Chinese civilization dates back 5,000 years to mythical and legendary individuals who ruled the fertile Yellow River valley of what we know today as China. These pivotal figures established the basic ethos of Chinese culture and would influence the great Axial Age thinkers of the region over 2,000 years later.
There is no historical evidence, archaeological or otherwise, that supports ancient Chinese history, from the Three Sage Kings to the end of the Hsia Dynasty. We know of only two written histories about the period in question (from 2800 BCE), but neither of these were written contemporaneously. The Records of the Grand Historian was written in the 2nd century BCE, by the Court Astrologer and historiographer Sima Qian, and the Bamboo Annals, a set of Chinese court records originally written on bamboo slips during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), the text of which is known today in two versions, a “current text” of disputed authenticity and an incomplete “ancient text.”
Whether based on historical fact or myth, the stories of these ancient monarchs held important symbolic value for the Chinese. Like the Homeric legends of Ancient Greece, these tales became a cultural memory, explaining how and why their societies evolved and providing standards by which later people could judge their own values and behavior.
The Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors 3500 BCE to 2000 BCE
Three Sage Kings, or Three August Ones, were said to be god-kings or demigods who contributed to the creation of man and animals and introduced important aspects of Chinese culture, such as agriculture, fishing, herbal medicine, music, writing, and the drinking of tea. Because of their superior virtue they lived to a great age and ruled over a long period of peace.
The Five Emperors may be thought of more as supreme beings, rather than “emperors.” The character “di” originally represented an individual more like a shaman.
There are many variations of who was classified as the Three Sovereigns or the Five Emperors. The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian states that these were:
- Fuxi – The Heavenly Sovereign – ruled for 18,000 years
- NuWa – The Earthly Sovereign – ruled for 11,000 years
- Shenong – The Human Sovereign – ruled for 45,600 years,
- The Yellow Emperor
- Emperor Zhuanxu
- Emperor Ku
- Emperor Yao
- Emperor Shun
Fu Xi (also written Fu His; pronounced “foo shee”) is first in this illustrious group. Han dynasty scholars dated his reign to the middle of the thirtieth century BCE. Today scholars call him a legendary chieftain. The story goes that Fu Xi taught “the black-haired people” (the proto-Chinese) how to hunt and fish and raise domestic animals.
Nü Wa (sometimes written Nü Ga or Nü Go) is a female protagonist in these fragments of the early stories. Sometimes she is Fu Xi’s sister, sometime his wife.
In the enigmatic Han Dynasty tomb paintings, Fu Xi and Nü Wa are shown as human figures from the waist up with intertwined snakes’ tails and a child between them. By this time Nuwa and Fuji are described as the first of the Three August Ones and Five Emperors, and often called the “parents of humankind.”
One story makes Nü Wa the creator of humankind. As she wandered the pristine earth still devoid of people, Nü Wa felt lonely, so she mixed earth and water to fashion figures out of mud in her own likeness, and then brought them to life to keep her company.
The best-known story is called “Nü Wa Patches the Sky.” Two gods were fighting across heaven and earth. The defeated god, in anger, struck his head against a mountain and caused one of the pillars holding up the sky to collapse. The sky broke and cataclysms followed on earth: earthquakes, forest fires, floods welling up from the earth, rampages by ferocious animals against the human beings.
Nü Wa melted down various kinds of colored stones in a crucible, and patched the hole in the sky. She killed a giant tortoise and used its legs to prop up the fallen part of the sky. She put an end to the floods ravaging the earth and killed a dragon to overawe the beasts and put an end to their attacks on humans.
Shen Nong (also written Shen Nung; shen sounds like the English word shun, and the o in nong sounds like oo in foot) came after Fu Xi. He is said to have reigned for more than a hundred years, beginning in the 29th century BCE.
The name “Shen Nong” translates as “Spirit Farmer.” He was the inventor of agriculture and made the first plow. He founded the first market centers and showed the people how to trade with each other for mutual advantage. He made exhaustive studies of the plant world and discovered the medicinal properties of many herbs. In later legends he is the discoverer of tea.
Huangdi – The Yellow Emperor – Circa 2698–2598 BCE
The first of the Five Emperors was the Yellow Emperor (in Chinese: Huangdi, pronounced “hwahng dee”) who arrived on the scene eight generations after Shen Nong. He came to power by defeating a corrupt king and winning the allegiance of all the powerful lords. He went on to reign for a hundred years. Many of the Yellow Emperor stories are about his wars with rival chieftains who tried to invade his territories.
