venerdì 3 maggio 2013



by Umberto Bresciani

Chinese popular religion is picturesque in the variety of its expressions and beliefs. There is one god (or object of worship), who is primarily related to agricultural activity. His name is Shennong (Divine Farmer). He is an important object of worship for tillers of the soil and for grain dealers, but also for Chinese doctors and pharmacologists, and revered by all Chinese in general. 

The Legendary Age

According to traditional Chinese historical records, before the three historical dynasties of Xia (2205?-1600? BCE), Shang (1600?-1100? BCE), and Zhou (1100?-249 BCE), there was a long age shrouded in legend, which left a rich heritage of mythology. Chinese mythology is as rich and varied as Greek mythology, from which much of Western culture developed.

The Yijing (Book of Change), one of the most ancient Chinese writings, starts by introducing the figure of Fuxi, who studied stars and earth, birds, and animals, and learned many things from them; then it continues: “After Fuxi died, Shennong rose. He made plow and taught people how to raise crops and fishing. He invented money and market for the exchange of goods."

In the very beginning, Chinese religion had been worshipping Heaven, ancestors, and spirits of mountains, rivers, trees, stars, etc. One later scholar’s statistic figure calculated some twelve thousand names of different divinities. Later on, official worship, following Confucian teachings that shunned superstition, concentrated on three categories of spiritual beings, namely heaven, ancestors and sages/heroes. Natural deities (the gods of mountains and rivers, stars, etc.) survived in the popular lore, and were later absorbed for the most part into the Daoist religion.

Shennong is a figure belonging to the “legendary age” of Chinese history. He is one of the Three August Ones, namely Fuxi (“Animal Domesticator”: 2953-2852), Shennong (“Divine Farmer”: 2737-2699), and Huangdi (“Yellow Emperor”: 2698-2599).

Shennong’s surname was Jiang; he was a chief for the tribe of Jiang. While working with its tribesmen, Shennong invented a ploughshare-shaped agricultural tool, which greatly advanced grain agriculture. Therefore, he was given the name Shennong, or Divine Farmer. 
        Shennong is said to have helped people transition from a diet of meat, clams, and wild fruits, to one based on grains and vegetables, and for developing herbal medicine.
He stayed on the throne for 140 years and was replaced by Emperor Huangdi, another ancestor of the Chinese race. Shennong was also called emperor Yan (Yandi). Shennong is viewed as their ancestor also by the Vietnamese.

According to references in ancient books, Shennong was born and lived in the Jiang River area, near modern day Baoji, Shaanxi. Both he and Huangdi, who lived on the Wei River, in nearby Baoji, were sons of Shaodian. Later Yandi was defeated by Huangdi and allied with him, so that they became a strong force in Northern China. Later Shennong moved to live in Suizhou (Hubei), at the confluence of the Huai River with the Yangtze River, where he opened up the place to agriculture. He died in Kangle, Lingxian, near Changsha, Hunan, where he was buried.      

A legend tells that Shennong’s mother one day went for a trip to Huayang, where she met a divine dragon, who with his influx made her pregnant, and she then bore Shennong.[1] Again according to legend, Shennong was just born for three days, and he already could speak. After five months he could walk; after seven months he had all his teeth. When he was three, he already knew the technique of cultivation of herbs and cereals.

 Shennong’s Contributions to Human Civilization

According to tradition, the contributions of Shennong to human civilization include the following eight items:

1) The Plough. He devised an implement – a plough with a handle - for tilling the land and preparing it for cultivation. This implement has been used by Chinese farmers for a very long time, around 7-8 thousand years. He invented also the axe, the hoe, and other implements, and taught people how to use them.

2) Teaching the planting of various grains. Shennong is also called Emperor of the Five Grains (Wugu xiandi). The "five grains" were specifically sesamum, legumes, wheat, panicled millet, and glutinous millet. Rice is not included, because the ancients were only used to the environment of Northern China, where rice cultivation is not suitable.

