By London Acupuncturist Roisin Golding – First published by EJOM (European Journal of Oriental Medicine) Vol. 6 No. 1 2008

Just why was Huang Di, Yellow Lord of the Earth, eponymous Emperor of the Nei revered? He asks lots of questions but rarely has any of the answers. Why was he honoured as the author of China’s oldest medical book? Why not Qi Po Neijing? Or Ren Di Neijing? After all, it was Ren Di, the Mythical Emperor of Humanity, who was said to preside over health and human sufferings, diseases and epidemics.[i]
Just about every scientific endeavour during the Han and Jin dynasty paid homage to the mythical Emperor, from human sciences like politics, to subjects such as astronomy, geography and mathematics, as well as medicine. Just what was it about Huang Di that made him so appealing?
This isn’t an idle curiosity. If the Han dynasty and later writers paid homage to Huang Di it is because he stood for a belief, an attitude or a philosophy, or linked in some core way to the theory they were expounding. Huang Di was written into virtually every page of the Su Wen and Ling Shu. This article asserts that by incorporating his name into the title of Huang Di Nei Jing (by 200 AD) he, and whatever it was he stood for, was placed as a cornerstone for acupuncture theory. Without the cornerstone, the architecture of Chinese medical theory so easily comes tumbling down.
Are acupuncturists simply making half-built structures out of the rubble? There are so many different styles of acupuncture, all of them interesting but incomplete. So many architectural pieces are left lying, discarded because they simply don’t fit. Is it possible that a fully reconstructed acupuncture theory, one where all the main pieces: yin and yang, five elements, heaven earth and man, the effect of climates, etc., could converge on the corner stone of Huang Di? It is to this end that the meaning of Huang Di will be explored in this article.
Let’s, for a moment, look outside the narrow field of medicine to the wider philosophical and scientific view of the Han dynasty. During the Han every man of learning, which included the Emperor, Generals, Ministers, and Doctors, were expected to understand the ‘three sciences’: astronomy, geography, and human sciences. Compare, for example, “A commander must have three sciences…: knowledge of the heavenly bodies, acquaintance with the form of the earth, discernment of the nature of man,” from Huai Nan,[ii] with “a physician should know something about the upper region which is astronomy, he should know something about the lower region which is geography, and he should know something about the middle region which is human affairs.” [iii]
The central idea was that the universe stemmed from one universal yuan qi, which meant that an event in any part of the universe resonated with phenomenon of ‘like qi’ elsewhere. ‘Things within the same class mutually move each other.’ [iv] This was a cornerstone of the Early Han, Huang-Lao philosophy, and the basis of the idea of resonance patterns in five element theory as applied to acupuncture. John Major, in his introduction to chapters three, four and five of Huainanzi, explains that Huang-Lao philosophy was perhaps the most important philosophical school of the early Han. Huang refers to Huang Di, while Lao refers to Lao Zi. Some claim that this Daoist philosophy originated as early as the 4th century BC. While social historians look at the importance of Huang-Lao philosophy to the idea of centralized power for the Qin-Han rulers (because Huang Di was said to have presided over central China), John Major shows that ‘Huang’ refers to more cosmological ideas. It is these cosmological ideas which will be examined in this article.
If Huang Di is the Earth Emperor, then what is his connection with cosmology? The myth claims that Huang Di lived during the Western Zhou period (1122 -771 BC), when the theory of the heavenly mandate was first promulgated. He was the son of Shao Dian and his personal name was Xuan Yuan.[v]
This personal name provides a clue to Huang Di’s heavenly position. Xuanyuan happens to be a very ancient constellation in the Chinese sky and lies directly above one of the four ancient cardinal asterisms which mark the midpoint of each of the seasons. It is made up of seventeen stars in Leo and provides a vivid picture of a Chinese dragon crashing onto the ecliptic, full of power and energy. The Yellow Emperor is also known as the Yellow Dragon. The Jin Shu, the official history of the Jin dynasty (265 – 420 AD), states unambiguously that Xuan Yuan is the home of Huang Di.
Xuanyuan would have been exactly on the summer solstice when the four cardinal asterisms were first used, approximately 2,400 BC.[vi] This means that when the Sun was here it was midsummer, and when the full Moon was here it was the winter solstice. The Sun is associated with the emperor and the moon with the empress. Hence the Dragon, Xuanyuan, was accompanied by the Empress Moon when the Sun plumbed the depths at the winter solstice, and reunited again with the Emperor Sun, at the summer solstice. The dragon was therefore drenched in the colour of the sun, yellow gold.
