Mellow Yellow


When you go back far enough, it can be difficult to tell real personages from mythical ones. Lists of kings often include some far-fetched entries toward the beginning, like people who ruled for centuries. One of the most significant quasi-historical figures in China is the Yellow Emperor, who is credited with just about every hallmark of civilization.

He’s generally known as Guangdi, which literally means “Yellow Emperor” (or “Yellow Thearch”); but his personal name is sometimes said to be Xuanyuan, the name of the hill on which he was supposedly born. According to myth, he was conceived when his mother was zapped by the Big Dipper. When exactly he would have ruled isn’t entirely clear, but Jesuit missionary Martino Martini calculated that it began in 2697 BC, which is now commonly used as the beginning of the traditional Chinese calendar, which Guangdi is said to have invented. Prior to the twentieth century, there wasn’t any continuous measure of years, with a new era simply starting when a new emperor took the throne. Mythology claims that he invented the very concepts of civilization and law, as well as the beginnings of agriculture, mathematics, and astronomy. One of his wives was the first to cultivate silkworms, and he convinced his court historian to create a new system of writing. It’s also said that he invented the mirror, and presented twelve of them as a gift to an empress from the west so that she could use a different one every month.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story in his Book of Imaginary Beings about Guangdi trapping invaders from the spirit world in mirrors, where they would be forced to imitate the actions of humans, but would eventually escape.

A few pages I found suggest that this was an actual Chinese myth, but I suspect it’s Borges’ own invention. He was known to mix real mythology with his own creations, and include spurious references to add verisimilitude. Also associated with the Emperor is a small chariot with a figure on top that would always point south, an actual Chinese invention, but one that more reliable sources date to the third century BC.

From what I’ve read, the chariot contained no magnets or other means of actually determining direction, but probably had a mechanism that would generally keep the figure pointing the same way even when the chariot itself turned. Guangdi used this chariot to guide his army through the fog produced by an enemy, although I think this story is sometimes told of a different emperor. Another tale has it that the Yellow Emperor visited the Bai Ze, a fantastic beast described as having bovine and leonine features, as well as six horns and as many as nine eyes.

“Hey, I’m watching you! I’ve got eyes in the back of my…back.”
The Bai Ze told him about all 11,520 supernatural animals in the world, and he compiled the information in a book. He tamed bears, tigers, and winged lions; and rode in an ivory chariot pulled by dragons and an elephant. There are mentions of his having four faces so he could look in all cardinal directions at once, but this is probably metaphorical. In his later life, he became a student of Taoism, and achieved enlightenment and immortality. After an earthly life of about one hundred years, he set up a copper sacrificial tripod at the Mountain Bridge, which summoned a dragon that took him and seventy of his officials to Heaven. He dropped his bow and part of his beard, and these along with his clothes and walking stick were buried where his mausoleum would later be built.

He was subsequently worshipped as one of the Five Forms of the Highest Deity, associated with the center of the cosmos, the element of earth, the dragon, and of course the color yellow.

The star Regulus is called Xuanyuan in his honor, which is apparently what led to the ancient alien crowd insisting that he’s originally from that star system. This conspiracy theory also refers to his tripod being able to record information and his chariot traveling so quickly it made riders age at an accelerated rate, but I’ve only seen these references on pages written by UFO enthusiasts, so I’m not sure what the basis is. I’d be interested in knowing if there is some traditional myth that inspired these ideas, or the Borges story for that matter.

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This entry was posted in Animals, China, Chinese, Conspiracy Theories, History, Monsters, Mythology, Religion, Taoism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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