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Shennong Legend

Shennongtan, as the south entrance of Shennongjia Geopark, is featured by an altar for worshiping Shennong, the ancestor of Chinese agricultural civilization.

China Intangible Cultural Heritage

Year: 2008

Sort: Folk Literature

Area: Hubei Province

Serial No.: I-49

Declarer: Suizhou City& Shennongjia Forestry District, Hubei Province

Shennong, also known as the Emperor of the Five Grains, was a legendary ruler of China and cultural hero. Shennong has at times been counted amongst the Three Sovereigns (also known as “Three Emperors”), a group of pseudo-mythological and sage-like emperors said to have lived some 4,500 years ago.

Shennong is among the group of variously named heroic persons and deities who have been traditionally given credit for various inventions: these include the hoe, plow, axe, digging wells, agricultural irrigation, preserving stored seeds by using boiled horse urine, the weekly farmers market, the Chinese calendar (especially the division into the 24 jieqi or solar terms), and to have refined the therapeutic understanding of taking pulse measurements, acupuncture, and moxibustion, and to have instituted the harvest thanksgiving ceremony (Zhaji Sacrificial Rite, later known as the Laji Rite).

Shennong has been thought to have taught the ancient Chinese not only their practices of agriculture, but also the use of herbal drugs. Shennong is said in the Huainanzi to have tasted hundreds of herbs to test their medical value. The most well-known work attributed to Shennong is The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic, first compiled some time during the end of the Western Han Dynasty - several thousand years after Shennong might have existed. This work lists the various medicinal herbs, such as lingzhi, that were discovered by Shennong and given grade and rarity ratings. It is considered to be the earliest Chinese pharmacopoeia, and includes 365 medicines derived from minerals, plants, and animals. Shennong is credited with identifying hundreds of medical (and poisonous) herbs by personally testing their properties, which was crucial to the development of Traditional Chinese medicine. Legend holds that Shennong had a transparent body, and thus could see the effects of different plants and herbs on himself. Tea, which acts as an antidote against the poisonous effects of some seventy herbs, is also said to have been his discovery. Shennong first tasted it, traditionally in ca. 2437 BC, from tea leaves on burning tea twigs, after they were carried up from the fire by the hot air, landing in his cauldron of boiling water. Shennong is venerated as the Father of Chinese medicine. He is also believed to have introduced the technique of acupuncture.

According to some versions of the myths about Shennong, he eventually died as a result of his researches into the properties of plants by experimenting upon his own body, after, in one of his tests, he ate the yellow flower of a weed that caused his intestines to rupture before he had time to swallow his antidotal tea: having thus given his life for humanity, he has since received special honor though his worship as the Medicine King. Under his various names, Shennong is the patron deity especially of farmers, rice traders, and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Many temples and other places dedicated to his commemoration exist.