The Yellow Emperor was seen by later generations as the paragon of a ruler. He chose to surround himself with talented advisors, whatever their background, who are credited with many epoch-making achievements. They developed mathematics and astronomy, and established the historical calendar based on a sixty-year cycle. They invented a system of writing and promulgated a code of written laws, and invented the classical musical scales. They improved techniques of building and tool-making, and invented new measuring instruments.
The Yellow Emperor’s name is attached to the most ancient Chinese medical text, which presents discussions between the Emperor and his court physician on the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. His wife Lei Zu devised the techniques of rearing silk worms and weaving cloth from silk.
Zhuanxu – Mythical Reign Circa 2514–2436 BCE
Emperor Zhuanxu was the grandson of the Yellow Emperor, and claimed as the founder of the Qin Dynasty and an ancestor by many of the subsequent dynasties. He ruled for seventy-eight years until his death. He made contributions to a unified calendar and to astrology; initiated religion reforms to oppose shamanism; and forbade close-kin marriage.
Kù, Circa 2436–2366 BCE
When Ku was selected by his uncle, the Emperor Zhuanxu, to become an advisor and inherited his uncle’s throne 15 years later, when he was only 30.
His reputation was of a virtuous, righteous, and humble man, one whose actions were always just, and who treated all his people equally. The Emperor also had great respect for both the Gods in Heaven and the Underworld, often praying to them in return for prosperity of his people. Under his rule, his people lived happy lives.
The Emperor Ku was said to be extremely fond of music. Under his auspices, musicians created many famous musical pieces and invented several new musical instruments. We are told that rare birds such as the phoenix often gathered in his palace to join in musical events. He was said to travel by riding a dragon in spring and summer, and a horse in autumn and winter. He was father to the next Emperor, Yao.
Yao, Circa 2350 BCE
When the later Confucian political philosophers discussed their ancient history they always invoked Yao (rhymes with “wow”) and Shun (“shwoon,” with oo as in foot). Han dynasty scholars placed these individuals in the 24th and 23rd centuries BCE.
Yao focused on building political cohesion. He strengthened the bonds between the clans and lineages, and created harmony among the villages and towns, so that “the black-haired people were satisfied and at peace.” He appointed people to study astronomy and calculate the calendar that regulated the seasonal activities of the population. His reputation was encapsulated by the historians thus: “He extended virtue from himself to the world at large.”
Yao inherited the throne from his father and older brother, but he is remembered above all for how he arranged for his power to be passed on. Knowing that his own son was unworthy of leadership, Yao selected a virtuous and talented common man to succeed him – this was Shun. Yao spent thirty years shaping Shun into a worthy successor, entrusting him with many difficult political tasks. Finally Yao abdicated in his favor and Shun became emperor.
Shun, Circa 2250 BCE
Shun campaigned against “the barbarians” within his territories, people who did not follow a settled agricultural way of life, and expelled them to the remote borderlands of the realm. As a ruler he was known for promoting to positions of authority only people of integrity and simple conduct – fair-minded, public spirited, compassionate, wise and harmonious people.
One of the stories of Shun – told by a philosopher against him! – tells of his leadership style. There was a farming village troubled by land disputes, so Shun went there to live among the people as a farmer. In a year the boundary conflicts ceased. There was a fishing village wracked by quarrels over fishing rights along the riverbank; Shun went there to live as a fisherman. In a year the quarreling ended and an orderly system of sharing was in place. There was a village of potters whose wares were misshapen, and Shun went there and lived a year as a potter, after that the pottery from the village was made correctly.
Yao and Shun were greatly revered over the centuries. Unlike the others, they performed no miracles or amazing feats, but governed their people by virtue of their exemplary behavior. According to The Canon of Yao and Shun, Yao “was reverent, intelligent, accomplished, sincere and mild. He was sincerely respectful and capable of modesty.” Shun was noted for his self-control and moderation. When Yao consulted the gods about his successor, Shun was described as “the son of a blind man. His father is stupid, his mother deceitful, his half brother Xiang is arrogant. Yet he has been able to live in harmony with them and be splendidly filial. He has controlled himself and has not come to wickedness.”
In the chaos of the Axial Age Yao and Shun were seen as paragons of virtue who had established a golden age of peace.
Karen Armstrong says in The Great Transformation, “Their legend in the Classic of Documents was clearly a tacit criticism of rule based on force and coercion and inherited by dynastic succession. Instead of clinging to their own status and prestige, Yao and Shun had both put the good of the people before their natural preferences. They were the archetypal models, who exemplified the moderation, modesty, self-control, and reverence that the li were supposed to cultivate. The legend of Yao and Shun continued to be an inspiration when the political life of China became even more self-serving and ruthless. The Axial sages would argue that every single human being had the potential to become like these great men.”
