3. The Yellow Emperor

From Many Lands
A curriculum for middle elementary grades by Dan Harper
Copyright (c) 2020 Dan Harper

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3. The Yellow Emperor Does Nothing

Thousands of years ago, Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, reigned for a hundred years in the country of Qi.

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 Di 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 Di 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 Xu, a place which was tens of thousands of miles from the country of Qi. The kingdom of Hua Xu 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 Xu. Everything simply went on of its own accord. The people who lived in Hua Xu 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 Di 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 Di 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 senses to learn the Perfect Way.”

That was all the Yellow Emperor said.

For the rest of his life, everything in the country of Qi was calm and orderly, almost as calm and orderly as in the kingdom of Hua Xu. And when at last Huang Di died, the people in the country of Qi mourned his death for more than two hundred years.

The Yellow Emperor

Above: The Yellow Emperor as imagined by a Chinese artist (based on a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons).


SESSION 3: “The Yellow Emperor Does Nothing”

Top-level educational goals:
(1) Have fun and build community;
(2) Increase religious literacy;
(3) Build skills associated with liberal religion, e.g., interpersonal skills, introspection, basic leadership, being in front of a group of people, etc.

Educational objectives for this session:
(1) Get to know other people in the class;
(2) Hear a story from this religious tradition;
(3) Be able to talk about one or more incidents or themes from the story, e.g., if parents ask what happened in Sunday school today.

Optional advance preparation:

If you’re stuck for time, you can teach this class with only a few minutes preparation. If you have time to do advance preparation:
a. Print out copies of The YellowEmperor coloring page (PDF).

I/ Opening

Take attendance.

Light chalice with these words and the associated hand motions: “We light this chalice to celebrate Unitarian Universalism: the church of the open mind, the helping hands, and the loving heart.”

Check-in: Go around circle. Each child and adult says his or her name, and then may say one good thing and one bad thing that has happened in the past week (anyone may pass).

II/ Read the story “The Yellow Emperor Does Nothing.”

Read “The Yellow Emperor Does Nothing” to the children. (Don’t distribute the coloring page now, but save it for later.)

III/ Act out the story.

Once again this week, we will help the children internalize the story by acting it out.

Ask: “Who are the characters in this story?” In this story, the main character is the Yellow Emperor; also very important are the people of Hua Xi; finally, the emperor’s three advisors are lesser characters.

By now, you and the class know how to act out a story:— Set up the stage area, and have the audience sit facing the stage area. The lead teacher reads the story, prompting actors. At appropriate moments in the story, you may want to prompt the children to think through the following things:

“How will you act out the people of Hua Xu?” and

“How will you act out the Yellow Emperor doing nothing?”

These can be difficult things to act out!

IV/ Conversation about the story

Sit back down in a group. Now ask some general questions: “What was the best part of the story? Did the story make sense to you?” —or questions you come up with on your own.

This story goes against all the precepts of Western culture, which tell us that in order to make things better, we must always work harder. So say to the children:

“Most of us believe that the way to make the world a better place is to work hard to make that happen. But the Yellow Emperor finally believed that the way to make the world a better place is to do NOTHING AT ALL. What do you think about that idea?”

Next, ask the children:

“Is this story really true, or is it more like a fairy tale?” Most of them will say this story is more like a fairy tale. (Most of us adults would agree with that, but you might want to let the children know that the Yellow Emperor may have been an actual historical per-son—which doesn’t mean that this story is true, but there may be some truth to the per-son in the story.)

“So what is the moral of this story?” The children may say that the moral of the story is to DO NOTHING. This probably is the moral of the story, BUT doing nothing has to be done the way the people of Hua Xu did nothing: don’t feel joy in living and don’t fear dying; feel neither love nor hatred; it doesn’t mean anything if you profit from something and it doesn’t bother you if you lose anything.

V/ Time to do nothing

Tell the children that you’re going to try doing nothing for a while, just like the Yellow Emperor did, to see how it feels. Have them sit comfortably in their chairs (just like the picture of the Yellow Emperor on the coloring page). They can sit with their hands on their knees, or any way that feels comfortable; is a child wants to sit on the floor, that’s fine too.

