In Chinese mythology, the Wufang Shangdi (五方上帝) are five emperors considered to be the physical manifestation of the Taoist creator deity/theological concept, Tian (天). They’re also referred to as the “five kind faces of Heaven” and can manifest themselves in different forms, including physical humans and celestial constellations.
Each of the Wufang Shangdi are represented by a particular color: Huangdi (黄帝) is known as the Yellow Emperor, Cangdi (蒼帝) as the Green Emperor, Heidi (黑帝) as the Black Emperor, Chidi (赤帝) as the Red Emperor, and Baidi (白帝) as the White Emperor. Each of them has a dragon that serves as their steed.
The concept of the Five Emperors was very important to early Chinese culture, including philosophy, the understanding about the night sky, and beliefs about the afterlife. The Wufang Shangdi represent the five sacred Chinese mountains, the five most important planets in the solar system, the five directions of space, and the five major constellations that rotate around the North Star.
The Red and Yellow deities are especially important to the Han Chinese, who consider themselves to be the descendants of these two emperors. The Five Emperors serve as an example of how real Chinese emperors were supposed to carry themselves and behave.
These mythological rulers are most commonly referred to as Wǔfāng Shàngdì (五方上帝), or “The Five August Emperors.” They’re also sometimes simply called Wǔshén (五神), “The Five Gods,” or Wǔdì (五帝), “The Five Emperors.” Since colors are used to represent the different emperors, they are also identified as Wǔsèdì (五色帝), or “The Five Colored Deities.” In some texts, the Wufang Shangdi are combined into a single entity known as Tiānhuáng Dàdì (天皇大帝) or “The Supreme God of Heaven.”
Their names individually mean:
Huángdì (黄帝)—Comprised of the words for “yellow,” huáng (黃), and “emperor” (帝), the Yellow Emperor is also sometimes called Huángshén Běidǒu (黄神北斗), or “The Yellow God of the Northern Dipper”, also known as the Big Dipper.
Cāngdì (蒼帝)—Cang Di’s moniker means “The Green Emperor.” In ancient times, he was also named Qīngdì (青帝), or “The Bluegreen Emperor.” Back then, the words for “blue” and “green” were represented by the same character, qīng (青), so it’s not uncommon to see Cang Di referred to as the “Blue Emperor” occasionally.
Hēidì (黑帝)—Dubbed the “The Black Emperor,” Hei Di’s alternative name is Xuánwǔ (玄武), which means “Dark Warrior.”
Chìdì (赤帝)—The Red Emperor is Shennong (神农), or “The Farming God.” He is also occasionally referred to as Yándì (炎帝), or “The Fire God,” since flames were an important symbol to the people of the village where he grew up.
Báidì (白帝)—The White Emperor is also named Xīdì (西帝), or “The Emperor of the West.”
Each of the Wufang Shangdi have distinct characteristics and personalities that set them apart from one another. The only thing that is similar about them is that they all wear imperial robes.
Huangdi—The Yellow Emperor can be easily spotted by his characteristic golden yellow robes. His robes would set the precedent for all later emperors to wear the color yellow.
Cangdi—Cangdi is most often depicted in his animal form, the Azure Dragon. His dragon form plays an important role in the practice of Feng Shui.
Heidi—In art, Heidi is characterized by his Black Dragon (his animal form) and the mythical tortoise-snake.
Chidi—Chidi is perhaps the most peculiar looking of the Wufang Shangdi—he’s said to have been born with the head of a bull. He also dresses the most humbly. Chidi prefers to dress himself in robes made out of old foliage.
Baidi—Baidi is commonly represented by a pure white dragon, although in art, his presence is sometimes depicted as a tiger.
Huangdi—Huangdi’s mother, Fù Bǎo (附寶), and his father, Shǎo Diǎn (少典), live near the modern day Shandong region of China. Although Shǎo Diǎn was Huangdi’s mother’s husband, he wasn’t really his biological father, since Huangdi was the product of a virginal birth. According to the Guóyǔ (國語), or Discourses of the States, “although Shaodian preceded the Yellow Emperor, he was not his father.” Huangdi is considered to be the primal ancestor of all human beings and a relative to some of the other members of the Wufang Shangdi. His half-brother, for example, is Chidi.
Cangdi—Cangdi is married to the Chinese goddess of fertility, Bìxiá (碧霞).
Heidi—Heidi is a descendant of Huangdi and is considered to be the purest embodiment of the god, Tian.
Chidi—Chidi is the product of the love affair between a beautiful princess and a dragon. This unnamed dragon might have been Huangdi himself.
Baidi—In some retellings of his myth, Baidi is the direct progeny of Huangdi. In other versions, Baidi was conceived by Lady Jie (女節) after she saw a rainbow shooting star descend over her island home, making Baidi Huangdi’s grand nephew.