Like Yao before him, Shun found that his own son was not qualified to rule, so he passed the throne to his best official, Yu (rhymes with French vu), often known as “Yu the Great.”
Yu the Great (Dayu), Circa 2200–2101 BCE
His rule began in 2205 BCE, a time of periodic torrential floods. Under Shun, Gun (the father of Yu) adopted a method of building banks with soil and blocking the holes to control the water but this no longer worked. Yu was ordered to succeed his father in attempting to control the floods. Drawing from his father’s experiences, he found a way of digging channels to conduct water to the sea. After thirteen years of struggle he finally resolved the problem. Then he organized people to develop agriculture by fully utilizing water and soil. With his son’s help he taught people how to plant rice and other crops and to breed fish, ducks and geese.
Yu is admired not only for his unremitting endeavors to fight against the unpredictable forces of nature but also for forgetting his own interests in order to help other people. Leaving home just four days after his marriage, he did not return for thirteen years, although it is said that he passed by three times.
When Yu died the people acclaimed his son as ruler, which began the practice of hereditary succession. Yu is counted as the first ruler of the Xia Dynasty (also written “Hsia,” sounds like “she-yah,” and means “Summer”), the first dynasty in the traditional reckoning.
The Xia Dynasty, Circa 2205–1766 BCE
The Xia Dynasty began with virtue and wisdom, and ended with the rule of Jie who was decadent and cruel.
Jie (also written Chieh, pronounced “je-yeh”) was Yu’s antithesis – a tyrant and self-aggrandizing ruler obsessed with power. Jie was a highly intelligent man and very strong physically. He launched one war after another to force the neighboring rulers to pay tribute. He lived in a grandiose palace and dispatched his henchmen to all corners of the realm to bring back rare treasures and exceptionally beautiful girls. He spent his days feasting and wasted food on a grotesque scale. His residence was built so high that it became known as the Tottering Palace.
Jie’s advisors tried to warn him that he was wasting the people’s resources and endangering the realm, but he silenced them by terror, declaring that he was invincible and the whole world belonged to him. He staged arbitrary mutilations to demonstrate his authority. The people hated him and prayed for his downfall, which finally came at the hands of a warlord who had put together a new coalition in a neighboring area and moved to attack him. Jie maintained his arrogant, self-deluded style right up to the day of his defeat. It is said that he took his court ladies to observe the final battle from a hilltop, saying it would be amusing, like watching a hunt.
In 1766 BC, after four hundred years of rule, the Hsia dynasty was overthrown by Tang, who began a new dynasty, the Shang.
Historians note that the Shang dynasty was itself believed to be mythological until written evidence was found in the 1920’s. So we may yet learn that China’s Golden Age of peace and prosperity under wise and virtuous rulers did in fact exist.
The Shang Dynasty 1600–1045 BCE
Around 1750 BCE, 3,750 years ago, the Yellow River basin was unified under the rule of a warrior aristocracy, known as the Shang people, whose first king was Tang. At this time a network of very small towns, each governed by a representative of the royal household, was organized into a kingdom clustered around the great river.
From King Tang to King Zhou, the Shang Dynasty lasted nearly 600 years, having 30 emperors through 17 generations, and with the Shang Chinese history finally emerges from the shadows of legend and folklore.
Since total solidarity among clan members was absolutely necessary for the Shang Kingdom to remain unified and survive, they defeated or made alliances with rival lords, appointed their own clansmen as military overseers, and brought the whole region under their central control.
The earliest written records of Chinese history are from this Shang period. Luckily for historians, divination was an important part of their culture, used for both political and religious purposes. Over 100,000 fragments of oracle bones have been found left over from the divination ceremonies of the Shang royal courts. These bones or shells were inscribed with questions and then heated causing cracks to appear on their surface. The cracks were interpreted, presumably by specialist interpreters, and once an answer was obtained the procedure was repeated several times to ensure accuracy and the final answer engraved on the bone or shell.
They record queries made by powerful people and pose questions such as:
“Shall we launch an expedition against the Yi?”
“Should we marry a princess from the Rong?”
“Will the rain cause disaster or not?”
“Should the King make an alliance with Lord A against Lord B?”
“Will God approve if we build a village there?”
“Will the Queen give birth to a son?”
Significant events were also noted in some inscriptions:
“On such-and-such a day, the chariot and horses of the petty official Q collided with the king’s chariot, and the driver was knocked out.”
Here’s one noting the success of a diviner:
“Diviner Y made an oracle on day D that the upcoming ten-day period T would be unlucky, and two days later the King was injured.”
The dating of the bones varies but the majority of them stem from the late Shang Dynasty: 1250 to 1046 BCE.
