Shen Nong 神农氏.jpg

Shen Nong – literally “the Divine Famer” – is a mythical ruler in ancient China from a time before written records began. He is accredited with many achievements and inventions, and is highly revered to this day. As the interpretation of his name suggests, one of Shen Nong’s greatest contributions to the Chinese people was in agriculture, perhaps this is why he is often depicted with two bull horns on his head.  

Aside from agriculture, Shen Nong, also known as Emperor Yan (炎帝 yán dì)1, is also, most notably, acknowledged for his contribution to Chinese medicine. According to some versions of the legend Shen Nong has a transparent stomach so he can observe how different plants, minerals and meats react after he digests them. If he digested something poisonous, he would drink a special type of herbal tea2 made from over 70 different herbs to counter the negative effects. Altogether he is thought to have tested hundreds of different “consumables” in an effort to test their medicinal properties.

1 There are two schools of thought amongst historians regarding “Shen Nong” and “Emperor Yan;” one believes that these are two completely separate people who have zero relationship to one another, the other believes they are separate titles for the same man. It should be noted that in Chinese popular culture, the latter is the more prominent of the two.

2 He is also believed to be the “inventor” of tea. As one version of the story goes, leaves from a burning tree were whisked up by the wind and floated into a cauldron of boiling water.

Shen Nong 神农 (shén nóng)
Status: God/Deity
Gender: Male
Pronunciation: (audio file coming soon)
Best known for: Revolutionising agriculture

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It is said that in the end, after eating the yellow flower of a weed, Shen Nong died from its poison before he could give himself the antidote. For his hard work and sacrifice on behalf of his people, he was given the honourary title of “Medicine King” (药王 yào wáng).

Below is a list of things Shen Nong is accredited with inventing/developing:

  1. Good agricultural practices, including how to dig wells, irrigation methods, how to preserve stored seeds in boiled horse urine, etc.
  2. Lei Si (耒耜 lěi sì) – a plow-like tool used in ancient China to plant the Five Grains (五谷 wǔ gǔ)3
  3. The hoe
  4. Chinese herbal medicine
  5. Acupuncture
  6. The concept of reading a pulse to determine the health of a person
  7. The concept of shops (市廛shì chán) and a market
  8. Pottery
  9. Producing clothing out of hemp
  10. According to the Shi Ben, Part 2 (世本·下篇 shì běn xià piān), Shen Nong invented musical instruments. He turned the wood of a paulownia tree into a Qin (琴qín) and wove silk into strings. This instrument would later be known as the Shen Nong Qin. It is "about 1.22 meters long (三尺六寸六分 sān chǐ liù cùn liù fèn) with five strings called Gong (宫 gōng), Shang (商 shāng), Jiao (角 jiǎo), Zheng (徵 zhèng), yu (羽 yǔ)." The sound of this instrument expresses the virtue of both Heaven and earth, Shen Nong’s gift to humanity.
  11. Axe
  12. Bow and arrow
  13. Tea


3 Five Grains (五谷 wǔ gǔ): There are many different versions of the list, though the most prominent version is soybeans (豆 dòu), wheat (麦 mài), broomcorn (黍 shǔ), foxtail millet (稷 jì), and hemp (麻 má). Though a similar list can be found that replaces the hemp with rice (稻 dào).


Emperor Yan, the Yellow Emperor and Chi You

After suffering a defeat to Chi You (蚩尤 chī yóu) at the battle of Ban Quan (阪泉之战 bǎn quán zhī zhàn), Emperor Yan joined forces with the Yellow Emperor (黄帝 huáng dì) to finally defeat his armies during the battle of  Zhou Lu (涿鹿 zhuō lù).