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  • Shennong: The God-King of Chinese Medicine

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    All Chinese medicine was said to have started from one man, Shennong, which means “God farmer” who today has become a deity in Chinese religion. He is a mythical sage healer and ruler of prehistoric China. Shennong is also known as Wugushen “five grains,” or Wuguxiandi “first deity of the five grains.” Legend tells us he taught the Chinese how to practice agriculture, the use of herbal drugs, the application of plant-based medicine, and acupuncture.


    Shennong is also known as Wugushen “five grains,” or Wuguxiandi “first deity of the five grains.” Legend tells us he taught the Chinese how to practice agriculture, the use of herbal drugs, the application of plant-based medicine, and acupuncture.Shennong lived from 2737 to 2697 BC – this coincides with the commonly held origin of Chinese medicine some 5,000 years ago. Legend has it that Shennong was born in what is now Fufeng county.

    Shennong seated at the mouth of a cave while dressed in traditional clothing made from leaves. He is holding a branch with leaves and berries in his right hand. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

    Sophisticated metal works have been found there dating back nearly 3000 years, showing that there was an ancient civilization in the area. When Shennong was a true leader of China, it is likely that his home was near Lishan, a mountain in Hubei Province. This is also the suggested location of Shennong’s burial place, in a cave called “Shennong Cave.”

    The Emperor of Fire

    First known as “Yan Di,” the Emperor of fire, he came to be known by many more names and titles. Shennong became the “Red Emperor” because his patron element was fire, he was also known as the “God of the burning wind.” He was associated with fire because Chinese legends say he taught people how to clear their farm fields using fire.

    Shennong’s Teachings

    Shennong looked like a man with a transparent stomach in his role as patron of medicinal herbs. It was believed that through this transparency he could see the effects of the plants he was ingesting as they affected him. He is said to have eaten hundreds of plants while using his body to research the medicinal properties. The Huainanzi, a Chinese collection of debates from 139 BC, states that people were weak, sickly, starving, and diseased prior to the coming of Shennong. He taught them how to farm, use medicinal herbs and care for themselves holistically. Legends also say that he helped people transition from a diet of meat, clams, dairy, to one based on grains and vegetables.

    1914 depiction of Shennong tasting herbs to discover their qualities.

    The most well-known work associated with Shennong is The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic. It was first compiled near the end of the Western Han Dynasty (306 BC – 220 AD), 2000 years after Shennong is believed to have existed.

    The work lists numerous herbs that are graded based on rarity as well as their properties. It is considered to be China’s earliest pharmacopoeia and includes 365 medicines derived from plants & minerals. The medicines are categorized as “superior” (non-poisonous and rejuvenating), “medium” (having some toxicity based on the dosage and exerting tonic effects), and “inferior” (poisonous but able to quickly reduce a fever and cure indigestion).

    This work shows that Shennong discovered herbal tea. The story goes, that he had leaves burning above a fire when a column of hot air scooped them up and they landed in a cauldron of boiling water nearby. From this, he found the medicinal purposes of tea that are still used around the world today.

    A picture from Shennong bencao jing (Shennong’s Root and Herbal Classic). (Pancrat/CC 3.0 )

    According to Chinese history, his death is said to have come at the hands of his research in medicinal herbs. He ate a yellow flower of a weed that he mistook for another medicinal herb which caused his intestines to rupture. When he went to take his  personal antidotal, he realized he did not have it on hand. Knowing he would die, he documented his own mistake and future death by his own hand.

    The Second of Three Sovereigns

    Shennong was the second emperor in a group known as “the three sovereigns.” This was a group of kings that governed prehistoric China.

    In fact, Shennong apparently shared alchemical secrets of medicine, and biological immortality with the Yellow Emperor. Shennong, Fu Xi, and the Yellow Emperor also play a part in the creation of the Guqin, an ancient Chinese stringed instrument.

    The temple of Shennong in Tainan, Taiwan. (Pbdragon Wang/CC 4.0)

    As a king and a god, Shennong is venerated on his lunar birthday of April 26 with fireworks, incense, and sacrifices of cows, oxen, pigs, and sheep. Today, he remains the patron deity of farmers, rice traders, and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. The herbs we consume today were discovered and cataloged by this mysterious man. However, details about him may have been lost in time and history has turned him into a deity. His knowledge on plants is as valuable today as it was back then. Truly, without his wisdom we would be missing a huge value to all our lives. Even today, most pharmaceutical drugs use herbs as their base compounds. Surely this single man changed the entire world.

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