From these inscribed fragments we know that the Shang believed heaven and earth to be co-terminous realms, both immediately available to human beings. The Divine Realm paralleled the Earthly Realm, each with their court, minions and assistants. A great task of the King was to maintain harmony between these realms because the well-being of everyone depended on it.
The Great God, Shang Di – the Lord Supreme, was served by lesser gods like the sun, the moon, the wind, rain and other natural forces. In common with Indo-Aryan and other pre-Axial societies, the Chinese turned to these lesser gods for help with their problems, harvest, health and hunting and military campaigns. Their pantheon included even lesser local Gods, whose power was confined to a city or village. Typical too of pre-Axial cultures, the bone inscriptions reveal that these early Chinese were only concerned with what the deities could do for them. The gods desired sacrifices and tributes and in return they gave people the divine assistance they needed in worldly matters. There are no expressions of feeling towards the gods and no evidence that the gods were at all concerned with the moral behavior of human beings.
Filial piety, responsibility and the reverence of parents was an important aspect of Shang culture. The concept is that since children are greatly indebted to their parents for giving them life, the only possible response to this is reverence, which continued long after a parent’s death. Ancestors existed in the spirit world and exerted their influence on living family members. They were consulted on important family matters and honored with sacrifices; in turn they would mediate with the gods on behalf of the living relatives. The king’s ancestors had great influence over the king and were able to mediate between him and Shang Di, the Lord Supreme. Kings would serve as the head of ancestor and spirit-worship. Evidence from excavations of royal tombs indicates that royal members were buried with articles of value, presumably for use in the afterlife. Perhaps for the same reason, sites have been found where hundreds of commoners, who may have been slaves, were buried alive with the royal corpse.
In 1928 an unwalled city that was the Shang capital in about 1200 BCE was found with remains of what apparently was a royal palace and several royal tombs containing precious bronze vessels and jade, chariots, animal and human sacrifices; including a large trove of inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells. These provide examples of thousands of symbols of the earliest Chinese writing, and show that writing was by this time already well developed.
Ghosts were also part of the unseen world, usually understood to be the malevolent spirits of the dead who had not been properly buried. (Greeks had the same idea: ghosts would haunt them until they were given a proper burial.)
De, which would become an important concept for Chinese Axial Age thinkers, was mentioned on many of these inscribed fragments. At this time in Chinese history, it referred to a power that was generated within a person who acted generously or kindly to a god or human being. Unusual for a pre-Axial idea, it was the inner disposition or attitude within the act that was important for De to manifest. People who committed many of these acts accumulated De; thus virtuous people were regarded as strong people, and those who were recipients of their compassionate acts were believed to feel indebted to the person in return; as a result, they would want to respond with a similar act of kindness.
“The Chinese called this desire to respond to an act of kindness bao. Thus virtue carried with it the power to affect the lives of others in a virtuous way. Your virtuous act towards me encourages my virtue, prompting me to act kindly. De and Bao were regarded as being causally connected in the nature of things. They weren’t viewed as psychological phenomenon but as natural phenomenon. Operating as surely as we think of the way gravity works, or the way Indians view the function of karma.” writes Professor Mark W. Muesse in Religions of the Axial Age: An Approach to the World’s Religions.
Shang culture was mainly based on agriculture, animal husbandry and hunting. During this period, many people were captured in war and reduced to slavery, and even among the free commoners, forced mobilizations for large building projects are thought to have been the norm. It is said that the Shang system organized the common people by occupation and craft into supervised groups.
The prime status symbol of the Shang aristocrat was a war-chariot, the embodiment of warrior power. Shang warriors used bronze weapons and used elaborate bronze ceremonial objects to mark their legitimacy. Bronze takes a sharper edge than stone and a bronze blade is less fragile than a stone blade. Bronze casting and pottery advanced during the Shang dynasty, with bronze being used for art as well as weapons. Other advances included the invention of many musical instruments, and observations of Mars and various comets by Shang astronomers.
The Shang Dynasty saw its demise as the kingdom’s elite, the groups of local warlords responsible for the defense of the area and for the collection of taxes to be delivered to the king, gradually sought their own power. This eventually lead to decentralization and political weakness. By the end of the Shang Dynasty several warlords had created their own personal fiefdoms. Finally the last Shang Ruler, Shang Zhou, committed suicide after his army was defeated by the Zhou.
Responsibility for the balance and harmony, so important to the Chinese culture, had fallen in great measure to the King, thus politics and religion were closely connected. Typical of pre-Axial times, these rituals focused on the harmony and well-being of society as a whole, with no thought of the individual. But as the Axial Age in China approaches this will begin to change.