Legendary Founding of China by Huangdi

According to legend, Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, founded the country that became China and served as an ancestor to the Chinese people.

Summary of Event

Although Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, is a legendary rather than a historical figure, the beliefs and innovations attributed to him have had a very real and formative effect on Chinese culture and tradition. There is a vast network of tales about Huangdi that includes various contradictory accounts, and those legends continue to inform and vitalize Chinese life. Huangdi

In East Asia: The Great Tradition (1960), Edwin O. Reischauer and John K. Fairbank place Huangdi in context in the legendary account of early China as follows:

In the beginning there was the creator, P’an-ku [Pangu]. Then followed three series of brothers—twelve Celestial Sovereigns, eleven Terrestrial Sovereigns, and nine Human Sovereigns—representing collectively the triad of Chinese thought: heaven, earth, and man. These three groups were either themselves known as the Three Huang or, in other accounts, they were followed by three individual sovereigns so designated. These in turn were followed by the Five Ti, who included the Yellow Emperor (Huang Ti) and the model rulers, Yao and Shun.

Huangdi, Yao, and Shun played important parts in the religious and moral lives of the Chinese, who have created a way of life that draws from three traditions: Daoism (Taoism), Confucianism, and Buddhism. Huangdi, who appears in a significant number of stories in the works of Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), is forever linked with Daoism, and Yao and Shun serve as the models against which all rulers are measured in Confucianism. Huangdi’s importance in Daoism can be seen in the fact that when the yin-yang school, which was originally a separate school rather than a part of Daoism, merged the teachings of Huangdi and the teachings of Laozi (Lao Tzu) in the second century b.c.e., the resulting school became known as Huang-Lao. Confucianism and Daoism grew out of Chinese culture, while Buddhism, which originated in India, entered the country at a later date. Buddhism grew rapidly in China and ultimately became hugely influential.

Many versions of the story of Huangdi’s origins exist. In one, Huangdi is said to have been born from the combined energies that created the world. However, most stories hold that Huangdi was the leader of a prehistoric tribe that lived in the Yellow (Huang) River Valley. The dates of his life and death (c. 2704-c. 2600 b.c.e.) are traditionally given as 2697-2597 or 2674-2575. Various tribes lived in the Yellow River Valley at that time, and they periodically engaged in wars to extend their territories. Huangdi came to believe that he must put an end to the chaotic and violent situation.

In one legend, Huangdi originally shared power in his tribe with his half brother, Yandi (or Yangdi), who ruled unjustly. Huangdi defeated Yandi and consolidated his power in the tribe. He also formulated a moral code for his people to follow and engaged in raising and thoroughly training an army. In a long series of battles, largely as a result of his careful preparation, he defeated his enemies and became the leader of a group of unified tribes.

The Yellow Emperor’s tribe engaged in farming and exalted the fruits of the earth above all things. The word huang, which means “yellow,” is associated with the tribe because yellow is the color of the earth. The Yellow Emperor is the ruler of farming and of the earth, and legend has it that before his birth, the populations of worms and mole crickets increased dramatically, a portent of the favorable effects that his rule would have on Earth.

According to legend, Huangdi set out during his rule to examine and reform almost every area of Chinese life. It was his idea to create family surnames, and he determined that the surname should precede the personal name. That order still prevails in China. He also divided his territory into provinces. In addition, he created writing, therefore propelling China out of the era of prehistory and into the historical era. Among his other inventions were the potter’s wheel and the south-pointing chariot. The south-pointing chariot was a vehicle that carried a wooden figure that always pointed south. Huangdi had created a compass. Huangdi is also thought to have been the first to coin bronze money, and he invented the cart as well as the boat. In innumerable ways, Huangdi’s ways of doing things became the Chinese ways of doing things.