Xuanyuan is said to be where the forces of yin and yang met (copulated) to produce the various seasons, and the various climates are influenced by the quality of this interaction between yin and yang. For example, if the meeting is violent it will produce thunder and lightning, if it is gentle it will produce rain. “The change of 24 kinds of climate (the 24 jieqi of the farmer’s calendar) are all presided over by Xuan Yuan.” [vii]
By the time of the Han dynasty, due to precession, Xuanyuan had moved to the (position of the Sun during the) third month of summer, July. This is most likely the reason why the third month of summer is associated with the earth element.
I must explain here that when we talk about seasons we are talking about the height of the Sun in relation to the celestial equator, and not in relation to climates as is common in the West. Hence, when the Sun reaches the highest point in the sky, 23 ½ degrees above the celestial equator (the tropic of Cancer) it is midsummer. When the Sun reaches its lowest position, 23½ degrees below the celestial equator at the tropic of Capricorn, it is midwinter. The equinoxes are the midpoints of spring and autumn. The beginning of the seasons are accordingly six weeks before these mid-points so that Spring begins at the 4th February, Summer on 4th May, Autumn on 8th August, and Winter on 7th November (give or take one day). It is these seasonal dates which we refer to when talking about the five elements. In the West, by contrast, the midpoints are commonly taken as the starting points of the seasons.
Although stars, such as Xuanyuan, were said to be the residence for the spirit of the illustrious, they did not imprison these immortals. Huang Di was therefore free to come and go as he pleased throughout the sky.
Sima Qian, (145 – 87 BC) described Beidou (better known to us as the Plough, Big Dipper or Ladle) as the chariot of Huang Di, on which he rode in order to control the four cardinal points, to divide yin and yang, to regulate the four seasons, maintain equilibrium between the five elements, and to take charge of the 24 solar periods and the calendar![viii]
To understand this we should briefly look at the central position of the pole star. As you may know, the heavens are vast, on the outside (of the earth) and continually move around one still point, the north celestial pole. The Taiji symbol, which was first drawn during the Song dynasty (960-1279AD) when astronomy was flourishing, had been previously fully described in the I Ching where the term was first used.[ix] This symbol is referred to as both the Ridge Pole and Utmost Polarity. The Ridge Pole is actually the celestial pole[x] around which the heavens eternally move. Ho Peng Yoke points out that ji in Taiji refers to Beiji,[xi] which is the name of the Han dynasty pole star. As the canopy of the heavens continually move around the celestial pole, it brings with it the Sun and then the Moon, and day changes to night and night changes to day, so that yin eternally alternates with yang. Utmost Polarity refers to the polarity of yang and yin. Hence Utmost Polarity of Yin and Yang and Ridge Pole refer to the change from yin to yang brought about by this movement of the heavens about the celestial pole. Indeed the circle of the taiji symbol is said to represent the ‘limited infinity’, which is a good way to describe the celestial sphere, and hence taiji is also an abstract symbol for the heavens themselves. It is the continual movement of the heavens around the earth that creates time in relation to humans.
Beidou, the Plough, is known as a circumpolar star, which means that it never actually sets for anyone living north of 30 degrees latitude (it just gets outshone by the Sun after sunrise). It has seven stars in the shape of a ladle, with a box or scoop at one end, and the handle of the ladle at the other. Being circumpolar, the whole constellation of the Plough appears to turn anticlockwise around the sky, when observed facing north. It turns 360 degrees each day, but after one day the starting point of the handle of the ‘ladle’ has moved anti-clockwise at the rate of almost one degree per day. Each fifteen degree turn of the starting position of the handle of the Plough (which takes fifteen days approximately) marks out one of the 24 solar dates, and a 90 degree turn marks a season. Hence Beidou, with a little imagination, can be seen as a handle which literally turns the sky around the celestial pole, and as it does it brings first the light yang of day and then the dark yin of night. As it moves steadily through the year, it brings the changes of the four seasons. In Western astronomy the two stars at the edge of the scoop are used to point to our pole star, Polaris but for the Chinese the Plough was a ticking ‘clock’ hand which could tell the time of year, hence why Sima Qian said that Huang Di was in charge of the calendar.
