China’s Semilegendary Period: Preliminary Orientations and Legendary Conflicts

King Zhu of the Shang Dynasty Lights the Signal Beacons, a Perspective Picture / Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Archaeological discoveries over the past several decades have suddenly infused life into previously shadowy remnants of ancient Chinese civilization.

By Dr. Ralph D. Sawyer
Senior Research Fellow
University of Massachusetts


When warriors battle over territory, slaughtering each other until they fill the fields or fight over a city until the battlements are filled with the dead, it should be termed devouring human flesh for the sake of terrain. Death is an inadequate punishment for such crimes. Those who excel in warfare should suffer the most extreme punishment, those who entangle states in combative alliances the next greatest. If the ruler of a state loves benevolence, he will be without enemies everywhere under Heaven.


Mencius, as depicted in the album Half Portraits of the Great Sage and Virtuous Men of Old (至聖先賢半身像) / National Palace Museum, China, Wikimedia Commons

FOR TWENTY-FIVE HUNDRED YEARS China has viewed the late prehistoric era as an ideal age marked by commonality of interest within clans and external harmony among peoples. This vision of a golden era, nurtured by the sagacious legendary rulers known as the Yellow Emperor, Yao, Shun, and Yü, was fervently embraced by the intellectual persuasions that came to be known as Taoist and Confucian, although from radically different perspectives and with rather contradictory objectives. Confucian literati-officials in Imperial China did not merely believe that Virtue alone had subjugated the recalcitrant, but also vociferously promoted its efficacy to thwart military solutions to external threats. An essentially pacifistic yearning, it would shape much of China’s military heritage and frequently preclude aggressive action and adequate preparation, however dire the need.1 Yet it was a severely distorted image that conveniently ignored the Yellow Emperor’s storied military activity and the great feats wrought by Kings T’ang of the Shang and Wu of the Chou, unquestioned paragons of righteousness who still had to strive mightily to suppress the wicked.

The numerous viewpoints and diverse conceptions formulated over the centuries included a less optimistic, more realistic understanding that posited warfare as innate and deemed turmoil and conflict inescapable, although it would never dominate the intellectual terrain or prevail in court discussions.2 Despite encompassing highly disparate materials and a few contradictions, the classic military writings compiled in the Warring States period perceive the “golden age of antiquity” rather differently. The recently recovered Sun Pin Ping-fa characterizes the legendary era as a time when warfare, not virtue, wrought peace:3

At the time when Yao possessed All under Heaven there were seven tribes who dishonored the king’s edicts and did not put them into effect. There were the two Yi (in the east) and four others in the central states. It was not possible for Yao to be at ease and realize the advantages of governing All under Heaven. Only after he was victorious in battle and his strength was established did All under Heaven submit.

In antiquity Shen Nung did battle with the Fu and Sui; the Yellow Emperor did battle with Ch’ih Yu at Shu-lü; Yao attacked Kung Kung; Shun attacked Ch’e and drove off the Three Miao; T’ang of the Shang deposed Chieh of the Hsia; King Wu of the Chou attacked Emperor Hsin of the Shang; and the Duke of Chou obliterated the remnant state of Shang-yen when it rebelled.

Immersed in an age of unremitting warfare that saw untold combatants slain and numerous states extinguished, Sun Pin concluded that virtue had not only proven insufficient in the past, but also remained fundamentally unattainable:

If someone’s virtue is not like that of the Five Emperors, his ability does not reach that of the Three Kings, nor his wisdom match that of the Duke of Chou, yet he says, “I want to accumulate benevolence and righteousness, practice the rites and music, and wear flowing robes and thereby prevent conflict and seizure,” it is not that Yao and Shun did not want this, but that they could not attain it. Therefore, they mobilized the military to constrain the evil.4

Sun Pin deemed conflict to be innate and warfare inescapable: “Now being endowed with teeth and mounting horns, having claws in front and spurs in back, coming together when happy, fighting when angry, this is the Tao of Heaven, it cannot be stopped.”5 Despite its ostensibly Taoist perspective, the eclectic Huai-nan Tzu essentially seconded his belief:

Now as for the beasts of blood and ch’i, who have teeth and mount horns, or have claws in front and spurs in back: those with horns butt, those with teeth bite, those with poison sting, and those with hooves kick. When happy, they play with each other; when angry, they harm each other. This is Heavenly nature.

Men have a desire for food and clothes, but things are insufficient to supply them. Thus they group together in diverse places. When the division of things is not equitable, they fervently seek them and conflict arises. When there is conflict, the strong will coerce the weak and the courageous will encroach upon the fearful. Since men do not have the strength of sinews and bone, the sharpness of claws and teeth, they cut leather to make armor, and smelt iron to make blades.6

Hsün-tzu, a late Warring States period philosopher simplistically remembered for his assertion that human nature is inherently evil, identified human desire as the root cause of conflict: “Men are born with desires. When their desires are unsatisfied they cannot but seek to fulfill them. When they seek without measure or bound, they cannot but be in conflict. When conflict arises, there is chaos; with chaos, there is poverty.”7 Conversely, the authors of another late Warring States eclectic work believed that individual weakness in the face of natural and human threats constituted the very basis for social order:

Human nature is such that nails and teeth are inadequate for protection, flesh and skin inadequate to ward off the cold and heat, sinews and bones inadequate to pursue profit and avoid harm, courage and daring inadequate to repulse the fierce and stop the violent. Yet men still regulate the myriad things, control the birds and beasts, and overcome the wild cats while cold and heat, dryness and dampness cannot harm them. Isn’t it only because they first make preparations and group together?