3) Medicinal herbs. The Divine Farmer is the ‘patron saint’ not only of agriculture, but also of pharmacology. There were 69 remedy recipes (herbs) included in the earliest known materia medica attributed to him. These represented a tradition of pragmatic medicine not integrated with the theories of Yinyang or Wuxing. He was said to have the penchant for tasting all kinds of herbs, to experience their effect on the body. One story has that his father was once very sick and passed out. Everybody was in despair and did not know what to do. Then his young son Shennong made a potion with a certain herb he went to pick, and poured some drops of the potion on his father’s mouth, and his father came back to life.

As a result of his efforts, numerous herbs became routinely used for health care, and the knowledge was handed down by oral tradition for centuries. When these herbs were described in a formal manner, the book was named after Shennong, known today as the Shennong Bencao Jing, or Herbal Classic of the Divine Farmer. The Shennong Bencao Jing is a fundamental book in Chinese medicine. It was written sometime before 200 CE and was attributed to Shennong. He is also said to have tested all 365 Bencao recipes personally, watching their effect through his conveniently transparent abdomen. He reportedly turned green and eventually died as a result of such experiments. This book was expanded and revised many times in the following centuries.

4) Invention of a simple loom. Shennong taught people to pick mulberry leaves and to plant hemp, then to weave fabrics using silk thread and hemp cords to make simple clothing.

5) Invention of bow and arrows.

6) Invention of commerce. He realized that some people were in need of artifacts that they were not making. Thereupon, he arranged people to trade their goods for the things that they most wanted in a set place. So, he is said to have helped develop the earliest market in China, because he established the marketplace, where to exchange and sell goods on fixed days during the month.

7) Invention of pottery art. He is supposed to be the inventor also of ceramic containers, which are a very useful commodity in people’s lives.

8) Invention of the guqin musical instrument. He is considered the inventor – together with Fuxi and Huangdi – of the guqin, a five-stringed (later seven-stringed) musical instrument of the zither family. He also wrote many songs to entertain people after work. His son was said to have invented another musical instrument, the bell, for which he composed several pieces.
        Beside these eight major items, in various legends other aspects of civilization are attributed to Shennong. A legend says that it was Shennong who discovered that drinking water could be made healthier by boiling. Or take, for instance, the invention of tea drinking. In one popular Chinese legend, Shennong was drinking a bowl of boiling water some time around 2737 BC. The wind blew and a few leaves from a nearby tree into his water and the water began to change its color. The ever inquisitive and curious monarch took a sip of the brew and was pleasantly surprised by its flavor and its restorative properties. A variant of the legend tells that the emperor tested the medical properties of various herbs on himself, some of them poisonous, and found tea to work as an antidote to poison.

The Best Known Legend
The best known of the legends surrounding the figure of Shennong is the following. At Shennong's time, grains and weeds grew together, as did useful herbs and wild plants. People could not distinguish edible plants nor differentiate poisonous plants from medicinal herbs. The common people relied on hunting as the main means to obtain food, but as time went by, birds and animals became scarce. Those who could not hunt anything went hungry. If people developed diseases, there were no medicines available to treat them. People had no choice but to let the conditions worsen until they ultimately died.
When Shennong saw the tragedies around him, he felt the pain in his heart. He meditated for three days and three nights, and then came up with a decision. He led a group of his people and headed for the mountains to the northwest. After crossing numerous rivers, climbing over countless hills, and walking for innumerable miles, on the 49th day, they came to a mysterious mountain covered by thick fog. In the air floated a strange yet pleasant fragrance.
As they were about to approach the mountain, suddenly, a large pack of wild beasts jumped out of a nearby valley and surrounded them. Shennong told his people to fight the beasts with whips. After driving away one group of the wild beasts, another group would come to attack them. They fought ceaselessly for seven days and seven nights before they drove away all the beasts. The whips left deep scars on the skins of those leopards, tigers, and pythons. The scars later turned into the patterns on the skins of the wild animals that we see today.
After realizing how dangerous this place was, Shennong's followers all urged him to leave, but Shennong firmly replied: "Our people are suffering from hunger and disease, how could I return to face them?" He then took the lead and walked over to the canyon at the foot of the mountain.
As they looked up, they discovered that the mountain rose into the clouds with sheer cliffs on all sides. No one could see the top and the mountain appeared to be impossible to climb. The crowd once again urged Shennong to return to home. He again shook his head with determination, and said: "Our people are suffering from hunger and disease, how could I return to face them?"
Shennong stood on a small rocky hill, looked around and thought about how to climb the mountain. Suddenly he saw several monkeys climbing from vines hanging off the cliff, and he immediately knew what to do. Shennong asked his people to chop down trees and build platforms leaning against the cliff. For many days they built platforms, a layer of platform a day.
Seasons came and went, and they spent an entire year building 360 layers of platform before they finally reached the summit. The legend describes how modern day scaffolding techniques were derived from his method of platform construction.
Once at the summit of the mountain, they saw stretching in front of them a vast world of plants, with leaves of all shapes and flowers of all colors. Shennong knew he had found what he was looking for. He led his people to settle there, and started to taste various types of plants. At night, Shennong made a bonfire and used the light of the flame to record his discoveries. He thoroughly documented which types of plants were bitter, which had warm or cold qualities, which ones could be used as food, and which ones could be used to cure illnesses. There were times when Shennong tasted up to 70 different kinds of poisonous plants within one day.
Shennong spent 49 days tasting hundreds of plants; his footprints covered the mountain top. He successfully identified modern day staples such as wheat, rice, millet, bean, and sorghum. He told his people to take back the seeds of those plants and to grow them in the fields. These five plants were later called five grains. Shennong differentiated poisonous plants from medicinal herbs, and discovered 365 kinds of herbal medicines which can be used to cure hundreds of diseases. He compiled his findings into a medical journal called "The Divine Farmer's Herb-Root Classic", and instructed his people to take the book with them and use the knowledge to help other people in the world to treat illnesses.
This magic mountain of plants was later called "The Mountain of Shennong," and Shennong has been regarded as the King of the Five Grains and Father of Chinese medicine.[2]

