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19th century Japanese painting of Shennong.

Shennong (Traditional Chinese: 神農; Simplified Chinese: 神农; Pinyin: Shénnóng; Korean: 신농; Vietnamese: Thần Nông), also known as the Emperor of the Five Grains (Traditional Chinese: 五穀先帝; Simplified Chinese: 五谷先帝; Pinyin: Wǔgǔ xiāndì), was a ruler of China and cultural hero who is reputed to have lived some 5,000 years ago and taught the ancient Chinese the practices of agriculture. Appropriately, his name means "the Divine Farmer". Considered to be the father of Chinese agriculture, Shennong taught his people how to cultivate grain as food, so as to avoid killing animals.

Shennong can also be taken to refer to his people. The Chinese for this social group is (Traditional Chinese: 神農氏; Simplified Chinese: 神农氏; Pinyin: Shén nóng shì). The term shì (氏) refers to what may be translated as clan, tribe, family, or house. It can also mean maiden name (perhaps hinting at a pre-patriarchal tradition). In any case, Shennong as a protohistorical ethnic group should not be confused with Shennong the eponymous, traditional "ancestor" of this social group. However, since shì (氏) can also mean an honorific term for a male, such as mister, the ambiguity is perpetuated.


In Chinese mythology Shennong, besides having taught humans the plow and basic agriculture, and been a god of the burning wind, was sometimes said to be an progenitor or minister of Chi You; and like him, ox-headed, sharp-horned, bronze-foreheaded, and iron-skulled.[1] One difference between mythology and science is exemplified in Chinese mythology: Shennong and Huangdi were supposedly friends and fellow scholars, despite the 500 years or seventeen or eighteen generations between the first Shennong and Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor), ngand that together they shared the alchemical secrets of medicine, immortality, and making gold.[2]

According to Sima Zhen's commentary to the Shiji, he is a kinsman of the Yellow Emperor and is said to be a patriarch of the Chinese. The Han Chinese regarded them both as their joint ancestors.


Shennong cannot be said to be a completely historical figure. However, Shennong, individual and clan, are very important, in the history of culture -- especially in regards to mythology and popular culture. Indeed, Shennong figures extensively in historical literature.

Shennong in literature

Sima Qian mentions that the rulers directly preceding the Yellow Emperor were of the house (or societal group) of Shennong.[3] Sima Zhen, who added a prologue for the Shiji, said his surname was Jiang (姜), and proceeded to list his successors. An older and more famous reference is in the Huainanzi; it tells how, prior to Shennong, people were sickly, wanting, starved and diseased; but he then taught them agriculture, which he himself had researched, eating hundreds of plants — and even consuming seventy poisons in one day.[4] Shennong also features in the book popularly known in English as I Ching. Here, he is referenced as coming to power after the end of the house (or reign) of Paoxi (Fu Xi), also inventing a bent-wood plow, a cut-wood rake, teaching these skills to others, and establishing a noonday market.[5] Another reference is in the Lüshi Chunqiu, mentioning some violence with regard to the rise of the Shennong house, and that their power lasted seventeen generations.[6]

The various subsequent notices of Shennong include Anthony Christie's Chinese Mythology, which references Shennong (as Shen-nung) six times, three times with pictures, according to the 1968 index.[7]

In popular culture

As noted above, 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 (Traditional Chinese: 神農本草經; Simplified Chinese: 神农本草经; Pinyin: Shénnóng běncǎo jīng), 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. 2737 BCE, 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.[8] Shennong is venerated as the Father of Chinese medicine. He is also believed to have introduced the technique of acupuncture.

Shennong is said to have played a part in the creation of the Guqin, together with Fuxi and the Yellow Emperor. Scholarly works mention that the paternal family of famous Song Dynasty General Yue Fei traced their origins back to Shennong.[9]

See also


  1. Christie, 90
  2. Christie, text caption 116 and picture of ivory statue 117
  3. Wu, 53, referring to Shiji, Chapter One.
  4. Wu, 45, referencing Huainanzi, xiuwu xun
  5. Wu, 54, referencing I Ching, xici, II, chapter 2
  6. Wu, 54, lisulan, 4, yongmin.
  7. Christie, 141
  8. Jane Reynolds, Phil Gates, Gaden Robinson (1994). 365 Days of Nature and Discovery. New York: Harry N. Adams. p. 44. ISBN 0810938766. 
  9. Kaplan, Edward Harold (1970) (PhD Thesis). Yueh Fei and the founding of the Southern Sung. University of Iowa. 


  • Christie, Anthony (1968). Chinese Mythology. Feltham: Hamlyn Publishing. ISBN 0600006379.
  • Wu, K. C. (1982). The Chinese Heritage. New York: Crown Publishers. ISBN 0-517-54475X.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Shennong. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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