When groups assemble they can profit each other. When profit (advantage) derives from the group, the Tao of the ruler has been established. Thus when the Tao of the ruler has been established, advantage proceeds from groups and all human preparations can be completed.8

Social order is thus envisioned as having been forcefully imposed by conscientious men of wisdom, the legendary Sage emperors, rather than engendered by radiant Virtue. As Hsün-tzu notes, constraints had to be formulated:

The former kings hated their chaos, so they regulated the li (rites and forms of social behavior) and music in order to divide them, nourish the people’s desires, supply what the people seek, and ensure that desire does not become exhausted in things, nor things bent under desire.9

Even the somewhat esoteric Huai-nan Tzu conceded that the existence of evil compelled the primal leaders to resort to harsh measures:

In antiquity, men who were greedy, obtuse, and avaricious destroyed and pillaged all under Heaven. The myriad people were disturbed and moved, none could be at peace in their place. Sages suddenly arose to punish the strong and brutal and pacify the chaotic age. They eliminated danger and got rid of the corrupt, turning the muddy into the clear and danger into peace.10

Their actions assumed an outwardly directed martial form but were not undertaken for personal profit:

When the ancients employed the military it was not to profit from broadening their lands or coveting the acquisition of gold and jade. It was to preserve those about to perish, continue the severed, pacify the chaotic under Heaven, and eliminate the harm affecting the myriad people.11

With slight variation, most of the classic military writings justify undertaking military campaigns solely for the purpose of protecting the state from aggression and rescuing the people from any suffering that might be inflicted by brutal oppressors:

Taking benevolence as the foundation and employing righteousness to govern constituted uprightness in antiquity. However, when uprightness failed to attain the desired objectives, they resorted to authority. Authority comes from warfare, not from harmony among men.

For this reason, if one must kill people to give peace to the people, then killing is permissible. If one must attack a state out of love for their people, then attacking it is permissible. If one must stop war with war, although it is war, it is permissible.12

The ancient sages did not just rectify the disorder about them, but also created the very means for waging war:

Those who lacked Heavenly weapons provided them themselves. This was an affair of extraordinary men. The Yellow Emperor created swords and imagized military formations upon them. Yi created bows and crossbows and imagized strategic power on them. Yü created boats and carts and imagized tactical changes on them. T’ang and Wu made long weapons and imagized the strategic imbalance of power on them.13

The legendary cultural heroes had thus been compelled to decisively thwart chaos and quell disorder to preserve the populace. However, as the military writings emphasize, their approach equally entailed the pursuit of righteousness, cultivation of virtue, and implementation of measures intended to mitigate the people’s suffering and improve their welfare. This devolution from a tranquil, ideal age prompted the authors of Huang-shih Kung’s Three Strategies to assert: “The Sage King does not take any pleasure in using the army. He mobilizes it to execute the violently perverse and to rectify the rebellious. The army is an inauspicious implement and the Tao of Heaven abhors it. However, when its use is unavoidable it accords with the Tao of Heaven.”14 This is a highly complex, essentially contradictory situation, because “the Tao of Heaven abhors it,” yet conflict similarly expresses “the Tao of Heaven” and “cannot be stopped.” Warfare is thus paradoxically inescapable and, in many views including that of Confucius himself, a crucial human endeavor for which training and preparation are required.15

The Semilegendary Period

Large bronze head with protruding eyes believed to depict those of Cancong, the semi-legendary first king of Shu / Sanxingdui Museum

Archaeological discoveries over the past several decades have suddenly infused life into previously shadowy remnants of ancient Chinese civilization, validating many early assertions about the Shang and nominally substantiating, with appropriate allowance for interpretative frameworks and the effects of millennia, vague images of the Hsia and the legendary period. In addition, many traditional battle tales that attained a life of their own within popular culture deserve recounting irrespective of their historical inaccuracy. Scholarly audiences apart, countless generations across the ages, even emperors and generals, accepted their historicity, as does much of the Chinese populace today.16 Moreover, despite the concept and portraits of the Five Emperors being generally acknowledged as having been radically shaped, if not actually created, in the Warring States period, it has still been argued that mythical tales embody events and reflect significant developments in the course of Chinese civilization, including warfare, and can be parsed and scrutinized for clues and insights. Texts considered to be late fabrications, such as the Shang Shu’s“Canon of Yao,” are similarly seen as valuable repositories of vestigial memory and therefore well worth detailed—synonymous with “imaginative”—pondering.17

According to early writings and traditional belief, the most famous legendary battles arose between the great progenitor known as the Yellow Emperor and two powerful opponents: first Yen Ti, the Red Emperor, and then Ch’ih Yu, a tribal leader thought to have served as one of the Red Emperor’s officials before he rebelled. As depicted in the monumental Shih Chi, China’s first synthetic history, the Yellow Emperor was a judicious commander as well as a cultural paragon:

The Yellow Emperor, a descendant of the Shao-tien clan, was surnamed Kung-sun and named Hsüan-yüan. When he was born his spirit was already penetrating; while an infant he could speak; as a child he could reply intelligently; and when growing up he was substantial and acute, as brilliant as an adult.

Shen Nung’s clan was in decline in Hsüan-yüan’s time. The various lords encroached upon each other and acted brutally and perversely toward the hundred surnames.18 Shen Nung’s clan was unable to chastise them. Thereupon Hsüan-yüan practiced employing shields and halberds in order to conduct punitive expeditions against those who would not offer their fealty. The various lords all came to submit, as if they were his guests. However, no one was able to attack Ch’ih Yu, the most brutal of all.

The Red Emperor encroached upon the various clan leaders, so they all gave their allegiance to Hsüan-yüan. Accordingly, Hsüan-yüan cultivated his Virtue and put his weapons in order; regulated the five ch’i;19 cultivated the five grains; was solicitous toward the myriad peoples; took the measure of the four quarters; and trained the bears, leopards, and tigers20 in order to engage in battle with the Red Emperor in the wastes of Pan-ch’üan. Only after three engagements did he realize his objective.

Ch’ih Yu revolted and did not follow the Yellow Emperor’s edicts. The Yellow Emperor summoned the armies of the clan chiefs and engaged Ch’ih Yu in battle in the wilds of Chuo-li, capturing and slaying him. The clan chiefs all honored Hsüan-yüan as the Son of Heaven, and he replaced Shen Nung, becoming the Yellow Emperor. The Yellow Emperor then pursued and rectified all those under Heaven who failed to submit, but left the tranquil alone.21