References to Shennong go back to the remotest antiquity. The first historical reference is found in the Spring and Autumn Annals. Later, the Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan), the Discourses of the States (Guoyu), the Book of Rites (Liji), all add some details. While in ancient books references are scant, popular legends in later times are abundant. As many other figures of popular religion, he was canonized by various emperors, and became known as Shennong dadi (Great Emperor Shennong), or also Yandi (the Flame Emperor).

Under the Qing, the emperor granted to all district magistrates the faculty to appropriate a piece of land for the temple of Shennong, and to lead the local population in the worship of Shennong (mainly a yearly sacrifice, on the date of his birthday). In Beijing it was a solemn ceremony, and it was the first sacrifice of the year.

Shennong’s birthday is celebrated on April 26 (of the lunar calendar), usually with a solemn procession.
Sacred Sites

        Three are the places sacred to Shennong: they have become places of pilgrimage for the Chinese from all over the country and from abroad.

1)       His birthplace. Tradition indicates as his birthplace the village of Yuquan, near Baoji, Shaanxi, on the southern bank of the Wei River, where a memorial temple of modest size exists in a beautiful surrounding, between the Wei River (north) and the Qin Hills (south).[3]

2)       Suizhou, in Northern Hubei, in the area where the Huai River flows into the Yangzi River. It is the place where he brought his people, and together with them opened up the place to farming and to other civilized activities. It is a place that becomes crowded every year for the solemn celebration of Shennong. There are numerous monuments there (such as the Shennong Cave, the Nine Wells, a temple, a Shennong Square, etc.), and they are surrounded by a mountain landscape of pristine beauty. 

3)       Finally, his burial place, called Yandiling, in Hunan province.

        The burial site of Shennong (Yandiling) is a large complex (10,000 sq.m.) including a tumulus and a temple. Both were rebuilt in 1986-87 at government expense, and there are various stele dedicated by important figures, such as Hu Yaobang and Jiang Zemin. The present tumulus is 6 m. high and 27 m. in diameter. But the place is very ancient. There are no clear records about when the place started to exist. It is recorded that in 976, Emperor Taizu, the founder of the Song Dynasty, sent a mission to search for the forgotten tomb of Shennong. They searched many ancient burial sites all over the country, and finally found it near Changsha. Thereby they built a temple, still existing after one thousand years, on the scale of an imperial palace.