Sima Qian stated that in the early evening, when the handle of Beidou points to the east (to the right when facing the north pole) it represented the start of spring, li chun, 4th February. By summer the handle would point upwards, by autumn it would point to the west, and in winter it would point downwards, to the northern horizon. It is the Plough, Beidou, and not the position of sunrise and sunset which connects directions with specific seasons i.e. spring is east, summer is south, autumn is west and winter is north. Since, for the Northern hemisphere, the Sun rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest during summer, while during winter it rises in the southeast and sets southwest, and it never approaches the northern horizon, the daily movement of the Sun cannot be said to relate to the five elements.
Beidou is also connected in another fundamental way with acupuncture, for the theory of the nine needles[xii] is based on knowledge of the stars of Beidou. According to an old star manual, Xingjing, Beidou originally consisted of nine stars, but two of them had already moved out of the circumpolar region (due to precession) by the Han dynasty.[xiii] Interestingly, it is one of these stars, Zhaoyao, which Huainanzi refers to as pointing out the sequence of the terrestrial branches.[xiv] The star Fu was also associated with Beidou as an assistant to Huang Di. This star was said to assist the sixth star of the Plough, and thus help “to operate the valve which regulates the yang force”.[xv]
Qi Bo, in the Ling Shu, immediately establishes that the nine needles are based on astronomical concepts. “The nine needles are based upon the great numbers of Heaven and Earth, beginning with one and ending with nine… Nine times nine equals 81 which became the basic numbers of measurement known as the numbers of the Yellow Bell to which the needles correspond.” Ling Shu[xvi]

  Jin Shu ch. 11 Both Ling Shu ch 78
Star/Needle Signifies   Governs   Used for
One Heaven Governs the virtue of yang and symbolises the Son of Heaven.   Heaven Lungs and skin
Two Earth The seat of the Empress, the legal star and governs the punishment of yin.   Earth Muscles and spleen
Three Human The order star and governs internal chaos. Fire Humans Blood vessels and meridians
Four Time The penalty inflicting star. Governs the retribution of the natural order of things against those who have offended the Dao. Water Four seasons Climates of four seasons and their affect on the body
Five Sound This is the execution star which governs the support of the Emperor at the centre, and accorded to the four quarters in imposing the death penalty upon transgressors. Earth Five sounds Damp and pus
Six Musical notes A hazardous star and controls the five grains in the store house of the heavens Wood Six pitch pipes Six divisions
Seven The stars The departmental star and controls weapons Metal Seven stars Lungs and seven openings (of the face)
Eight       Eight winds Rheumatism
Nine       Nine divisions of China Joint restrictions
Table 1 The Seven stars of Beidou/the Plough and Nine Needles[xvii]

Table 1 compares the associations of the stars as described in the astronomical chapters of Jin Shu [xviii] with the nine needles as described in Ling Shu ch.78
The reason why the nine needles are based on the stars of Beidou is twofold. Firstly, fire and metal elements correspond to Heaven, presumably because Fire resonates with the sun, and metal, like the Heavens, sparkle. Fire (moxa) and metal are the main tools of the acupuncturist. Secondly, Beidou, the Plough, regulates the alternation of yin and yang, the four seasons, the five elements and the twenty-four time periods. Since this is also the primary function of acupuncture in relation to the body, Beidou serves not just as an example but provides a resonance between the acupuncturist and the heavens.
A full set of nine needles were found at Hebei Province, dating from the second century BC. Four were gold and five were silver[xix]. Some medical historians have assumed that needles of lesser metals must have corroded and dissolved, for none have ever been found. But, in all likelihood, gold and silver was specifically chosen for the purposes of acupuncture. I believe gold and silver needles were used primarily as resonance tools so that yang and yin in the body could be more easily attuned with the heavenly source of yang and yin, the golden Sun and silver Moon.
Huang Di’s relationship to the Sun is immensely complex. Firstly, he is the Earth Lord. Earth itself has a complex relationship to the other four elements and the four seasons. Does Earth lie in the centre or between fire and metal? We have already discussed the position of Xuanyuan during the third month of summer (same position as the Sun) which links late summer with the earth element. Another important clue to explain the odd position of the earth element is found in the reference to the Yellow Bell in Ling Shu chapter 78. The Yellow Bell is said to resonate with the earth element and the solstices.
