Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

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Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors
History of China
History of China
Neolithic c. 8500 – c. 2070 BC
Xia dynasty c. 2070 – c. 1600 BC
Shang dynasty c. 1600 – c. 1046 BC
Zhou dynasty c. 1046 – 256 BC
 Western Zhou
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   Spring and Autumn
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Qin dynasty 221–206 BC
Han dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD
  Western Han
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  Eastern Han
Three Kingdoms 220–280
  Wei, Shu and Wu
Jin dynasty 265–420
  Western Jin
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Southern and Northern Dynasties
Sui dynasty 581–618
Tang dynasty 618–907
  (Wu Zhou interregnum 690–705)
Five Dynasties and
Ten Kingdoms

Liao dynasty
Song dynasty
  Northern Song W. Xia
  Southern Song Jin
Yuan dynasty 1271–1368
Ming dynasty 1368–1644
Qing dynasty 1644–1911
Republic of China 1912–1949
People's Republic
of China

Republic of
China on Taiwan


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]


The Three Sovereigns, sometimes known as the Three August Ones, were said to be god-kings or demigods 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.[3] The Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor was established in Shaanxi Province to commemorate the ancestry legend.[3]

The Four/Five shi[edit]

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).[4] 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.[5] 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 (a common phenomenon in world history).

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), 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 Zhen[5]
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)
Shun (舜)
Sovereign series (帝王世系)[5] Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Shaohao (少昊)
Zhuanxu (顓頊)
Emperor Ku (嚳)
Emperor Yao (堯)
Shun (舜)
The book of Lineages (世本)[5] Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Baihu Tongyi (白虎通義)[5] Fu Xi (伏羲)
Shennong (神農)
Zhurong (祝融) or Suiren (燧人)
Fengsu TongYi (風俗通義)[5] Fu Xi (伏羲)
Nüwa (女媧)
Shennong (神農)
Yiwen Leiju (藝文類聚)[5] 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)[5] Taihao (太昊)
Yan Emperor (炎帝)
Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Emperor Yao (堯)
Shun (舜)
Comments of a Recluse, Qianfulun (潛夫論)[6] 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)[6] Yellow Emperor (黃帝)
Shaohao (少昊)
Zhuanxu (顓頊)
Emperor Ku (嚳)
Emperor Yao (堯)

Family tree of ancient Five Emperors[edit]


See also[edit]


  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. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ a b ”CHINAKNOWLEDGE”, Chinese History - The Three Augusts and Five Emperors 三皇五帝
  7. ^ Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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