Master Chuang-tzu and a frog / Wikimedia Commons

Although the Shih Chi’s account has traditionally provided the basis for popular portrayals, several other texts from the late Warring States and early Han preserve fragments that are often employed to amplify the depiction. For example, Chuang-tzu states: “Being unable to attain to complete Virtue (and thereby persuade him to submit), the Yellow Emperor engaged Ch’ih Yu in battle in the wilds of Chuo-li. The blood flowed for a hundred li.”22 The Hsin Shu graphically asserts that “the Yellow Emperor implemented the Tao but Yen Ti did not obey, so they engaged in battle in the wilds of Chuo-li. The blood spilt was great enough to float a pestle.”23A late T’ang dynasty work paints an even more melodramatic portrait: “The Yellow Emperor and Ch’ih Yu engaged in battle in the wilds of Chuo-li. Ch’ih Yu created a great fog so that the armies were all confused. The Yellow Emperor then ordered Feng-hou to fashion a needle instrument in order to discriminate the four quarters and subsequently captured Ch’ih Yu.”24

Another version of the battle appears in the Canon of Mountains and Rivers, a former Han dynasty compilation of late Warring States material. 25 In discussing a “woman wearing blue clothes” who was sometimes sighted in the Ta-huang-pei area, the narrative notes: “Ch’ih Yu fabricated weapons and attacked the Yellow Emperor. The Yellow Emperor then ordered the winged dragon Ying to assault him in the wilds of Chi-chou.26 Ying Lung gathered up the waters, whereupon Ch’ih Yu asked Feng Po (Wind Duke) and Yü Shih (Rain Commander) to unleash fierce winds and rain. The Yellow Emperor then had the Heavenly female deity Pa (who wore blue clothes) sent down and the rain ceased. The Yellow Emperor subsequently slew Ch’ih Yu. However, Pa was unable to re-ascend to Heaven and wherever she dwelt it never rained.”

This version clearly reflects a clash of two regional cultures, the central Lungshan and Tung Yi. Each of the combatants strove to re-create familiar topographical conditions for which their long-accustomed tactics would be more suitable. If, as traditionally believed, the Yellow Emperor originally inhabited the comparatively dry central plains area where mobility was relatively unlimited, his forces would have found Ch’ih Yu’s damp, marshy (southeastern) environment inconvenient, if not fatal. The winged dragon was called upon to evaporate the water, which then formed clouds, but when Ch’ih Yu counteracted that measure, the Yellow Emperor called down celestial forces, essentially prefiguring his great Heavenly power in later Huang-Lao and Taoist religious thought. Rather than some ethereal figure, this Heavenly woman (also known as the “drought demon”) was so powerful that any area in which she stayed would invariably dry out. To prevent future calamities among the people, the Yellow Emperor reportedly shifted her dwelling place north of the Red River.

A number of other threads in the Ch’ih Yu tradition have implications for both ancient and traditional military history in China. The conflict supposedly occurred about 2600 BCE, the incipient period of Chinese bronze metallurgy, and Ch’ih Yu is closely associated with discovering, or at least exploiting, copper’s ductility to fabricate new metal weapons, justifying his inclusion as one of eight Chou era spirits under the designation of Weapons Master.27 A paragraph in the Kuan-tzu on conserving natural resources for the state’s benefit reflects the underlying premise that multiplying the number of weapons had led to increased carnage:28

After the Yellow Emperor had practiced these (conservation) measures for some ten years the Ko Lu mountains split asunder and poured forth water and metal. Ch’ih Yu gathered and smelted the metal to make swords,29 armor, spears, and halberds that he employed to subjugate nine feudal lords that year. Similarly, when the Yung Hu mountains cracked and water came forth followed by metal, he gathered and smelted it to fabricate Yung-hu halberds and Hu-fu dagger-axes. That year he subjugated twelve feudal lords. Throughout the realm rulers wielding shields and halberds arose in anger and the wilds were filled with prostrate corpses. This was the beginning of manifesting dagger-axes.

The chapter actually begins with Kuan-tzu, Duke Huan’s famous minister, asserting that copper is found in 467 of China’s 5,371 named mountains and iron in 3,609. Although the major deposits that would eventually be exploited by the Shang are located in the southeast, the provinces of Shandong and Shanxi (in the east and west respectively) both had limited reserves and would have been appropriate sites for the development of metallic weapons. Somewhat more fancifully, Ch’ih Yu is sometimes depicted as having a bronze head, and the drums in his army are similarly said to have been fashioned from bronze, vivid embodiments of his metallic nature as well as the metaphysical basis that allowed the Yellow Emperor to employ the magical properties of oxhide drums to vanquish the metallic ones.30

Chi’ih Yu as depicted on a tomb relief of the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) / Wikimedia Commons

Many legendary accounts that emphasize Ch’ih Yu’s fierceness and brutality point out that he coerced dissident groups into participating in his revolt through the creation of shackles and widespread use of five harsh punishments. His rebelliousness and mythical aspects were further exaggerated over the centuries. Imperial era tales thus describe him as extremely ugly, even abnormal, in various ways ranging from being marked by a dark red or black complexion to having the horns and feet of an ox or possessing six arms. Ch’ih Yu was supposedly so fierce that his name alone was sufficient to terrify the general populace, and the Yellow Emperor supposedly pretended he wasn’t dead in order to employ his image to frighten the perverse.

Paradoxically, Ch’ih Yu’s fierceness outweighed his brutality—or perhaps the two have a certain martial appeal in combination—because even today the Miao of southern China continue to worship Ch’ih Yu as their ancestor.31 Furthermore, across history he has not only been highly esteemed but also inexplicably seen as one of the chief progenitors of the Hua-Hsia culture and the true embodiment of courage.32 Liu Pang, founder of the Han, venerated both the Yellow Emperor and Ch’ih Yu as war spirits. He continued to be revered in the Han, recent People’s Republic of China (PRC) theoretical publications have advocated emulating him, and some Koreans also continue to recognize him as an ancestor.33

Finally, in a ritual expression of magical thinking, Ch’ih Yu was supposedly dismembered after being defeated by the Yellow Emperor, perhaps even rendered into a meat paste and eaten, thereby symbolically vanquishing him and absorbing his courageous spirit. Two recently recovered bamboo texts dating to the late Warring States period include accounts of this primeval conflict.34 In one called “Five Rectifications” (“Wu Cheng”), the Yellow Emperor is depicted as trying to impose order on the world and eliminate warfare but being advised that anger and the impulses of blood and ch’i must first be eliminated. When his measures and (more important) Virtue fail to bring about the desired order, he is compelled to accept the painful lesson that even though warfare is baleful, failing to resort to it when necessary equally results in failure. He therefore bestirs himself, engages Ch’ih Yu in battle, and captures him.

