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East Asia

Literally, ‘yellow emperor’. Patron saint of all Taoists. Though the most ancient of the legendary emperors, Huang-ti was in fact among the last to be invented, not appearing in Chinese mythology till the fourth century bc. He is invariably associated with Lao-tzu.

In the Book of Lieh-tzu, the composition of which may be later than 100 bc, there is a large section devoted to Huang-ti, whose reign was troubled after fifteen years. While his subjects rejoiced in his benevolence, the Yellow Emperor ‘amused his eyes and ears, pampered his nostrils and mouth, till his complexion became sallow and his dulled senses were stupefied’. Another fifteen years on the throne, amid growing disorder, and ‘his face was haggard and pale, and his dulled senses more stupefied’. Whereupon, he decided to leave decisions of state to his ministers, dismissed his attendants, simplified his daily routine, and took up residence ‘in a hut in his main courtyard, where he fasted to discipline body and mind’. One day he fell asleep and dreamed of the kingdom of Hua-hsu, mother of the mythical ruler Fu Hsi. The kingdom ‘was beyond the reach of ship or chariot or any mortal foot. Only the soul could travel so far.’ It was an ideal state, ‘without head or ruler; it simply went on of itself. Its people were without desires or cravings; they simply followed their natural instincts. They felt neither joy in life nor abhorrence in death, so none of them died before his time. They felt neither attachment to self nor indifference to others; thus they were exempt from love and hatred alike…. They rode space as though walking the solid earth, and slept on the air as though on their beds. Clouds and mists did not hinder their sight, thunder did not stun their ears, beauty and ugliness did not disturb their hearts, mountains and valleys did not trip their feet—for they made only journeys of the spirit.’

On waking Huang-ti assembled his ministers and said that The Way, Tao, ‘cannot be sought through the senses. I know it, I have found it, but I cannot tell it to you.’ After another twenty-eight years on the throne, when there was orderliness in his kingdom almost equalling that in Hua-hsu's, Huang-ti rose into the sky as a hsien, an immortal. The people bewailed him for 200 years without intermission.

This legend of the wonderful emperor, whose long reign was a veritable golden age, is used here an an illustration of wisdom. Huang-ti attained to perfection, within and without. He is also the cultural founder hero. Apart from subduing rebels–once represented as a monster with an iron head, bronze brow, hair bristling like swords and spears, and the body of an ox, with six arms, each having eight fingers—the Yellow Emperor introduced governmental institutions. Some traditions credit him with the invention of the compass and coined money, which replaced cowrie shells as the medium of exchange, while his wife excelled in sericulture and the domestic arts. When his chief minister first devised written signs, ‘all the spirits cried out in agony, as the innermost secrets of Nature were thus revealed’.


Subjects: Religion.

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