Watercolour: Shen Nung seated at the mouth of a cave, dressed in traditional garb made from leaves, holding a branch with leaves and berries in his right hand. Anonymous Chinese artist, 1920. Wellcome Images
This circa 1920 watercolour is a copy of an ancient original and can be found in the Wellcome Library’s Art Collection.
Legend has it that Shen Nong (神农), or ‘Divine Farmer’, was one of the Three Sovereigns, a group of mythological rulers and deities from ancient China circa 2852 to 2070 BC who established the Chinese life-arts.
Said to have been born the son of a princess and a heavenly dragon, Shen Nong is believed to have taught the ancient Chinese their practices of agriculture, as well as the use of herbal drugs, which became the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine.
The earliest written record connecting Shen Nong to the practice of Chinese herbal medicine is found in the Huai Nan Zi (淮南子), or ‘The Masters of Huainan’, the Chinese philosophical classic from the Han dynasty in 122BCE.
The text claims that Shen Nong transformed the ancient people’s diet from one of meat, wild fruits and clams by teaching them how to sow and harvest grains and vegetables.
He is also said to have discovered and classified some 365 species of herbs and medicinal plants and is often referred to as the ‘God of Chinese herbal medicine’.
Tea is allegedly one of his great discoveries, as it proved to be the antidote for almost 70 varieties of poisons. Shen Nong discovered tea by accident when the tea leaves from twigs he was using for a fire rose up on a column of hot air and landed in the water he was trying to boil.
Being a keen herbalist, he tasted the resulting brew and this became the origins of tea. Shen Nong tasted hundreds of herbs in order to determine their medicinal value.
The story of Shen Nong has been passed down orally for centuries and has been differently embellished throughout histories.
Some versions even claim Shen Nong had a see-through stomach that allowed him to see the effects of various herbs on his internal organs.
However, by all accounts, because of his tireless efforts, countless herbs are now commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine and knowledge about herbal medicine has been handed down for centuries.