Tell them that you’re all going to sit quietly and do nothing for 30 seconds and see how it feels. But you are not going to meditate; you are not going to “watch their breath-ing,” or “pay attention to your thoughts,” none of those common instructions when Western adults teach children meditation or mindfulness. No, instead of meditating or practicing mindfulness, you are going to do nothing at all—pretend your body is withered wood, and your mind is dead ashes (this is how “doing nothing” is described in the Zuangzi, one of the early books about Dao-ism).

After 30 seconds, tell them to stop, and ask if they really were able to do nothing at all. Did thoughts go through their minds? —that’s doing something! Did they pay attention to their breathing? —that’s doing some-thing!

You might say that it is really hard for people who live in the United States to do nothing—the United States is sort of the opposite of the country of Hua Xu, because here in the United States we are always sup-posed to be doing something. Then tell them that they actually did a pretty good job of do-ing nothing, and most adults would not do as well as they did!

If this went well, you can ask them if they think they’re good enough at doing nothing that they could do it for a full minute, or even two minutes! Get them to agree on the amount of time they want to sit and do nothing. Then — do nothing!

When you are finished doing nothing, ask them if they think they might have made the world a better place by doing nothing. After all, that’s how the Yellow Emperor made the world a better place—by doing nothing.

VI/ Coloring pages and free drawing — More active play

If you printed out The YellowEmperor coloring page (PDF), you can hand them out. Also have blank pieces of paper available, and suggest they draw the Yellow Emperor doing nothing, or the people of Hua Xu doing nothing (of course you can allow them to draw whatever they want).

The more active children may need to do something active after doing nothing—one teacher can stay with the children who want to draw, and the other teacher can be with the children who need more active play. Active play is a chance to do something where they can move their bodies, e.g., play with Legos; run around the campus; etc.

(In the context of the story, you might think of this portion of the class as a time when you can allow the children to “follow their natural instincts”—within standard group behavioral guidelines, of course, and with the necessity of adult supervision.)

VI/ Closing circle

When time is almost up, have the children stand in a circle.

When the children are in a circle, ask them what they did today, and prompt them with questions and answers, e.g.: “What did we do today? We heard a story, right? Any-one remember what the story was about? It was about the Yellow Emperor, right? And what did the Yellow Emperor do? —NOTHING. But why did he do nothing?” — etc. You’re not trying to put any one child on the spot, but rather drawing on the wisdom of the group as a whole.

If any parents have come to pick up their children, invite them to join the circle (so they can know what it is their children learned about this week).

Say the closing words together:

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the fainthearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

Then tell the children how you enjoyed seeing them (if that’s true), and that you look forward to seeing them again next week.

If any children left any drawings or completed coloring pages, post them on the bulletin board before you go.



1. Source of the story

This story is adapted from Lionel Giles, trans., Taoist teachings from the Book of Lieh-Tzü, Wisdom of the East series, ed. L. Cranmer-Byng and Dr. S. A. Kapadia (Lon-don: John Murray,1912), pp. 36 ff.

2. Daoism and meditation

Most of the meditation practices common in the United States today appear to have roots in Buddhism. But compared to Buddhist meditation, Daoist meditation has different goals. Stephen Eskildsen, in his book Daoism, Meditation, and the Wonders of Serenity (State Univ. of New York Press, 2015), outlines the purpose of Daoist meditation:

“For Daoists, meditation has been a primary means of fostering serenity and bringing it to greater depths. The greatest depths of serenity are entranced states of consciousness wherein mystical insights or experiences are said to come about—typically conceived as spirit (shen), qi, and essence (jing) — are said to be activated in most salubrious and wondrous ways…. However, for such wondrous occurrences to come about in full abundance to come about in full abundance…your method of meditation ought to be simple and passive…so as not to hinder the wonders that can only arise naturally.” (p. 1)

Most Buddhist meditation practices, rather than trying to produce such wondrous occurrences, aim to help an individual stop the end-less cycle of rebirth and suffering and achieve nirvana, which can be translated as “nothingness.”