“Yellow Bell makes the note gong, gong (the earth note) is the prince of the notes. Thus Yellow Bell is established in zi, its number is 81, and it governs the eleventh month.”[xx] Zi is the first branch in the eleventh month, that of the winter solstice. It is also said that the note for the summer solstice is like that of the winter solstice (Yellow Bell) ‘immersed in clarity’. The Nei Jing often refers to the elements in terms of sound, beginning with the earth note gong. “Five in the five sounds is situated between one and nine, which means that it is situated between the winter solstice and the summer solstice, and between zi and wu branches.” Ling Shu[xxi]
Thus the earth note represents the extremity of movement of the yellow Sun between the solstices and also harmonises between these two extremes. (Earth is also known as ‘balanced yang’.)
It is useful to visualise the five elements three dimensionally with earth slightly raised in the centre above the other four elements, controlling their movement. It may seem odd to acupuncturists that the earth element can dominate the other four elements, but it does this because of its connection to the Sun: “The Sun, being the essence of taiyang, governs all life, sustenance, benevolence and virtue and at the same time symbolises the Emperor. It reflects any imperfections he may have and serves as a warning about them. The Emperor rules over his empire by the element earth. A solar eclipse arises from a conflict between yin and yang.”[xxii]
The Sun is more usually thought of in connection with the fire element. But one must make a distinction. The Sun rules all of the seasons: when the Sun is high it is summer, when it is low it is winter, and when it is in between it is either spring or autumn. The fire element only relates to the Sun at its highest position, in full glory, as it were.
Some consider that Huang Di is the Sun God[xxiii]. Certainly the celestial Huang Di was often accompanied in the sky by stars representing the four Di who presided over the four seasons and the four cardinal points, but these four Di were subservient to Huang Di. It was Huang Di, and not the four lesser Di, who was in charge of bringing about a change in the seasons because the seasons must obviously follow the Sun. Certainly by the Jin dynasty, “Huang Di is the god who occupies the key position in the heavens.”[xxiv]
There is also a strong numerological relationship between earth and the Sun. The Neijing makes reference, when talking of the five elements, to the Hetu map. The Hetu map uses the numbers one to ten to represent the five elements: water is one and six, fire is two and seven, wood is three and eight, metal four and nine, and earth in the centre is linked with the numbers five and ten. The four seasons are placed around the centre. While in the Neijing the four other elements are referred to by their ‘completion’ number, that is the higher of their two numbers, it refers to Earth only by the number five. According to Huang-Lao philosophy the numbers five and ten belong to both the earth element and the sun.
“The five notes correspond to the Sun. The number of the Sun is ten.”[xxv] According to Chinese cosmology there were originally ten suns.
It seems that the Sun tinged the Yellow Bell, the Earth, Huang Di, and Xuanyuan with its yellow-golden rays.
Can we be sure that Huang Di of the Nei Jing is the same as the heavenly entity described above? The eponymous Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor of the Neijing, was more of a humble student to Qi Po than God-like. However, in ancient China hero figures were said to take up residence in the sky after their death to become perfected in the heavens. They sometimes resided in the star, and sometimes were that star. It is not contradictory, therefore, for the Chinese to claim that Huang Di was a serious student while alive, one who inquired into the deepest mysteries of astronomy, medicine, politics and geography in order to pass it on for posterity, and who then became the entity residing in the constellation which bore his personal name thereafter. Indeed Suwen alludes to this in the first paragraph of its opening chapter by describing how the talented Huang Di finally ‘reached the status of Heaven.’
There are several other instances in the Nei Jing when Huang Di is clearly referred to in his celestial manifestation.
In Suwen chapter 67 Huang Di “sat in Ming Tang. In the beginning he rectified the mainstay of heaven. He looked down and observed the 8 furtherest regions. He established the five constants.’
Ming Tang is a position in the sky just east of Xuanyuan. When the text refers to ‘rectified the mainstay of heaven,’ it is referring to Huang Di’s position in relation to the Plough and the north celestial pole. The eight furtherest regions on Earth reflect the nine field divisions of the heavens. The heavens were divided into a central palace around the north celestial pole, with four surrounding palaces. These surrounding palaces were subdivided to create eight celestial fields around the central palace. It is from this position in the Central Palace that Huang Di ‘looked down’ and observed the 8 furtherest regions.