Inventions were not limited to Huangdi. His wife, Leizu (Si Ling-Chi), is said to have performed an extremely important act when she introduced sericulture, the making of silk from silkworms, to China. Since that time, China has been known for its high-quality silk. Many of Huangdi’s subjects were reportedly inspired to create by observing the creativity displayed by the emperor and empress. Among the inspired were Cang Jie (Ts’ang Chieh), who is credited with the creating of pictographs; Ling Lun, who established the twelve-tone scale in music; and Li Shou, the creator of an array of measuring instruments.

Although generally the legendary figure Pangu, the parts of whose body became the parts of Earth on his death, is considered the first man in Chinese culture, Huangdi is sometimes said to have created the human race. According to tradition, he created earthenware figures and placed them in the four directions, leaving them there for three hundred years so they could be animated by the breath of the world’s beginning. When the statues had been sufficiently affected, they became able to move and speak. In this way, the human race was born.

One of the most important contributions Huangdi is said to have made to Chinese culture is the founding of traditional Chinese medicine. The medical work attributed to him, although compiled after his death, Huangdi nei jing su wen (compiled c. 300 b.c.e.; The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, 1949), contains concepts of medical theory and practice that served as the foundation for the entire structure of Chinese medicine. The work is still studied by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine throughout the world.

Daoists associate Huangdi with the tradition of the Daoist Immortals. According to tradition, when Huangdi traveled to the sacred mountains, he encountered the Daoist master Kuan Cheng (K’uan Ch’eng), who instructed him in realizing the Dao. According to the Zhuangzi (traditionally c. 300 b.c.e., probably compiled c. 285-160 b.c.e.; The Divine Classic of Nan-hua, 1881; also known as The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, 1968; commonly known as Zhuangzi, 1991), Kuan Cheng instructed Huangdi as follows:

See nothing; hear nothing; let your soul be wrapped in quiet, and your body will begin to take proper form. Let there be absolute repose and absolute purity; do not weary your body nor disturb your vitality—and you will live forever. For if the eye sees nothing and the ear hears nothing, and the mind thinks nothing the soul will preserve the body and the body will live forever.

At age 100, Huangdi reportedly developed magical powers and produced the golden elixir of immortality. He attained immortality on Qing Mountain. One story has it that when Huangdi was 110, the king of heaven sent a yellow dragon to bring Huangdi to heaven. As Huangdi was about to ride off on the dragon, his distraught subjects, not wishing him to leave, clutched at his clothes and tried to drag him back to earth. They failed in stopping him but were left with part of his clothing and his hat. They buried all that they had left of Huangdi at Mount Qiaoshan in Shaanxi, and they built a mausoleum there in his honor.


The vast network of legends surrounding the legendary Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, has served as the basis for the growth and development of Chinese culture. In virtually every area of life, the beliefs, practices, and innovations attributed to Huangdi have determined the direction and shape of Chinese culture.

In his role as a major figure in Daoism, the Yellow Emperor served to shape the Chinese worldview. With the exception of Laozi, no figure in Daoism is more significant than Huangdi, who is the subject of various stories in the works of Zhuangzi.

Further Reading

  • Chan, Wing-Tsit, comp. and trans. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963. This volume is perhaps the finest single-volume study of its subject.
  • De Bary, Theodore, Wing-Tsit Chan, and Burton Watson, comps. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. A collection of writings explicating a wide range of Chinese thought.
  • Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid. The Shambhala Dictionary of Taoism. Translated by Werner Wünsche. Boston: Shambhala, 1996. An essential reference work for anyone interested in any aspect of Daoism.
  • Huangdi. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Translated by Ilza Veith. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. A translation of the classic volume attributed to Huangdi that serves as the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as it is still practiced.
  • Reischauer, Edwin O., and John K. Fairbank. East Asia: The Great Tradition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960. A succinct and insightful examination of the histories and traditions of China, Korea, and Japan.
  • Zhuangzi. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. A fine translation of the second most important work in Daoism. An excellent source of legends about Huangdi.

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