In spite of the difference in goals, some Daoists meditation techniques resemble Buddhist meditation techniques. As Buddhism spread through China, Daoists borrowed from Buddhist meditation practices (just as Buddhists borrowed from various meditation practices in India, as Buddhism spread during and after Gautama Buddha’s lifetime). Yet Stephen Eskildsen reminds us that Daoists have used “an immense variety of meditation techniques.”

Within Daoism, according to Eskildsen, there’s a difference between “proactive” meditation techniques, such as “visualizations, invocations, mental guiding of qi,” etc., and “passive” meditation techniques. Eskildsen points out that in the Daoist book the Zhuangzi, in chapter 6 describes a passive meditation technique as “sitting and forgetting”:

“I destroy my limbs and body and I eliminate my intelligence. I separate from my body and I do away with knowledge. I become identical with the Great Pervader. This is called ‘sitting and forgetting.’” (trans. Stephen Eskildsen, p. 11)

The “doing nothing” meditation in this session plan is based on this notion of “sitting and forgetting.” We don’t tell children to pay attention to their breath, as in common Buddhist-based meditation practices, because the goal of “sitting and forgetting” is to become unaware of the body and the breath. And we don’t tell children to “let their thoughts come and go,” as in common Buddhist-based meditation practices, because the goal of this kind of Daoist meditation is to “eliminate the intelligence.”

Daoists developed many different meditation techniques over time. Of particular interest to this session is a meditation technique from a Han Dynasty text on Daoist meditation:

“Set up a retreat room. Firmly shut the door so that nobody can carelessly enter in. Daily go into the room and put yourself to the test. If you cannot concentrate or if you uneasy, come out. Do not force yourself to do it. In this way, continue to go into the room daily. Gradually your concentration will be thorough, and you will feel relaxed…. Your mouth will not want to speak.…You will not want to hear the voices of other people….” (trans. Eskildsen, pp. 35-36)

This is not unlike what the Yellow Emperor does in the story—do nothing, don’t talk, don’t force yourself, just “sit and forget.”

Above all, remember the goal of Daoism in general: to become one with the Way, rather than striving against the Way. Daoism in general advocates for following nature, in-stead of trying to force or impose our will on the rest of the world. This is very different from the Western assumptions that guide us in the United States!

3. More about Huang Di

In Chinese mythology, Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor) has divine or semi-divine status:

“Huang Di, or the Yellow Emperor, is one of the most renowned legendary figures in Chinese mythology and culture. He is the son of Shaodian, the half brother of Yan Di, and the forebear of some ethnic groups and many notable deities. He is also the most important of the Five August Emperors…. He defeated Yan Di, Chiyou, and other deities and became the most powerful ruler of the central part of ancient China in mythical history. In later traditions he is highly respected as a common ancestor of all Chinese people.” — Lihui Yang and Deming An with Jessica Anderson Turner, Handbook of Chinese Mythology Oxford Univ. Press, 2005), p. 138.

While many Westerners think of Laozi as the founder of Daoism, many Chinese think of the Yellow Emperor as the one who came up with the basic ideas of Daoism.

4. More about Daoism

If, after two Daoist stories, you want to delve more deeply into the topic of Daoism, here are two books worth looking at:

Daoism: A Beginner’s Guide by James Miller (Oneworld Pub., 2008) gives a good, short introduction to the tradition. Miller’s book is good at pointing out how Daoism has evolved over time; it is not as good at de-scribing the bewildering variety of sects and subgroups within Daoism.

To learn more about the diversity of Daoist meditation techniques, try Stephen Eskildsen’s book Daoism, Meditation, and the Wonders of Serenity (State Univ. of New York Press, 2015). However, be forewarned that it is highly technical in places.

The Yellow Emperor, by Chinese artist Gan Bozong (618-907); woodcut digitized CC BY 4.0 Wellcome Collection, digitally enhanced CC BY 4.0 Dan Harper.