What’s the story? Shennong (神農), the Divine Farmer
By Elaine Dunn
The waiter set the not-on-the-menu-Chinese-New-Year-special dish in front of us. My son promptly asked what the dark brown gelatinous slices were. “Wood ear,” I replied, “Wood ear (木耳) and fish fillets braised in rice wine.” “And what on earth is wood ear?” he asked. Hmm … this is going to be interesting.
This kid had not ingested any mushrooms since third grade – an overnight decision for which he had given no explanation except that he doesn’t like them! But fin icky eating habits are a whole different story …
I explained wood ear is a type of fungus, anticipating his next comment. “I wonder how many people died eating something they shouldn’t have before they figured out wood ear is edible!” And this is how we arrived at this month’s story.
Legend has it that around 2800 B.C., a woman gave birth to an extraordinary boy in a stone cave. The boy had the head of a bull and the body of a human. By the third day, the boy could talk. By the fifth day he could walk. He had teeth by the seventh month. And, by the age of 3, he could plow a field!
At this time, population growth was exceeding food supply. People gathered wild fruits for food most of the time and discarded the seeds and cores carelessly after eating. The boy with the bull horns on his head saw plants growing from some of the discarded seeds. He tended to these plants day and night. In a few months, big, sweet melons rewarded his effort. This encouraged him to plant other things such as grains and fruits. His fields bore enough food to feed the people around him through the harsh winter. In acknowledgement, the people named him “Shennong,” meaning “divine farmer.”
Shennong subsequently taught the village people how to plant and preserve crops. He invented the wooden plough, which made cultivating the land much easier. With the extra grains, they raised poultry. In order to preserve the fresh herbs and plants, he taught the people to dry them under the sun so they were available for use during winter months. Life improved because of him...
However, when the elderly got sick and died, Shennong wanted to figure out a way to save them. He remembered how uncomfortable he once felt when he overate. When he ate some sour hawthorns, the discomfort quickly went away. He deduced that different plants might cure different illnesses. On that premise, he started examining and tasting many different plants and the different parts of plants such as leaves, stems, roots, etc. He recorded their effects in great detail in the hope of finding cures for diseases. If he ate something that did not agree with him, he would take some other fungus or grass to counter the ill effect and recorded that as well. It was also said that his stomach was transparent so he could see what was happening within his digestive system as he was eating!
On one occasion , he came across some lovely grass with small red flowers. On chewing the roots, he found they were quite sweet and thirst-quenching. He liked the taste and kept eating until his nose started bleeding! He quickly understood too much of a good thing is not good. The grass that caused the nosebleed was licorice.
He climbed many mountains and walked numerous plains, tasting and testing. He discovered and collected seeds and is credited with identifying and cultivating rice, wheat, millet and sorghum. His meticulous plant-tasting notes catalogued approximately 365 species, identifying their properties: poisonous/benign, yin /yang, rarity, etc. It became the first Chinese herbal medicine book, “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic” (神农本草经).
Shennong also is credited with discovering tea. Story has it that Shennong was boiling water in an open cauldron when a tea leaf fell into the water. He tasted the liquid and found it tasted and smelled good. It also had an invigorating effect on his body. However, this tea story is probably bunk as one tea leaf in a tea pot would make no difference in the taste of the water, let alone in a big cauldron!
The “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic” mentions Shennong was poisoned by numerous toxins and each time, cured by drinking tea! Alas, he tasted one too many plants. After tasting a grass with little yellow flowers, he developed a gut-splitting stomachache and died.
Fortunately, his knowledge of the healing power of Chinese herbs and herbal formulae was passed down from generation to generation. It is one of China’s greatest gifts to the world. Thus, Shennong is also known as the father of Chinese medicine and pharmacology.
By some accounts, Shennong is one of the Three Divine Sovereigns who ruled China after Fuxi, who was Nuwa’s (China Insight, February 2014, p.5) brother-husband. Shennong was the Yan Emperor.
Whether he was just an enlightened farmer or emperor, Shennong’s contribution to China and the study of medicine is huge.