The Wufang Shangdi are seen as the physical manifestations of the Taoist energy of the Heavens, also known as Tian (天). Each of the five emperors represents a distinct and different facet of Tian’s personality. Their myths reflect their unique quirks.
Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor
Huangdi is arguably the most famous and important of the Wufang Shangdi. Huangdi’s mother, Fu Bao, conceived the legendary emperor during a thunderstorm. According to legend, Fu Bao suddenly become pregnant when she went for a walk and a lightning bolt, which originated from the middle of the Big Dipper, appeared out of the sky and impregnated her. Legend has it that she carried Huangdi in her womb for a solid 24 months before giving birth.
During his lifetime, Huangdi was described as a fierce, proud, and noble warrior and even butted heads with his own half-brother, Chidi, due to their differing philosophical opinions. Their clash embodied the concept of Yin and Yang. While neither of the brothers were able to defeat the other, they achieved a sort of semi-peaceful truce between them for the benefit of the people over which they ruled.
While Chidi, or Shennong, is the deity credited with helping humanity adopt a non-nomadic, agrarian lifestyle, Huangdi is the one who civilized them. Huangdi, according to myth, invented clothing, language, and marriage. After living for a hearty one hundred years, Huangdi was rewarded with immortality by the Jade Emperor (玉皇) after his death.
Huangdi forms the center of the four directions and is represented in the night sky by the Big Dipper constellation. Not only is he considered to be the mythological representation of the center of the universe, he’s also seen as the embodiment of pure light and goodness. Huangdi was the ideal model for emperors and aspiring ascetics.
Cangdi, the Green Emperor
Cangdi is the symbol of nature, specifically the forest and springtime. In Chinese mythology, he is a minor fertility god. In his animal form, he is presented as the famous Azure Dragon and, in his astral form, he is represented as the planet Jupiter. When he was a human, Cangdi’s name was Tàihào (太昊).
Heidi, the Black Emperor
Heidi is a fierce warrior god who embodies water and winter. He is represented in animal form as a pure black dragon and in the night sky by the planet, Mercury.
Chidi, the Red Emperor
Chidi is also known as the god, Shennong (神農), a deity credited with the invention of agriculture. The father of traditional Chinese medicine, Chidi was born on the banks of the Jiang River in what is modern day Shaanxi province, southwest of the Qi Mountains around the year 28 BCE. Legends claimed he was born with the head of a bull and a transparent stomach.
Over the course of his life, Chidi utilized his transparent stomach to test the bodily effects of various plants which allowed him to compile an extensive almanac on medicinal herbs. He met an untimely death when he ate a toxic plant that caused his intestines to rupture before he was able to administer an antidote. As a reward for his selfless deeds, Chidi was given a place in the Jade Emperor’s heavenly court. He’s represented by the planet, Mars.
Baidi, the White Emperor
As a human, Baidi was named Shǎohào (少昊). He was conceived after his mother watched a rainbow shooting star descend over the island where she lived. During his lifetime, Baidi took the island that he and his mother lived on and established a kingdom of birds. He nominated a Phoenix as his chancellor, a hawk as a judge, and a pigeon as his minister of education.
Baidi is a somewhat controversial figure since some texts, like the Tàishǐgōng Shū (太史公書), or Records of the Grand Historian do not contain any mention of him. It has been argued that the ancient librarian, Liú Xīn (劉歆), inserted Baidi into many historical records for political reasons, namely to justify the rule of the Han emperors. Baidi is represented by the planet, Venus, and, in some versions of the myth, his mother conceived him while gazing at this planet.
The Wufang Shangdi are some of the most culturally significant deities in Chinese mythology since they represent the essence of Tian. It’s not uncommon to see shrines dedicated to the Wufang Shangdi in Chinese temples.
Huangdi and Chidi are arguably the most important of the five gods, since they are considered to be the “fathers” of humanity. While all humans are supposedly descended from Huangdi, Chidi is the deity credited with giving them the tools and guidance they needed to farm and care for themselves. It is said that he authored the Shénnóng Běncǎo Jīng (神農本草經), or The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic, one of the first ever almanacs classifying and describing the herbs used in Chinese medicine. Shennong also plays a significant role in the Yì Jīng (易經), or The Book of Changes.
The Yellow Emperor is the patron saint of acupuncturists and silk weavers, and is the protagonist of Jorge Luis Borges’ story, The Fauna of the Mirror. Huangdi plays a key role in many works of classic literature. In fact, he is still a featured part of modern storytelling, including the 2016 film, Xuan Yuan: The Great Emperor, and the video game, Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom.