“The Yellow Emperor”

Another story in a series for liberal religious kids, this one from the Taoist tradition.

Thousands of years ago, Huang-ti, the Yellow Emperor, reigned for a hundred years in the country of Ch’i.

For the first fifteen years of his reign, he took great pleasure in his position. He rejoiced that all the people in the Empire looked up to him as their emperor. He took great care of his body. He ate well, and took the time to enjoy beautiful sights and sounds. But in spite of this, he became sad and depressed, and his face looked haggard and ill.

So Huang-ti decided to change his ways. He saw that the Empire faced great trouble and disorder. For the next fifteen years of his reign, he worked night and day to rule the people with wisdom and intelligence. But in spite of all his efforts, he remained sad and depressed and his face still looked haggard and ill.

At the end of this second fifteen year period, Huang-ti sighed heavily. “I was miserable in the first fifteen years of my reign, when I devoted all my attention to myself and my own needs, and paid no attention to the Empire. I was miserable in the second fifteen years of my reign when I devoted all of my time and energy to solving the problems of the Empire and paid no attention to myself.

“I see now that all my efforts have not succeeded in establishing good government,” he said. “I see now that all my efforts have not succeeded in making myself happy. I have only succeeded in ruining my spiritual life.”

So he left beautiful rooms he lived in within the palace and dismissed all his servants and attendants. He went to live in a small building off to one side of the palace. He stopped eating all the rich food they served in the palace, and began to eat just ordinary food. He sat by himself for three months purifying his mind.

Then one day, he took a nap in the middle of the day. While he was asleep, he dreamt that he traveled to the kingdom of Hua-hsü, a place which was tens of thousands of miles from the country of Ch’i. The kingdom of Hua-hsü could not be reached by ship, or by any vehicle, or even traveling by foot. Only a soul could make the journey….


There was no rule in the kingdom of Hua-hsü. Everything simply went on of its own accord. The people who lived in Hua-hsü did not feel joy in living, nor did they fear dying, so they never died before their time. They were not attached to themselves, and they were not indifferent to other people, so they felt neither love nor hatred. They did not refuse to act in one way, nor did they pursue another course of action, so profit and loss did not exist in their country. They simply followed their natural instincts. Water had no power to drown them, nor fire to burn; cuts and blows caused them neither injury nor pain, tickling could not make them laugh.

They could walk through the air as though they were walking on solid earth. They slept lying in the middle of the air as though resting in a bed. They could see through clouds and mist, thunder did not deafen them, physical beauty did not affect them, steep mountains and deep valleys could not slow them down. They moved about like gods and goddesses….


Huang-ti awoke from the dream. He called for his three advisors and told them what he had seen. “For the last three months, I have been sitting here thinking about how I could take care of my own needs while also ruling the lives of my subjects fairly and wisely,” Huang-ti said. “It is impossible to take care of myself, and it is impossible to rule others fairly and wisely. I could not find the Perfect Way.

“When these thoughts tired me out, I fell into a deep sleep and dreamed this dream. Now I know that the Perfect Way cannot be found through the senses. Now I know the Perfect Way, but I cannot tell you about it, because you cannot use your sense to learn the Perfect Way.”

That was all the Yellow Emperor said.

For the rest of his life, everything in the country of Ch’i was calm and orderly, almost as calm and orderly as in the kingdom of Hua-hsü. And when at last Huang-ti died, the people in the country of Ch’i mourned his death for more than two hundred years.


Sources: Taoist teachings translated from the Book of Lieh-Tzü, Book II “The Yellow Emperor,” trans. Lionel Giles, 1912. Supporting source: Alchemists, Mediums, and Magicians: Stories of Taoist Mystics, trans. and ed. Thomas Cleary, p. 8 n. 29. N.B.: This could be a troubling story for some religious liberals. The notion that the best leaders are those who do no work will be anathema to religious liberals who have come out of Protestantism, and who, while they might have become post-Christian in theology, have not abandoned the Protestant work ethic. Yet a documentary approach to telling religious stories should not soften the essential foreignness of other religions, when such foreignness is present.