Note: The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors were two groups 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 may be considered culture heroes.
The dates of these mythological figures may be fictitious, but according to some accounts and reconstructions, they preceded the Xia Dynasty.
The following is a translation by Herbert J. Allen from Sima Qian’s Historical Records.
T‘aihao (Great Brilliant), or P‘aohsi, of the surname Fêng (wind), superseding Suijên (fire producer), succeeded Heaven as King. His mother, named Huahsü, trod in the footprint of a giant at Thunder lake, and bore P‘aohsi at Ch‘êngchi. He had a serpent’s body, a man’s head, and the virtue of a sage. ‘Looking up he contemplated the forms exhibited in the heavens, and looking down he observed the patterns shown on the earth: he observed also around him the ornamental markings of the birds and beasts, and the different suitabilities of the soil.
As to what was near he found things for consideration in his own person, and as to the remote in things in general. He first delineated the eight Trigrams in order to show fully the virtus of the gods, and to classify the qualities of the myriads of things.
He worked out a system of recording by tablets in lieu of ‘knotted cords,’ and marriage rites were then first instituted, a pair of skins being given as wedding presents. ‘He made nets to teach men how to snare animals and to fish,’ and so he was called Fuhsi (hidden victim). He kept beasts for sacrificial purposes in his kitchen, and so he was called P‘aohsi (kitchen victims).
There being a dragon omen, he enrolled dragons among his officers, and they were styled dragon leaders. He made the thirty-five-stringed lute. Ruling under the influence of the element Wood, he directed his thoughts to the season of spring; thus the Book of Changes says ‘The god came forth from Orient brightness, and made (the year begin with) the first month of spring.’
This god was Great Brilliant. His capital was in Ch‘ên. In the East he built a fêng monument on Mount T‘ai. Having reigned eleven years he died. His posterity in the ‘Spring and Autumn’ period (721-480 B.C.) were Jênhsü, Hsüchü, and Ch‘uanyü, who all, one after the other, bore the surname Fêng.
Nükua, also of the surname Fêng, had the body of a serpent, the head of a man, and the virtue of a holy man. He came to the throne in the room of Fuhsi, under the title Nühsi. He made no hand-drums, and only fashioned the reed organ; accordingly the Book of Changes does not refer to him, and he had no share in the revolutions of the five elements.
Ntikua is said by one author to have also reigned under the influence of the element Wood. Now several generations after Fuhsi, the elements metal, wood, etc., came round in regular rotation, and Nükua being the first to attain special distinction on account of his great merits, and also as one of the three sovereigns, was hurriedly referred to as the ‘wood king.’
In his last year one of the princes named Kung kung, whose duty it was to administer the criminal law, became violent and played the tyrant. He did not rule properly, for he sought by the element water to subdue that of wood.
He also fought with Ch‘uyung and was not victorious, when, falling into a rage, he butted with his head against the Incomplete mountain, and brought it down. The ‘pillar of heaven’ was broken and a corner of the earth was wanting.
Nükua then fused five-coloured stones to repair heaven, cut off the feet of a tortoise to establish the four extremities of earth, collected the ashes of burnt reeds to stop the inundation, and so rescued the land of Chichow.
After this the earth was at rest, the heaven made whole and the old things were unchanged. Nükua died, and Shênnung began his reign.
The blazing god, Shênnung, was of the Chiang family. His mother, named Nutêng, was Yukua’s daughter and Shaotien’s wife. Influenced by a sacred dragon, she brought forth the blazing god with a man’s body and an ox’s head. He grew up on the banks of the Chiang river, whence he derived his surname.
As he ruled by the influence of the element fire, he was called ‘blazing god,’ and named his officers by the help of fire. “He cut down trees to make agricultural implements, bending timber into the shape of plough handles and spades, and taught the people the art of husbandry. As he was the first to give lessons in agriculture he was styled ‘divine husbandman.’ Then sacrifices were offered at the close of the year, and red thongs used for garlanding plants and trees. He was the first to taste the different herbs, and the first to make use of them for medicinal purposes. He also made the five-stringed lute.”