The temple includes five pavilions. The first one is the entrance, looking south. At both sides of the entrance there are rooms full of inscribed stele recording the visits of famous persons. The second pavilion is the one reserved traditionally for the liturgy celebrations. The third one is before the main hall. The forth one contains the funerary stele, bearing the large-sized inscription Yandi shennongshi zhi mu. In the fifth yard the actual tumulus is located.
Temples and Iconography

Other temples to Shennong are spread everywhere, given also that China is mainly an agricultural country. In many temples dedicated to other deities, there is also a chapel, or an altar, with Shennong’s statue.

In Taiwan, there are over one hundred temples dedicated to Shennong. The temple in Shilin, Taipei, is noteworthy for its beauty and antiquity. It was built over 300 years ago during the reign of Kangxi and is built on two floors. The ground floor is for the worship of Tudi Gong (the lord of the place), the second floor is for the worship of Shennong.

The statue of Shennong is easily recognizable among the myriad of icons in Chinese temples. He is always represented as sitting, the usual way of oriental kings. His head has two horns, referring to the ancient legend that he was a human being with a buffalo head. His torso is bare and at the waist he wears a skirt of tree leaves. This is to indicate that he belongs to the age when clothes had not yet been invented, when humans did not yet know how to weave fabrics.

        Shennong always holds in his hand a handful of ears of grain of golden yellow color (ripe for harvesting). This is to remind the onlooker that his main contribution to civilization was teaching people how to plant grains.

        In certain temples (and special feasts), his statue is covered with a splendid, gold-woven mantle, to signify his regal stance (and of course, to give the faithful an excuse to bestow on him precious gifts, thus hoping to make him happy and to propitiate him).

        His face is either white, or red, or black. Most often it is black, reminding people of the way how Shennong died, namely by poison.

The head inscription above Shennong altar was decreed by the Qing emperors to be written in golden characters on a red background.
Modern Criticism

        Since time immemorial, China has been an agricultural society, a country living on agriculture. Already seven or eight thousand years ago, there existed a relatively well-developed agriculture along the Yellow River and the Yangzi. The agricultural techniques of the Chinese were certainly avant-garde until the modern age. Shennong is the founder of agricultural technique. He is often mentioned together with Huangdi, and they speak of “Yan Huang” to mean Shennong and Huangdi. Both of them contributed, the one with some inventions, the other with other inventions, to the start of the agricultural civilization of the Chinese people. It is because of this that the Chinese people traditionally like to call themselves Yan Huang zisun, which means “the descendants of Shennong and Huangdi.”

Shennong is a legendary figure. Modern critical historians have been working on the meaning of this kind of mythological heritage. The dividing line between the Paleolithic (jiu shiqi shidai) and the Neolithic age (xin shiqi shidai) is the beginning of plant cultivation and animal domestication around 10,000 years ago (the Neolithic Revolution). That plants did not only serve as food (like millet and rice) but also as medicine can still be seen in the long tradition of Chinese medicine (see the book Shennong bencao jing "Materia Medica of the Divine Farmer"). A third use of plants consists in their property to provide fibers, fuel, or even poison.

        Some scholars would say that a legendary figure such as Shennong was not a person, but a tribe. Ancient indications hint that Shennong was born in Shaanxi, then moved south and settled in Hubei, and finally died near Changsha, Hunan. This would mean that a nomadic tribe, of hunters and sheep raisers, eventually moved south to Hubei, where they settled down permanently – thus ending their nomadic life – and started cultivating the land, living no longer only on hunting-fishing, but mainly on farm products.

        On this line, the fact that since antiquity Shennong was described as having a buffalo head (two horns), would indicate that the “Shennong” tribe’s totem was the buffalo, and that by then, with the practice of agriculture, the buffalo had become extremely important, the main working force in social life.
 Political implications

The Divine Farmer was one of the mythological bearers of culture at the beginning of civilization. Han historians and myth makers describe his most fundamental task as having led humanity out of a state of hunting and savagery, away from eating raw flesh, drinking blood and wearing skins, towards an agrarian utopia. Here is the Huainanzi account from the 2nd century BCE:

In ancient times the people ate grasses and drank from rivers; they picked fruit from trees and ate the flesh of mollusks and beetles. At that time there was much suffering from illness and poisoning. So the Divine Farmer taught the people for the first time how to sow and cultivate the five grains and to examine the suitability of the earth, to differentiate dry or waterlogged, fertile, high and lowland. He tasted the flavor of the hundred plants and the sweet or bitterness of river and spring; and he taught the people what to avoid and what to follow. At that time, on just one day he came across seventy poisons.