A second account, found in “Rectifying Chaos” (“Cheng Luan”), describes the ritualized punishments he inflicted upon Ch’ih Yu. The Yellow Emperor “peeled off his skin, made an archery target, and had his men shoot at it. Those who hit it the most received rewards. He cut off his hair and arrayed it below Heaven calling it Ch’ih Yu’s banner. He stuffed his stomach to make a football and had the men kick it, the most successful again being rewarded. He turned his body into mincemeat, mixed it with bitter salts, and had all under Heaven consume it.” Although the ostensible intent of these brutal punishments was frightening the realm into accepting his prohibitions and vision of order, such behavior dramatically contradicts the vaunted image of a paragon of Virtue and legendary Sage who held sway over the realm through righteous charisma alone.

Premised upon the existence of the Yellow Emperor, Red Emperor, and Ch’ih Yu, traditionally oriented historians continue to synthesize cohesive views of the Yellow Emperor’s battles. Before considering the archaeological data and demythologizing these tales as the product of Warring States thought, it may prove informative to summarize one influential twentieth-century interpretation that asserts historical evidence supports the veracity of these traditional versions despite a cascade of prominent works that firmly deny these titanic figures ever existed except as tribal totems.35

First, it is assumed that Ch’ih Yu and Yen Ti were the same person and that the earliest accounts portray a single series of battles rather than sequential struggles between the Yellow Emperor and two different antagonists. Second, these clashes apparently arose out of a fundamental conflict between the “agriculturalists,” who were descended from Shen Nung, honored even today in most temples as the progenitor of agricultural and medicinal knowledge, and members of the Yellow Emperor’s clan, who were distinguished by their ability to exploit such technological innovations as the chariot and bow. Because of the inherently disproportionate strengths of these fundamentally dissimilar orientations, the Yellow Emperor’s victory was inevitable. Bows and arrows would have enabled his forces to direct missile fire onto their enemies before engaging, whereas Ch’ih Yu had to rely upon shock weapons despite being a skilled weapons fabricator. In addition, the Yellow Emperor may have exploited pipes and drums, two of his other inventions, to stimulate the troops’ morale before the engagement and direct them during the battle.36

The Yellow Emperor, one of the mythical Five Sovereigns, from Li Ung Bin, Outlines of Chinese History, Shanghai 1914 / Wikimedia Commons

Tactically, the Yellow Emperor was active and aggressive and learned as he proceeded. Having been cast in the role of a defender, someone protecting his home territory against brutal invaders, he also enjoyed the psychological advantage derived from “moral superiority.”37 Conversely, the blatantly aggressive Ch’ih Yu exhausted himself in assaulting numerous other states before undertaking the final expeditionary campaign, allowing the Yellow Emperor to fashion a preemptive defense by moving to establish himself at Chuo-li and intercept Ch’ih Yu. (Whether the Yellow Emperor’s troops arrived first and had an opportunity to rest and improve their position or were thrown pell-mell into the conflict remains unknown.) Given his much-praised sagacity, they should have been fighting upon chosen ground and therefore enjoyed some sort of positional advantage, just as Sun-tzu later advocated.

It is also believed that the Yellow Emperor’s clan benefited from improved transport because he had created the ch’e, a general term for wheeled vehicles. (Even without chariots, another invention often credited to the Yellow Emperor—boats and oars—would have been useful in crossing the Yellow River.)38 Moreover, he reputedly established a rudimentary bureaucracy that included an office for military affairs that was initially held by Li Mu, traditionally regarded as China’s first minister of war. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this reconstruction is the contention that the battle arose not simply over regional hegemony, but over natural resources, apparently an inland salt production area near Chieh-ch’ih in the western province of Shanxi. Ch’ih Yu is therefore identified as the charismatic leader of the Chiu Li (Nine Li), who were reportedly centered in the area of modern Nanyang in Henan province, and thus as Yen Ti’s descendant as well as the earliest ancestor of the famous Chiang clan that would figure prominently in Chou military history.

Many other theories have been formulated to account for the scope and nature of what has traditionally been deemed China’s first war, though always on the assumption that the extant traditional accounts preserve an essential kernel of facts about events that have been verbally transmitted, often in highly circumscribed geographic regions, from antiquity.39 The Yellow Emperor’s traditional association with central China is not unchallenged, and arguments over their origins and respective loci of activity sometimes result in a virtual refighting of the original clash by modern partisans. For example, one analyst has argued that the Red Emperor’s clan arose in the central plains area but the Yellow Emperor’s clan in the Shandong and identifies them with the Tung Yi,40 whereas another envisions the Yellow and Red Emperors as both having emerged during the P’ei-li-kang and Yangshao cultures and being active in the central Yellow river valley.41 A variant of the Eastern interpretation sees the Yellow Emperor’s clan as arising in the east and defeating the Red Emperor’s clan to their west before assimilating them and moving into the central area themselves.42

Ch’ih Yu is sometimes seen as the leader of the Eastern Yi centered about Shandong rather than of the Miao in the south, and the conflict is understood as having arisen over grazing and agricultural lands in the central region of China, one in a series over rights and leadership among the Yellow Emperor, Agricultural Emperor (Shen Nung), Ch’ih Yu, and Fu Sui.43 Ch’ih Yu is also thought to have headed an alliance of eighty-one or other similarly large number of tribes that seem to have devoted themselves to martial activities and developed new weapons, possibly even of primitive bronze, under his clan’s leadership.44 They were therefore able to supplant the Yellow Emperor throughout the “nine corners” of his domain—the eight directions and the center—the number nine being an indefinite reference for “everywhere” in ancient China. In contrast, because the Yellow Emperor could only muster his own clan and five others, his forces would have been far fewer, accounting for his initial defeats.

The Yellow Emperor is said to have dammed a river to prevent Ch’ih Yu from crossing, but adverse weather conditions, which favored those more accustomed to the wet weather indigenous to the east and south, may have resulted in the dikes breaking and Ch’ih Yu being able to exploit the conditions to wrest additional victories.45 However, the Yellow Emperor was able to prevail when the weather dried out, possibly because Ch’ih Yu had exhausted his army en route to the final confrontation, an error against which most of the classic military writers would subsequently warn.