He taught people how to hold mid-day markets, when they bartered their wares and retired, everyone having got what he wanted. He reduplicated the eight Trigrams, and thus obtained sixty-four symbols. He first of all had his capital at Ch‘en, and then dwelt at Ch‘üfou.
After reigning 120 years he died, and was buried at Ch‘angsha.
Shênnung originally came from Liehshan (burning mountain), so Tso (ch‘iu ming) speaks of the son of the burning mountain called ‘Pillar,’ and also Lishan (whetstone mountain).
The book of rites says: this was the individual of the whetstone mount who was in possession of the empire. Shênnung took for his consort the daughter of ‘Rushing water,’ named T‘ingpa, who bore a son, the Emperor Ai (alas), who had a son, Emperor K‘o (conqueror), who had a son, Emperor Yü-wang (elm net). There were altogether eight generations, lasting 530 years, after which Hsien-yüan arose.
His descendants were Choufu, Kanhsü, Hsilu, Ch‘ichi, I-hsiang, and Shenlu, who were all of the Chiang tribe, and princes, or else one of the presidents of the four mountains.
Under the Chou dynasty a great prince, the chief of Shen, was a loyal minister of the king, and Hsülieh, of the Ch‘i State, was the leader of the princes of the Middle Kingdom. Now the bounties conferred by the holy men were great and extensive, so their reigns were glorious and long, and their progeny numerous.
According to one author the three sovereigns were the sovereign of Heaven, the sovereign of Earth, and the sovereign of Man. From the beginning of creation the relations between prince and subject were carefully worked out, and as the accounts cannot be entirely rejected, they are appended hereto.
When heaven and earth were first set up, there were twelve sovereigns of heaven, who lived in retirement, in a state of inaction, converts from the busy world, kings ruling under the influence of the element Wood. The period began with these 12 brothers Shêti, who reigned 18,000 years each. The 11 sovereigns of Earth, kings ruling under the influence of the element fire were 11 persons, from ‘Bear’s Ear’ and ‘Dragon gate’ mountains, who also reigned 18,000 years each. The 9 sovereigns of Man, one rode in cloud chariots drawn by 6 winged creatures, came from ‘Valley mouth,’ and were 9 brothers, who each held sway over one of the 9 provinces, and built cities and towns. They reigned for 150 periods, that is for 45,600 years.
After the sovereigns of Man came the Five dragons, Suijên, Tat‘ing, Pohuang, Chung yang, Chuan-hsü, Li-liu, Lilien, Hêhsü, Ts‘unlu, Huntun, Haoying, Yuch‘ao, Chujang, Kot‘ien, Yink‘ang, and Wu-huai, for these are the styles of the imperial dynasties after the age of the three sovereigns, but there being no record in the chronological lists, we cannot tell the names of the kings, the lengths of their reigns, or the localities of their capitals.
In a poem of Han’s it is stated that in ancient days over 10,000 persons erected fêng monuments on Mount T‘ai, and hollowed out ground for altars on Liangfu. Confucius observes on this that he does not know all these persons, and Kuan Iwu says that 72 persons built fêng monuments on Mount T‘ai, of whom he knew 12.
Now the first of these was Wuhuai, but before Wuhuai, and after the sovereign of Heaven, the chronology covers such a vast period of time that one cannot enumerate all the emperors and kings. At any rate the old books are lost, and one cannot argue it out beforehand, yet we should never say that there were no such emperors or kings.
So the ‘Spring and Autumn’ classic has it recorded that from the creation to the capture of the Lin (B.C. 481) 3,276,000 years, divided into ten epochs, have elapsed, or 370,600 years (according to some authors).
The first epoch was called that of the 9 chiefs, the 2nd the Five dragons, the 3rd Shêti (Jupiter), the 4th Holo, the 5th Lient‘ung. the 6th Hsüming, the 7th Hsiufei, the 8th Huit‘i, the 9th Shênt‘ung, and the 10th Liuchi. Now it was arranged in the time of Huangti that the Liuchi should be added to the other 9 epochs. The above is inserted here by way of supplementing the record.