Yan Emperor of Ancient China
First monarchShennong
Last monarchYuwang
FormationThree Sovereigns and Five Emperors
AbolitionBattle of Banquan
Yan Emperor
The first Yan Emperor Shennong tastes herbs to discover their qualities
Literal meaningFlame Emperor

The Yan Emperor (Chinese: 炎帝; pinyin: Yán Dì) or the Flame Emperor was a legendary ancient Chinese ruler in pre-dynastic times. Modern scholarship has identified the Sheep's Head Mountains (Yángtóu Shān) just north of Baoji in Shaanxi Province as his homeland and territory.[1]

A long debate has existed over whether or not the Yan Emperor was the same person as the legendary Shennong. An academic conference held in China in 2004 achieved general consensus that the Yan Emperor and Shennong were the same person.[2] Another possibility is that the term "flame emperor" was a title, held by dynastic succession of tribal lords, with Shennong being known as Yandi perhaps posthumously. Accordingly, the term "flame emperors" would be generally more correct. The succession of these flame emperors, from Shennong, the first Yan Emperor, until the time of the last Yan Emperor's defeat by the Yellow Emperor, may have been some 500 years.[3]

Historical records

Map of tribes and tribal unions in Ancient China, including tribes of Huang Di (Yellow Emperor), Yan Di (Flame Emperor) and Chiyou.

No written records are known to exist from the era of Yan Emperor's reign. However, he and Shennong are mentioned in many of the classic works of ancient China. Yan literally means "flame", implying that Yan Emperor's people possibly uphold a symbol of fire as their tribal totems. K. C. Wu speculates that this appellation may be connected with the use of fire to clear the fields in slash and burn agriculture.[4] In any case, it appears that agricultural innovations by Shennong and his descendants contributed to some sort of socioeconomic success that led them to style themselves as di (; 'emperors'), rather than hou (; 'lord'), as in the case of lesser tribal leaders. At this time it appears that there were only the bare beginnings of written language, and that for record keeping a system of knotting strings (perhaps similar to quipu) was in use.[5] The Zuo Zhuan states that in 525 BC, the descendants of Yan were recognized as long having been masters of fire and having used fire in their names.[6] Yan Emperor was known as "Emperor of the South"[7]


The last Yan Emperor, Yuwang, met the end of his reign in the third of a series of three battles, known as the Battle of Banquan. The exact location of this battle is disputed among modern historians, due to multiple locations adopting the same name at various points through history. Possible candidates include Zhuolu County and Huailai County in Zhangjiakou, Hebei, Yanqing District in Beijing, Fugou County in Zhoukou, Henan, and Yanhu District in Yuncheng, Shanxi.

The Yan Emperor, retreating from a recent invasion from the forces of Chiyou, came into territorial conflict with its neighbouring Youxiong tribes, led by the Yellow Emperor. The Yan Emperor was defeated after three successive battles and surrendered to the Yellow Emperor, who assumed the title of overlord (共主) and agreed to merge the two tribes into a new confederation — the Yanhuang tribe. Under the Yellow Emperor's leadership, the newly combined tribes then went to war and defeated Chiyou in the Battle of Zhuolu, and established their cultural and political dominance in China proper.


Since the Battle of Banquan is treated as a historical fact by Sima Qian in his Records of the Grand Historian, it would appear that this is a pivotal transition point between mythology and history. Ironically, Yan Emperor enters history only with his submission to the will of the Yellow Emperor. In any case, the title of flame emperor apparently lapsed after this time, while his tribe's descendants were said to be perpetuated through intermarriage with that of the Yellow Emperor, and Han Chinese throughout history have referred themselves as the "Descendants of Yan and Huang".

In traditional culture

A temple dedicated to the worship of Yandi in Baoji, Shaanxi

Both Huangdi and Yandi are considered in some sense ancestral to Chinese culture and people. Also, the tradition of associating a certain color with a particular dynasty may have begun with the Flame Emperors. According to the Five Elements, or Wu Xing model, red, fire, should be succeeded by yellow, earth—or Yandi by Huangdi.[8]

According to the records of ancient history books such as The "Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư", the earliest monarch of Vietnam, Hồng Bàng, was a descendant of Emperor Yan. Because of it, all the ancient Vietnamese dynasties regarded Emperor Yan as their common ancestor.

List of Flame Emperors

This is the most common list given by Huangfu Mi, Xu Zheng, and Sima Zhen:

Name Notes
Shennong 神農 Born Jiang Shinian 姜石年
Linkui 臨魁
Ming Considered father of Loc Tuc in Vietnamese mythography
Li or Ke Sima Zhen puts Ke between Ai and Yuwang
Ai Considered father of Au Co in Vietnamese mythography
Yuwang 榆罔 Defeated by Yellow Emperor at Banquan

List provided at the end of the Shan Hai Jing:

Name Notes
Yandi 炎帝
Yanju 炎居 Also possibly known as Zhu
Jiebing 節並
Xiqi 戲器
Zhurong 祝融
Gonggong 共工
Shuqi 術器
Houtu 后土 Brother of Shuqi
Yeming 噎鳴 Son of Houtu
Suishi 歳十

See also



  1. ^ He Wandan 贺晚旦 and Yang Hongbao 杨红保, in Wang & Meng (2005, pp. 3–4).
  2. ^ Yang Dongchen 杨东晨, in Wang & Meng (2005, p. 15).
  3. ^ Wu (1982, p. 56)
  4. ^ Wu 1982, p. 56.
  5. ^ Wu 1982, p. 56, note 26, referencing Xu Shen.
  6. ^ Chinese: 《左轉·左丘明》: "昭公十七年:炎帝氏以火紀,故為火師而火名。"
  7. ^ Various (1991). Chinese America: History and Perspectives 1991. Chinese Historical Society. p. 64. Retrieved 2012-04-01.
  8. ^ Wu 1982, pp. 56–57.


Regnal titles Preceded byFuxi Chinese sovereign Succeeded byYellow Emperor