Ultimately the Yellow Emperor prepared well, trained his troops, and organized them into some sort of cohesive, responsive force. If the battle occurred at Chi-chou in Hebei, his ability to exploit the dust clouds created by the strong winds blowing across the parched yellow soil may have been a critical factor. With the terrain obscured and the four directions unclear, his forces would have enjoyed a unilateral opportunity to advance, because he not only chose the battlefield but also reputedly possessed the superior technology of the southern-pointing chariot.46

Powerful landlord in chariot. Eastern Han 25-220 CE. Anping, Hebei. / John Hill, Wikimedia Commons

However, traditional claims that the Yellow Emperor, as one of the first ancestors, grand progenitors, and magical creators, contrived numerous artifacts essential to civilization, including two vital to military technology, are not sustained by archaeological evidence. His name in the Shih Chi, Hsüan-yüan, has long been cited as evidence that he invented the chariot, because the individual terms hsüan and yüan refer to the horizontal axle pole and the shaft(s) extending to the front of a chariot. Although this interpretation became an article of faith to the Han, it is completely unfounded because the term did not appear until the Warring States period.

Furthermore, even though vestiges of narrow vehicle tracks have been found at the presumed Hsia capital at Erh-li-t’ou, and traditional accounts assert that the Shang employed chariots to vanquish the Hsia in a decisive battle that would date to about 1600 BCE, there is no archaeological evidence that either the Hsia or the early Shang had horsedrawn, functional war chariots. Therefore the Yellow Emperor, who would have been active in the Lungshan period predating the Hsia itself, might only have fashioned some sort of cart or wheelbarrow.47 If they could have been fabricated in quantity and proved reasonably durable, these carts certainly would have facilitated the transport of essential supplies at a time when the only alternative was human portage.

A famous sentence in the Yi Ching states that the Yellow Emperor also invented bows and arrows by “stringing a branch to make a curved bow and shaving branches to fashion arrows” and that “the advantage of bows and arrows was to overawe all under Heaven.”48 Although archaeological excavations have uncovered numerous bone and stone arrowheads dating to the Lungshan period with which the Yellow Emperor should be identified, the preceding Yangshao culture already shows extensive evidence of social stratification and the widespread use of bows and arrows beyond what would have been reasonably necessary for hunting purposes. Moreover, arrowheads of great antiquity have been found in Shanxi, proving that they not only existed but were also employed some twenty millennia prior to the Yellow Emperor’s era.49

Nevertheless, being a martial chieftain in a period probably just beginning to extensively exploit the bow’s potential in warfare, the Yellow Emperor may have emphasized archery training and employed missile fire more vigorously and systematically than other leaders, perhaps even initiated the technique of massed fire. Although totally speculative, these measures could account for the bow and arrow’s close identification with the Yellow Emperor and perhaps indicate a critical factor in vanquishing enemies wielding shock weapons alone.

Ancient Chinese archery / China Archery

Two other aspects that have particularly attracted attention are the “fog” that reportedly covered the battlefield and the “southern-pointing chariot.” A naturalistic explanation for the former would be that some sort of temperature shift had occurred after heavy rain, creating an inversion that trapped the moisture at low levels and thus obscured the battlefield, but a simpler one just requires the presence of fog or lowlevel clouds. However, neither interpretation can be sustained in the face of statements that a strong wind had arisen, presumably at the Yellow Emperor’s behest since his transcendent cosmic attunement should have allowed him to magically modify the climatic conditions.50

Perhaps Ch’ih Yu deliberately created a smoke screen, possibly one infused with chemical irritants such as would be witnessed in the Warring States period and used in the Spring and Autumn as well.51 If so, it would certainly constitute the earliest known incident of deliberately employing a smoke screen, even though it might have proven of limited utility unless the winds, which would have quickly dispersed any artificial clouds, were blowing to his advantage. Within this incapacitating miasma the Yellow Emperor could only have resorted to his southern-pointing chariot, an ingenious device that must have taxed even the Sage Emperor’s inventiveness. Remarkably, this “southern-pointing chariot,” much romanticized in the traditional literature, is no myth but instead a small chariot with a mounted figure whose outstretched hand, once initially set, always points south. However, it was probably invented in the later Han,52 explaining the lack of references to it and the fog until somewhat later.

Considering all the possible factors, interpretations, archaeological evidence, and perspectives of the scholars who have extensively studied these ancient materials, a reasonable conclusion might be that at some indeterminate time in the middle of the third millennium BCE a few significant battles resulted from two tribal alliances, each seeking to control increasingly greater territory. The first battle marked the ascendancy of the clan subsequently identified as the “imperial” clan, that of the bear, led by an individual termed the “August” one, who eventually (in later Chou literature) was accorded the title of Yellow Emperor and became the focal nexus for many cultural inventions and achievements.

No doubt his and the Red Emperor’s clans were closely related, perhaps even derived from a common ancestor such as the great agricultural deity Shen Nung, as some highly credible scholars have imaginatively suggested.53 The clans therefore clashed not just over the central plains area, but also over who would monopolize the power and leadership of the tribal confederation, whatever the actual character of their alliance. If Marxist analysis has any validity, the process of shifting from a matriarchal to a patriarchal age may have provided the stimulus for this struggle or was perhaps synonymous with it, with the conflict actually stretching over generations between related clans. All the archaeological evidence—the plethora of recovered arrowheads, existence of major moats and walled fortifications, and burial patterns that display increased class distinction—indicates the rise of powerful clan leaders accompanied by a shift from universal military obligation to a dominant martial clan that consolidated power within the tribe and undertook responsibility for waging war outside it.

Viewed from the dynamics of tribal conflict, the Yellow Emperor may therefore have been the truculent leader of an obstreperous group that challenged the Red Emperor’s established authority and ultimately wrested control of the collective organization.54 Whether the Yellow Emperor’s clan was economically more prosperous or simply more martial and self-disciplined than Shen Nung’s, whom power and privilege had perhaps made soft, as would happen to virtually all of China’s ruling clans, cannot be known. If the Shih Chi account even minimally reflects actual events, the issue of supremacy wasn’t decided with the sort of single clash that supposedly characterizes primitive warfare, but through at least three battles. Preliminary skirmishes between members of the opposing alliances probably preceded any command decision to mobilize their forces and act more decisively. Although the Yellow Emperor’s cause has traditionally been identified with morality and the forcible restoration (or imposition) of order was his avowed aim, whether he actually enjoyed some sort of superior moral claim remains doubtful.

