From Myth to History: Historicizing a Sage for the Sake of Persuasion in the Yellow Emperor Narratives

In: Journal of Chinese Humanities

Among the many depictions of the Yellow Emperor that survive in a number of early Chinese texts, the historicized image of this purported ancient sage king has been accepted by many Chinese scholars as that of a historical figure and has greatly inspired their reconstruction of China’s remote past. In examining some of the extant Huangdi narratives, especially passages preserved in the Discourses of the States [Guoyu], Records of the Grand Historian [Shiji], and Remaining Zhou Documents [Yi Zhoushu], this paper reveals a trend of historicizing an originally mythical Yellow Emperor presented in early Chinese writings. It also explores the historiographical reasoning behind such historicization and provides an alternative approach emphasizing the role of persuasion in the Huangdi narratives.

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  • 2

    Qi Sihe 齊思和“Lun Huangdi zhi zhiqi gushi 黃帝之制器故事,” in Gushi bian 古史辨 [Debates on Ancient History] 7 (2) ed. Lü Simian 呂思勉 and Tong Shuye 童書業 (Repr. 1941 Kaiming shudian edition. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe 1982).

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  • 13

    WangGushi chuanshuo shidai xintan11-13; Zou Heng 鄒衡 Xia Shang Zhou kaoguxue lunwenji 夏商周考古學論文集 2d ed. (Beijing: Kexue chubanshe 2001) 310-312. For a discussion of the connection between the Huangdi clan and the tianyuan emblem see Guo “Yin qi cuibian” 16-22; Guo “Yin Zhou qingtongqi mingwen yanjiu” 114; Yang 1992 21-23. Another scholar Chen Ping 陳平 inspired by Su Bingqi 蘇秉琦 and others traces the origin of the Huangdi tribe even farther east. He believes that the Yellow Emperor is associated with the Hongshan 紅山 culture in northeastern China. He suggests that it was from the Hongshan cultural base that the Huangdi tribe expanded and gradually moved to the west highland becoming one of the groups later known as the Ji Zhou of Zhouyuan. He also argues that the legendary Battle of Zhuolu in present-day northern Hebei 河北 Province was caused by the westward migration of the Ji tribe out of the Hongshan culture base rather than by the expansion of the Hua Xia 華夏 ethnic groups from the west highland. See Chen Ping “Lüelun Banquan Zhuolu Dazhan qianhou Huangdi zu de lailongqumai 略論阪泉、涿鹿大戰前後黃帝族的來龍去脈” in Yan Qin wenhua yanjiu: Chenping xueshu wenji 燕秦文化研究:陳平學術文集 (Beijing: Beijing yanshan chubanshe 2003).

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  • 14

    Cf. Charles LeBlanc“A Re-Examination of the Myth of Huang-ti,” Journal of Chinese Religions 13-14 (1985-1986); Yün-hua Jan “The Change of Images: The Yellow Emperor in Ancient Chinese Literature” Journal of Oriental Studies 19 no. 2 (1981). The structuralist approach is not the focus of this paper.

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  • 15

    Yang Kuan“Zhongguo shanggushi daolun 中國上古史導論,” in Gushi bian189-199. For related arguments identifying the Yellow Emperor as Yao or Yu also see Sun Zuoyun 孫作雲 “Huangdi yu Yao zhi chuanshuo jiqi diwang 黃帝與堯之傳說及其地望” in Sun Zuoyun wenji: Zhongguo gudai shenhua chuanshuo yanjiu 孫作雲文集:中國古代神話傳說研究 (Zhengzhou: Henan daxue chubanshe 2003); Chen Mengjia 陳夢家 “Shangdai de shenhua yu wushu 商代的神話與巫術” Yanjing xuebao 20 (1936).

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  • 16

    Mark LewisSanctioned Violence in Early China (Albany: State of University of New York Press1990) 165-212.

  • 17

    Michael PuettThe Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China (Stanford: Stanford University Press2001) 92-101.

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  • 25

    Yang“Zhongguo shanggushi daolun” 195-206.

  • 29

    For an extended discussion see Zhang“Authorship and Text Making in Early China” 95-117.

  • 43

    Huang et al.Yi Zhoushu huijiao jizhu731.

  • 44

    Li Xueqin 李學勤“ ‘Changmai’ pian yanjiu《嘗麥》篇研究,” in Dangdai xuezhe zixuan wenku: Li Xueqin juan 當代學者自選文庫:李學勤卷 (Hefei: Anhui jiaoyu chubanshe1999) 575. For related information in the postscript of the Yi Zhoushu see Huang et al. Yi Zhoushu huijiao jizhu 1133.

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  • 45

    Li“ ‘Changmai’ pian yanjiu” 575.

  • 46

    “Zhao” in YangChunqiu Zuozhuan zhu6.3: 1274-1277. The strong disagreement expressed in Shu Xiang’s 叔向 letter to Zichan 子產 for the latter’s drafting of legal writings seems to suggest that at that time legal writings were rather innovative. Those earlier legal writings mentioned by Shu Xiang in his letter such as the “Punishment of Yu [Yu xing 禹刑]” the “Punishment of Tang [Tang xing 唐刑]” and the “Nine Punishment (Writings)” that Li Xueqin tends to believe as the Western Zhou legal writings make more sense to the overall debate in the Zuozhuan context if we understand them as rhetorical devices rather than historical documents.

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  • 47

    WangGushi chuanshuo shidai xintanxi-xvii; for Shao Hao’s naming of his officials see “Zhao” in Yang Chunqiu Zuozhuan zhu 17.3: 1386-1388; for the “Baoxun” bamboo strips and text see Li Xueqin ed. Qinghua daxue cang Zhanguo zhujian 清華大學藏戰國竹簡 (Shanghai: Zhongxi shuju 2010) 1: 8-9 55-62 142-148.

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  • 48

    WangGushi chuanshuo shidai xintan8-9. Here Wang Hui refers to the contents of the bronze inscriptions on the “Chenhou Yin Qi dui.” Cf. Xu ‘Chenhou siqi kaoshi”; Ding Shan 丁山 Gudai shenhua yu minzu 古代神話與民族 (Beijing: Shangwu yinshuguan 2006) 154-178; Guo “Liang Zhou jinwenci daxi kaoshi” 464-466; Wang Gushi chuanshuo shidai xintan 7-9; Mori Kōtei densetsu 149-174; Lewis Sanctioned Violence in Early China 165-212.

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  • 49

    “Zhao” in YangChunqiu Zuozhuan zhu 15.1: 1369; see both the main text of the Zuo Commentaries and the notes by Yang Bojun.

  • 52

    Huang et al.Yi Zhoushu huijiao jizhu965-966.

  • 57

    Chang“Shang Zhou shenhua zhi fenlei” 288.

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