Along Chinese history, there have been people who extolled the age of Shennong for political purposes as a social utopia. The idea was that in Shennong’s age there was no social exploitation; everyone was friendly and equal to each other. The tribe chief was working and tilling the soil as any other man. They worked together in the fields in great harmony. Men did farm work in fields and women stayed home weaving cloth and doing stitching work. No prisons or police were needed. No army was raised.

Concluding Observations

        In the pantheon of Chinese popular religion, Shennong belongs to the “ancestors” category. Furthermore, he was a sage and a hero and benefactor of humankind. His figure is beloved by the Chinese masses in general, together with Huangdi, and other mythical ancestors of the Han race.

While considering the figure of Shennong, two observations come to my mind:

1)     The Chinese emphasis on remembering their ancestors on a regular base is quite special. The need of paying our debt of gratitude to our ancestors, to those who, with their efforts and labors, contributed to our civilization, is not felt so vividly in our Western cultural tradition. In Western countries, although at times a statue may be built to an important ancestor, usually the memory does not materialize in temples and routine rituals of the Chinese kind.                                                     The difference is possibly due to the different historical development of the two cultures. In Western countries, civilization is connected to a millennia-long process of confluence of a multitude of cultures, so that the great founders of each individual culture have faded in the background. In the case of the historical development of Chinese civilization, although foreign contributions are not absent, the bulk of it goes back to a clear definite straight historical line, back ultimately to the legendary figures of mythical antiquity, the likes of Shennong and Huangdi.

2)     In the case of Shennong, same as for other important deities, such as Mazu, Guan Gong, or Tudi Gong, it is clear that – at least in mainstream Confucian ideology – he is not a god; he is a spirit in Heaven. He is powerful because of his good deeds during his life on earth; and he is always acting and exerting his power on behalf of Heaven.

        The Vatican decree Plane Compertum Est (1939) allowed Chinese Catholics to give tribute of respect to Confucius and to ancestors, a respect that could as well imply bowing and burning of incense in front of their statues and memorial tablets. Logically, Chinese Catholics should be allowed to pay their respects to the temple of Shennong, as they do to Confucius and to their ancestors. Shennong too is an ancestor and a sage!

        In previous times, most Western missionaries – both Catholic and Protestant - used to loathe the figures of popular religion, or even to openly advocate their destruction. They viewed those religious figures as the like of pagan idols stigmatized by Biblical prophets. Even today, usually missionaries ignore their existence. It should be time to change this attitude. Christian leaders should encourage their faithful to show due respect to ancestors and sages, Shennong included. As long as Christian religious leaders utterly ignore the existence of, or disrespect, the most cherished figures of popular religion (such as Shennong the beneficent ancestor, Guan Gong the personification of righteousness and loyalty; Mazu the epitome of mercy, and so on), how can our foreign religion earn appreciation and respect from the large majority of the Chinese masses?
A statue of Shennong, 6 meter high, in the countryside of Xinpu, northern Taiwan.

The main icon of Shennong in the Shennong temple of Tianmu. Taipei.

The main achievements of Shennong (cultural contributions to humankind: ploughing, archery, botanics-pharmacology, pottery, musical instruments, huts, weaving, agricultural cultivation)
Bibliographical Hints:

·           Ma Shutian, Zhongguo minjian zhu shen [the gods of Chinese popular religion], Guojia chubanshe, 2001.

·           Zhou Zhuojie, Yandi, Taipei: Guojia chubanshe, 2001.


[1] For some, this legend would refer to a primordial matriarchal society, where the mother of a child was known, but not the father. Besides, a divine dragon would grant to Shennong a peerless nobility of lineage. (See Ma Shutian)
[2] Adapted from
[3] Many Chinese pilgrims come to visit from the country and from abroad, seeking the ancestral roots of the Chinese race (in the same trip, they visit also the shrine/tomb of the Yellow Emperor in Qiaoshan, Shaanxi).

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