Bows and arrows would have initially been employed, followed by spears, clubs, hand axes, and other shock weapons, even agricultural tools, upon closing for combat. However, neither swords nor the ubiquitous dagger-axes of later times had yet come into existence, and chariots were equally absent, traditional accounts to the contrary. Depending upon the effectiveness of their training and degree of rudimentary organization, the battles probably resolved into general melees marked by hundreds of individualized fights of the type thought to have marked so-called primitive warfare.55 At their conclusion, the vanquished either fled or submitted and became an integral part of the Yellow Emperor’s alliance, evidence that this was more of an intratribal conflict for dominance than a war of extermination wherein the defeated would either be slain or enslaved, as in the Shang and later times.56

The extant literature similarly portrays the Yellow Emperor’s subsequent conflict with Ch’ih Yu as a struggle between good and evil, morality and licentiousness, as well as between a benevolent despot who had garnered the people’s allegiance and a brutal leader who forcefully coerced it. This sort of archetypical depiction would be repeatedly encountered across the millennia as dynasties fell and their successors wrote historical tales to justify their own violence and excesses to posterity. The laconic Shih Chi account actually records little beyond a conflict between an alliance leader and an obstreperous subleader, but later versions significantly embellish the story.

This battle with Ch’ih Yu should perhaps also be accepted as simply a struggle for supremacy between two subgroups with different totems seeking to dominate a newly forged, extended alliance. Although the Yellow Emperor may have profited from his experience to create a more formidable or cohesive fighting organization, their weapons would have been unchanged. Although both groups were obviously mobile, the Yellow Emperor essentially responded to Ch’ih Yu, since the latter played the role of an invader, later termed a “guest” by military theorists, yet managed to shape the battlefield. However, whether Ch’ih Yu’s movements constituted a strategic initiative is fruitless to discuss at this level of warfare.

Overall, the archaeological records in fact indicate a transitional period of rising conflict, increasing class distinction, and the evolution of political and concomitant military power or, depending upon theoretical emphasis, military strength and concomitant political power. The details have been mythologized, but these traditional accounts may still reflect actual tribal conflicts and preserve the names of the most impressive martial leaders. Apart from whatever truths may be embedded within them, whatever ancient realities they may reflect, these legendary versions also display the subsequent historical mindset, one not irrelevant to understanding the views and motives of commanders and emperors across the centuries. However, asserting more than this leads only into the realm of even more rampant speculation.


