Emperors of China.[1] Today, they are considered culture heroes,[2] but they were widely worshipped as divine "ancestral spirits" in ancient times. According to received history, the period they existed in preceded the Xia dynasty,[3] although they were thought to exist in later periods to an extent[4] in incorporeal forms that aided the Chinese people, especially with the stories of Nüwa existing as a spirit in the Shang dynasty[5] and Shennong being identified as the godly form of Hou Ji and a founder of the Zhou dynasty.[6]

In myth, the Three Sovereigns were demigods who used their abilities to help create mankind and impart to them essential skills and knowledge. The Five Emperors were exemplary sages who possessed great moral character, and were from a golden age when "communications between the human order and the divine were central to all life" and where the sages embodied the divine, or aided humans in communicating divine forces.[7]

In this period the abdication system was used before Qi of Xia violently seized power and established a hereditary monarchy.[8]


Taoist myths and parables involving shamanistic themes were inspired by Tungus shaman folklore, and the most ancient stories about Fuxi, Nüwa, and Shennong as the Three Sovereigns were also inspired by that mythos.[9]


Map of tribes and tribal unions in Ancient China, including the tribes led by the Yellow Emperor, Yan and Chiyou.

Depending on the source, there are many variations of who classifies as the Three Sovereigns or the Five Emperors. There are six to seven known variations.[10] Many of the sources listed below were written from much later dynasties.

The following appear in different groupings of the Three Sovereigns: Fuxi, Nüwa, Shennong, Suiren, Zhu Rong, Gonggong, the Heavenly Sovereign, Earthly Sovereign, Human Sovereign, (in two varieties), and even the Yellow Emperor.[1]

The following appear in different groupings of the Five Emperors: Yellow Emperor, Zhuanxu, Emperor Ku, Emperor Yao, Emperor Shun, Shaohao, Taihao (太昊), and the Yan Emperor.

Three Sovereigns

The Three Sovereigns, sometimes known as the Three August Ones, were said to be god-kings or demigods who used their magical powers, divine powers, or being in harmony with the Tao to improve the lives of their people. Because of their lofty virtue, they lived to a great age and ruled over a period of great peace.

They have elements in common with xian, such as the Human Sovereign's cloud-chariot and their supernatural abilities. Upon his death, the Yellow Emperor was "said to have become" a xian.[11]

The Three Sovereigns are ascribed various identities in different historical texts. The Yellow Emperor is supposedly the ancestor of the Huaxia people.[12] The Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor was established in Shaanxi to commemorate the ancestry legend.[12]

According to source Three Sovereigns
Records of the Grand Historian, addition by Sima Zhen Heavenly Sovereign, Earthly Sovereign, Tai Sovereign[10] or Fu Xi, Nüwa, Shennong
Sovereign series (帝王世系) Fu Xi, Shennong, Yellow Emperor[10]
Shiben Fu Xi, Shennong, Yellow Emperor[10]
Baihu Tongyi (白虎通義) (1st variation)
Fu Xi, Shennong, Zhu Rong[10]

(2nd variation)
Fu Xi, Shennong, Suiren[10]
Fengsu Tongyi Fu Xi, Nüwa, Shennong[10]
Yiwen Leiju Heavenly Sovereign, Earthly Sovereign; Human Sovereign[10]
Tongjian Waiji (通鑑外紀) Fu Xi, Shennong, Gonggong
Chunqiu yundou shu (春秋運斗樞)
Chunqiu yuanming bao (春秋元命苞)
Fu Xi, Nüwa, Shennong
Shangshu dazhuan (尚書大傳) Fu Xi, Shennong, Suiren
Diwang shiji (帝王世紀) Fu Xi, Shennong, Yellow Emperor

Five Emperors

The Five Emperors were traditionally thought to have invented "fire, writing and irrigation."[13]

According to source Five Emperors
Records of the Grand Historian Yellow Emperor, Zhuanxu, Ku, Yao, Shun[10]
Sovereign Series (帝王世紀) Shaohao, Zhuanxu, Ku, Yao, Shun[10]
I Ching Taihao (太昊), Yan Emperor, Yellow Emperor, Yao, Shun[10]
Comments of a Recluse, Qianfulun (潛夫論) Taihao, Yan, Yellow Emperor, Shaohao, Zhuanxu[14][better source needed]
Zizhi tongjian waiji, (資治通鑒外紀) Yellow Emperor, Shaohao, Zhuanxu, Ku, Yao[14]

Five Emperors family tree

(1) Yellow Emperor[15]
(2) ShaohaoChangyi
Jiaoji(3) Zhuanxu
(4) KuQiongchanSb.
(5) Zhi(6) YaoHoujiJingkang 敬康Sb.
Qiaoniu 橋牛Gun
Gusou(8) Yu
Ehuang(7) Shun Nuying

Creation myth

There is 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), Fu Xi-shi (伏羲氏), and Shennong-shi (神農氏).[16]


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.[3]



  1. ^ a b "三皇五帝 – 国学网" [Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors – Chinese Studies Network] (in Chinese (China)). 2012-08-16. Retrieved 2023-09-18.
  2. ^ Hucker, Charles (1995). China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture. Stanford University Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-8047-2353-4.
  3. ^ a b Morton, W. Scott; Lewis, Charlton M. (2005). China: its history and culture (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-07-141279-7.
  4. ^ Scarpari, Maurizio (2006). Ancient China: Chinese Civilization from the Origins to the Tang Dynasty. Translated by Milan, A.B.A. New York: Barnes & Noble. p. 28. ISBN 978-0-7607-8379-5.
  5. ^ Ni, Xueting C. (2023). Chinese Myths: From Cosmology and Folklore to Gods and Immortals. London: Amber Books. pp. 76–77. ISBN 978-1-83886-263-3.
  6. ^ Asim, Ina (2007). "Keynotes 2". University of Oregon. Retrieved 2023-07-18.
  7. ^ Willard Gurdon Oxtoby, ed. (2002). World Religions: Eastern Traditions (2nd ed.). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press. pp. 324, 326. ISBN 0-19-541521-3. OCLC 46661540.
  8. ^ Feng, Shi (2009) "A Study of the Pottery Inscription 'Wen Yi 文邑'". Chinese Archaeology, Vol. 9 (Issue 1), pp. 170-177. full text
  9. ^ Palmer, Martin (1999). The Elements of Taoism. United States: Barnes & Noble. p. 15. ISBN 0-7607-1078-3.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k 劉煒/著. (2002) Chinese civilization in a new light. Commercial press publishing. ISBN 962-07-5314-3, p. 142.
  11. ^ "Huangdi". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2023-05-22.
  12. ^ a b Wang, Hengwei (2006) [2005]. 中國歷史講堂 [Chinese history lecture hall] (in Chinese). Zhonghua shuju. p. 13. ISBN 962-8885-24-3.
  13. ^ Clayre, Alasdair (1985). The Heart of the Dragon (First American ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-395-35336-3.
  14. ^ a b "CHINAKNOWLEDGE", Chinese History - The Three Augusts and Five Emperors 三皇五帝
  15. ^ Records of the Grand Historian
  16. ^ Wang 2006, pp. 4–7.

Further reading