The Three August Ones and Five Emperors (Chinese: 三皇五帝; pinyin: sānhuáng wǔdì, Wade-Giles: san-huang wu-ti) were mythological rulers of China during the period preceding the Xia dynasty from 2500 BC to 2205 BC.
The Three August Ones
The Three August Ones, sometimes known as the Three Sovereigns, were said to be god-kings or demigods who used their magical powers 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.
The Three August Ones are ascribed various identities in different Chinese historical texts. The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian states that they were:
- The Heavenly King (天皇), who ruled for 18,000 years
- The Earthly King (地皇), who ruled for 11,000 years
- The Human King (泰皇 or 人皇), who ruled for 45,600 years
The Yundou shu (運斗樞) and Yuanming bao (元命苞) identify them as:
Fuxi and Nüwa are the god and goddess husband and wife credited with being the ancestors of humankind after a devastating flood and Shennong is the god who invented farming and is the first to use herb for medical use.
The Shangshu dazhuan (尚書大傳) and Baihu tongyi (白虎通義) replace Nüwa with Suiren (燧人), the inventor of fire. The Diwang shiji (帝王世紀) replaces Nüwa with the Yellow Emperor (黄帝), the supposed ancestor of all Chinese people.
The Five Emperors
The Five Emperors were legendary, morally perfect sage-kings. According to the Records of the Grand Historian they were:
Yao and Shun are also known as the Two Emperors, and, along with Yu (禹), founder of the Xia dynasty, were considered to be model rulers and moral examplars by Neo-Confucians in later Chinese history. The Shangshu xu (尚書序) and Diwang shiji include Shaohao (少昊) instead of the Yellow Emperor.
The Song of Chu (楚辭) identifies the Five Emperors as directional gods:
- Shaohao (east)
- Zhuanxu (north)
- Yellow Emperor (centre)
- Shennong (west)
- Fuxi (south)
The Book of Rites (禮記) equates the Five Emperors with the Five Lineages (五氏), which comprise:
- Youchao-shi (有巢氏)
- Suiren-shi (燧人氏)
- Fuxi (伏羲氏)
- Nüwa (女媧氏)
- Shennong (神農氏)
The first historical emperor of China was Qin Shi Huang, who coined a new term for "emperor" (huangdi) by combining the titles of "august one" (huang) and "sage-king" (di).