  1. Just as China’s “failure” to foster scientific and industrial revolutions has been too readily attributed to the stultifying effects of Confucian doctrine, the complex question of the perceived antagonism between the civil (wen) and the martial (wu)—frequently posed as an assertion that Confucianism enervated the national will to action, thereby rendering the state impotent in the face of brutal, militant hordes who were, however, vastly outnumbered—has so far been treated simplistically. Disparate power groups exploited doctrine to their own ends, and what might be termed a debased, hypocritical form of Confucianism (as distinguished from the pristine doctrine of Confucius and his early followers) often muddled martial discussions and frequently thwarted the implementation of realistic measures. Conversely, many reigns were marked by a decidedly martial ethos and embraced outwardly directed aggressive actions that vigorously challenged all but the most sincere believers in evolved Confucian doctrine. (Naturally, beyond necessarily acknowledging core concepts such as righteousness and benevolence, “Confucian” doctrine varied greatly over the centuries and assumed many guises, ranging from simple dogma to abstruse Sung formulations.)
  2. If anything has been learned from the astonishing archaeological discoveries of the past few decades, including from the so-called tomb texts—early bamboo-strip editions of books entombed millennia ago—it should be that from the Chou onward, even within well-defined schools incredible diversity has always characterized Chinese thought. Some of these “schools” consist of a single vision or particular understanding, others of immense, highly convoluted philosophical structures. Several flourished for centuries; others disappeared in mere decades. Moreover, although records of court debates and modern reconstructions of intellectual history naturally tend to discern organized, patterned activity, the voices were usually multiple. Similarly, virtually every possible viewpoint seems to have been expressed in the martial sphere at one time or another, even if only briefly, and become a motivation or justification for action. (Despite the current penchant for denigrating traditional terms such as “Confucian” and rejecting their applicability, they are retained here for their convenience in charting relative viewpoints and organizing essential concepts.)
  3. Recovered from a Han dynasty tomb in 1972, Sun Pin’s Military Methods (Sun Pin Ping-fa) was composed in the last half of the fourth century BCE or slightly later by disciples or descendants of the legendary Sun Pin, whose biography is coupled with Sun-tzu’s in the Shih Chi. Badly fragmented, the text tends to focus more on tactical matters than does Sun-tzu’s Ping-fa, generally known as the Art of War. (For clarity and the convenience of readers, in lieu of appending extensive footnotes and parenthetical material, our translations are sometimes abridged or slightly amplified. A close translation with extensive notes for this passage may be found in Sawyer, Sun Pin Military Methods.)
  4. “Audience with King Wei,” Sun Pin Ping-fa. It would have been foolhardy for him to deny, outright, the possibility that Virtue could affect others since it was already becoming a well-entrenched belief. However, Sun Pin could have mentioned several other conflicts involving lesser or almost unknown early Sage authorities. (For a reappraisal of purported clashes, see Wang Yü-ch’eng, CKSYC 1986:3, 71-84.)
  5. “Preparation of Strategic Power.”
  6. “Military Strategy.”
  7. “Li Lun” (“Discussion of Ritual”).
  8. “Shih Chün,” Lü-shih Ch’un-ch’iu.
  9. “Li Lun.”
  10. “Military Strategy.”
  11. “Military Strategy,” Huai-nan Tzu.
  12. “Benevolence the Foundation,” Ssu-ma Fa. (A complete translation of the Ssu-ma Fa, parts of which probably predate Sun Pin’s Military Methods, may be found in Sawyer, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China.)
  13. “Audience with King Wei.” Sun Pin’s attribution of the four fundamental military concepts—formations, strategic power, changes, and strategic imbalance of power—to the ancient cultural heroes credited with creating the essential artifacts of civilization is uncommon.
  14. “Inferior Strategy.” (A complete translation of the Three Strategies may be found in Sawyer, Seven Military Classics.) “Huang-shih Kung” means “duke of Yellow Rock.”
  15. At least according to an incident recorded in his Shih Chi biography, which, though dubious, was accepted as genuine throughout the imperial period. In the midst of a crisis he reportedly advised an endangered ruler, “I have heard that in civil affairs there must be martial preparation and that in martial affairs there must be civil preparations.” (He is also noted as having asserted that he never studied military affairs, only ritual and ceremonial ones, thereby providing crucial ammunition for antiwar factions. The Analects also contains his offhand remark that he never studied military deployment.) Certainly one of the core issues of Chinese military history, it is beyond the scope of the present volume. However, for an interesting defense of Confucianism not being responsible for China’s military weakness over the centuries, see Kuo Hung-chi, CKCHS 10 (1994): 65-71; for an overview of Chinese attitudes toward warfare and its causes, see Sawyer, “Chinese Warfare: The Paradox of the Unlearned Lesson,” American Diplomacy Magazine(Fall 1998); and for contrast, the initial chapters of Military Technology: Missiles and Sieges.
  16. In addition to the PRC’s dedicated effort to establish the historicity (and priority) of ancient Chinese culture, Chinese popular media draw on every aspect for plots and content.
  17. Some of the more insightful among the many articles that have appeared in recent decades include Li Yung-hsien, HCCHS 1988:10, 13-20; Li Hsien-teng and Yang Ying, HCCHS 2000:3, 9-19; Huang Huai-hsin, KKWW 1997:4, 33-37; Ting Shan, BIHP 3, 517-536; Liu Fan-ti 1999, 70-74; Wang Wen-kuang and Chai Kuo-ch’iang, 2005:9, 1-8; Li Tsung-t’ung, BIHP 39, 27-39; Chao Shih-ch’ao, HCCHS 1999:2, 43-45; Ch’en Ku-ying, HCCHS 1985:7, 4-16; Liu Chung-hui, CKCHCHS 1 (1997): 11-15; Ch’en Hsü, HSLWC 293-302; and Ho Kao, LSYC 1992:3, 69-84. Articles by Western writers include Charles Le Blanc, 45-63, and Gopal Sukhu, EC 30 (2005- 2006), 91-153.
  18. This is anachronistic because the “hundred surnames,” later a term for the ordinary people but initially a reference to those granted the equivalent of surnames, the nobility, did not exist in this period.
  19. Generally taken as atmospheric factors or the ch’i (pneuma or vapor) of the five quarters: north, south, east, west, and middle. This reflects Warring States five-phase (or -element) correlative thought.
  20. Five types of animals are enumerated, including two bears, reflecting the theme of “five” throughout. They are variously interpreted as the symbols or totems for five clans or tribes, although practitioners in China’s long martial arts tradition like to believe he trained his warriors in fighting techniques derived from the individual animals.
  21. “Wu Ti Pen-chi.” Although most scholars assign the Yellow Emperor to the Lungshan period, a few such as Hsü Shun-chan (KKWW 1997:4, 19-26) date his activities as early as the middle Yangshao.
  22. “Tao Shih.” The clause “the blood flowed for a hundred li” is a recurrent literary device used to describe other battles as well, particularly the Chou conquest at Mu-yeh. (A li was about a third of a mile.)
  23. The “blood was great enough to float a pestle” is another trope often employed to describe the battle at Mu-yeh.
  24. T’ai-p’ing Yü-lanchüan 15, citing the Chih-lin. Chuo Li is said to have been in the vicinity of Beijing, as a local name implies.
  25. Chüan 17, “Ta Huang-pei Ching,” Shan-hai Ching. For a more extensive mythical recounting, see T’ao Yang and Chung Hsiu, 1990, 504-508.
  26. Snakes and dragons figure prominently in several legends about the Yellow Emperor and Ch’ih Yu, both men supposedly being descended from snakes on their mothers’ side but from the bear and ox respectively on their fathers’. The Yellow Emperor is frequently associated with a white dragon, and one legend has the white dragon battling with either a red or black tiger, presumably Ch’ih Yu’s clan, which perishes (T’u Wu-chou, HCCHS 1984:3, 9-14).