So was Huang Di a medical sage or Time Lord? In this article we have explored some Huang-Lao ideas – that everything between, and including, the Heavens and the Earth were created out of one original energy, and that all of creation was interconnected. There was a pattern to this universe and the most visible and reliable pattern was that seen in the eternally recurring movements of the sky, of the stars, the sun, moon and planets. By these patterns one could establish time (for example by the movement of Beidou in relation to the four seasons and the twenty four time divisions of the farmer’s calendar) and in turn the effect that time had on natural cycles in the plant, animal and human kingdoms.
Because we are born of an interaction between Heaven and Earth, all living creatures are physiologically time sensitive. Time and acupuncture are inseparable, both in theory and in practice. As Joseph Needham so eloquently expressed it, “The earliest, and in the long run the most influential kinds of scientific explanation, those so basic that they truly pervaded the ancient Chinese world view, were in terms of time.”[xxvi] This was as true for mathematical relationships, as it was for medicine, and any other scientific endeavour.
Time provides the warp upon which the patterns of yin and yang, the five elements, the meridians, and 361 points, [xxvii] are woven. By incorporating Huang Di into the very title of Huang Di Nei Jing, the authors laid down time and the heavens as the foundation of medical theory.
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[i] Kistemaker and Sun, p 43
[ii] Evan Morgan, Tao: The great Luminant essays from the Huai Nan, p 380 .
[iii] Su Wen 75:5 Henry Lu.
[iv] J. Major, Huainanzi, p 65 (Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought.)
[v] Unschuld HDNJSW p 13.
[vi] See Kistemaker and Sun, ‘The Chinese Sky During the Han’, p17 for time determination of the cardinal asterisms. Kistemaker and Xiaochun, quoting from Tianguan Sshu (‘Celestial Officials’), Sima Qian, 2nd century BC
[vii] See the Kistemaker and Xiaochun, p123. Sometimes Xuanyuan is referred to as Quan.
[viii] Kistemaker and Sun, p 23.
[ix] Ho Peng Yoke. Li Qi Shu,.
[x] The North celestial pole is the projection of the North pole onto the celestial sphere.
[xi] Ho Peng Yoke, Li, Qi and Shu, p 12.
[xii] Ling shu ch 78
[xiii] Ho Peng Yoke. Chinese Mathematical Astrology, p 23
[xiv] Major, Huainanzi ch 5. P224 However, I should explain here that the pointer stars at the handle of the plough continually point to the same star and so when Huainanzi refers to Zhaoyao pointing to, it is referring to what is called a cosmograph, which was a devise used during the Han as an aid to calculate the date and to give various prognostications.
[xv] Ho Peng Yoke, Jin Shu, chapter 11
[xvi] Ling Shu Ch. 78:2
[xvii] The above are taken from Ho Peng Yoke’s translation of the astronomical chapters of the Jin Shuu.
[xviii] Ch. 11 Jin Shue. The astronomical chapters of Jin Shu describes theories of the heavens current during the Han as well as Jin dynasty.
[xix] Bai Xinghua Acupuncture Visible Holism p 17
[xx] Major, chapter 3, section 28, p 110 – 116
[xxi] Ling Shu 78:7
[xxii] Ho Peng Yoke Jin Shu, , ch 12.
[xxiii] See Kistemaker and Sun, p83
[xxiv] Ho Peng Yoke, the Astonomical Chapters of Chin Shu (Jin Shu) Ch. 11, p 77
[xxv] Major p 117 lines 20-21
[xxvi] Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 5, p. 222
[xxvii] The Neijing mentions 349 points, but repeatedly referred to 360 points, or sometimes 365 points. There are of course 361 points, excluding the extra points. 365 points relate to the number of days in a year, 360 to the movement of Jupiter. 361 is interesting, because it is closer to the true movement of Jupiter (it takes just under 361 days to move through one ‘branch width’ in the heavens. It is also the square of 19, which ties it to the 19 year concordance of the Sun and moon. It therefore is the nearest number to satisfy a concordance between the sun, moon and Jupiter and close enough to satisfy the 6 time 60 which allows a concordance between Jupiter and Saturn. )