Stories from Ancient China: Shen Nong, Father of Agriculture and Medicine

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After Fu Xi instituted marriage in society, the population of ancient China gradually grew. Then people encountered new problems. First, they did not know what to eat and what not to eat. Second, they did not know how to heal disease. It is said many died of plague in those days.

Shen Nong -- the father of agriculture and medicine. (Illustrated by Jessica Chang/ET staff)

According to legend, Shen Nong was born with a crystal-clear belly and all his organs were clear and visible. On his third day he could speak; on his fifth day he was able to walk, and on his seventh day all his teeth had grown in.

To solve the problems of food and healing, Shen Nong went into the mountains to look for edible plants and herbs. As he sampled various plants, he often got sick; the highest record was seventy times in one day. He could overcome the poison in the plants because he had a crystal-clear belly, he could watch the herbs work in his body and know which to eat or not and the healing function of the herbs.

All told, Shen Nong found 365 healing herbs. He established a fairly comprehensive basis for Chinese medicine by making records of all the herbs. The thousand-year evolution of Chinese medicine was built on Shen Nong’s discoveries. Shen Nong is revered as the father of Chinese medicine.

Shen Nong also created a banjo to enrich the people’s lives with music. He invented the plough to help with farming and also taught people to make pottery, to roast their food, and how to make silk from silkworms. It was Shen Nong who brought the Chinese people into an agricultural-tribal society.

In addition, he also set up markets where people could exchange goods, which substantially improved their lives because they could obtain a variety of products. Ever since, generations of farmers and doctors have worshipped Shen Nong as a deity.

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