  27. “Feng Shan Shu,” Shih-chi. Ssu-ma Ch’ien notes the eight were said to have been established by the T’ai Kung (traditionally recognized as the founder of the state of Ch’i) and that an altar to Ch’ih Yu had been found on Ch’i’s western border (which would befit Ch’i’s strong military heritage). Somewhat contradictorily, Ch’i is also noted for having esteemed the Yellow Emperor. (See Hu Chia-ts’ung, HCCHS 1991:1, 19-26.) Various dates based on myths, archaeology, and outright assumptions have been suggested for this clash, 2700 to 2600 BCE being the most common.
  28. “Ti Shu,” Kuan-tzu.
  29. Nothing more than a dirk existed around 2600 BCE. There are various lists for the five weapons, some of which include chariots and armor.
  30. See Hsiao Ping, CKKTS 1994:11, 7-12.
  31. Because maple leaves turn red in the fall, the (bronze) shackles that restrained Ch’ih Yu are said to have turned into a forest of maple trees; maple trees continue to be venerated by Miao remnants even today. (Wang Yen-chün, HCCHS 1988:6, 11-12.)
  32. For further discussion, see Wang Chih-p’ing, 1999:4, 95-98.
  33. For a discussion of the widespread Han admiration for Ch’ih Yu (contrary to the idea that the Han only esteemed Confucian values), see Wang Tzu-chin, HCCHS 2006:6, 70-75.
  34. Found at Ma-wang-tui and now included among the collated texts known as the “Huang Ti Ssu-ching.”
  35. See Chang Ch’i-yün, 1961, vol. 1, 22-25.
  36. Directing troops deployed for battle was one of the most formidable problems of antiquity. China early on developed formations and segmentation and control measures that allowed generals to command rather than simply lead from the front. Citing an ancient text, in “Military Combat” the Art of War states: “Because they could not hear each other, they made gongs and drums. Because they could not see each other, they made pennants and flags.” Drums were particularly emphasized. (For example, see “The Tao of the General,” Wu-tzu; “Strict Positions,” Ssu-ma Fa; and “Orders for Restraining the Troops,” Wei Liao-tzu.)
  37. The classic military writings adroitly exploit righteousness as a motivating factor. For example, the Ssu-ma Fa’s first chapter, “Benevolence the Foundation,” elaborates the conditions under which justified campaigns might be mounted.
  38. Chang Ch’i-yün believes they crossed during the winter when the Yellow River would have been frozen (which would obviate any need for boats). However, the climate was considerably warmer at this time, and the water’s volume probably was greater due to higher rainfall levels, making it unlikely that it would have fully frozen; crossings in later times required placing a rope across to create an ice barrier.
  39. Several scholars have noted that stories about important events, particularly those identified with place-names, tend to enjoy localized preservation. Although not primary evidence, some have proven to retain surprising vestiges of ancient events.
  40. Lü Wen-yü, HCCHS 2000:1, 10-17. Conversely, Teng Shu-p’ing (KKWW 1999:5, 15-27) identifies the Tung Yi with Ch’ih Yu and sees the conflict as emblematic of the clash between Hua-Hsia cultural predispositions in the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River and Tung Yi manifestations in Shandong. (Teng’s interpretation seems somewhat problematic because the Tung Yi totem was a bird, whereas Ch’ih Yu had an ox head, a difficulty that Teng somewhat unsatisfactorily deflects by claiming that they subsequently acquired the bird association.) Teng also believes that four jade Tung Yi artifacts discovered in the west in Shanxi and Shaanxi provide evidence of the severity of this primordial clash, because Ch’ih Yu’s clan had to disperse to the west and south after their defeat.
  41. Li Yu-mou, CKKTS 1994:2, 39-45.
  42. Wang Yen-chün, HCCHS 1988:6, 11-15.
  43. However, note that the Fu and Sui may have been two tribal groups rather than a single individual. In addition, not everyone agrees that the Yellow Emperor came from the west and Ch’ih Yu from the east, while arguments about whether Ch’ih Yu should be identified with the Miao in the south or the Tung Yi continue unabated. For example, Hsiao Ping (CKKTS 1994:11, 7-12) argues for Ch’ih Yu having been one of the great ancestors of the early southern Miao chieftains, who were in turn descendants of the Nine Li and active around the Yangtze’s middle reaches, especially the vicinity of Tung-t’ing and P’o-yang lakes.
  44. Not impossible if they represent the late Shandong Lungshan cultural strata, in which bronze weapons began to appear, although in minuscule numbers.
  45. How much wetter the east would have been is highly questionable. (There has always been a significant difference in total rainfall between the north and south rather than the east and west, accounting for rice being a southern staple.) This interpretation would require that Ch’ih Yu be a representative of lower Yangtze culture and may perhaps be grounds for rethinking the conflict, as these coexistent cultures were quite dynamic and resilient.
  46. Although such claims lack any evidence, this sort of interpretation is frequently found in popular works on China’s military history, such as Chang Hsiu-p’ing’s One Hundred Battles That Influenced China.
  47. The twenty-seventh century BCE is frequently suggested as the Yellow Emperor’s reign period, whether actual or mythical/symbolic. (See, for example, Teng Shu-p’ing, KKWW 1999:5, 15.)
  48. “All under Heaven” is a late term, and this well-known passage is found in the late part known as the “Shih Ts’u.” (The second part may also be translated as “Availing himself of bows and arrows, he overawed all under Heaven,” thereby emphasizing the Yellow Emperor’s aggressiveness.)
  49. See Fang Li-chung, HCCHS 1989:3, 21.
  50. Widespread belief in his magical powers is found in the Warring States and thereafter.
  51. Recorded in some versions, the fog is apparently a later addition that may have been prompted by Warring States experience in employing smoke screens. (For the history of smoke and smoke screens in Chinese warfare, see Sawyer, Fire and Water.)
  52. Joseph Needham, in Physics and Physical Technology: Mechanical Engineering, 286-303, has speculated that some sort of differential gearing may have been employed and considers it the first homeostatic machine and an initial step in cybernetics. Andre Sleeswyk, in “Reconstruction of the South-Pointing Chariots of the Northern Sung Dynasty,” has provided a further examination of the gearing, and a modern PRC reconstruction has been prominently displayed over the past decade.
  53. See Yang K’uan’s extensive discussions, 1941, 65ff. As symbolized by their respective totems, the Yellow and Red Emperors’ tribes are said to have merged through these conflicts, creating the heritage venerated (and exploited) by Warring States Confucian culture. (See Lin Hsiang-keng, HCCHS 1984:1, 3-10; Wang Yen-chün, HCCHS 1988:6, 11-15; and Wu Jui and Cheng Li, CKCHS 1996:3, 4-8.)
  54. Lin Hsiang-keng, HCCHS 1984:1, 3-10; Wang Yen-chün, HCCHS 1988:6, 11-15; Wu Jui and Cheng Li, CKCHS 1996:3, 4-8.
  55. Several monographs on the topic have appeared in the past two decades, significantly diminishing the value of H. H. Turney-High’s classic discussion, Primitive War; they include Jean Guilaine and Jean Zammit, The Origins of War: Violence in Prehistory; Elizabeth N. Arkush and Mark W. Allen, eds., The Archaeology of Warfare: Prehistories of Raiding and Conquest; Steven A. LeBlanc, Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage; John Carman and Anthony Harding, eds., Ancient Warfare; Anthony Stevens, The Roots of War; and Arther Ferrill, The Origins of War. Although no more than a hundred men could have been effectively fielded without a minimal administrative hierarchy, modern studies still tend to claim that China’s legendary period lacked any form of military organization, placing their forces below the military horizon in accord with Turney-High’s conception. (For example, see Liu Chan, 1992, 4 and 20ff.)
  56. This is considered another characteristic of so-called primitive warfare. (One of the remarkable, largely unnoticed aspects of later Chinese warfare was the common practice of armies simply reflagging vanquished enemy troops and integrating them en masse, as advocated in “Waging War” in the Art of War. How loyal, dedicated, and enthusiastic they historically proved has yet to be examined.)

From Ancient Chinese Warfare, by Ralph D. Sawyer (03.01.2011, Basic Books), published by Erenow, public open access.