This story takes place before the earliest civilizations in the Far East. It is set in a time before emperors and kings—before writing, rice paddies and cities. It is set in a time when human beings were still hunter-gatherers.
In that distant past, humans wore animal skins to keep warm, hunted beasts in the field, caught fish in the waters and gathered fruits and berries for subsistence. Oftentimes, however, a hunting expedition results in nothing but empty stomachs and injuries, even fatalities. Those who gathered fruits and plants often did not fare much better, ingesting poisonous plants and dying as a result. These were perilous times. It was truly a nasty, brutish and short existence.
In the West, the ancient Greeks revered Asclepius, a god of medicine who, according to Greek tales, saved many lives through his expertise in medicine.
His Far Eastern counterpart in Chinese mythology is the “divine farmer” or Shennong, who sacrificed himself in order to give his people lifesaving knowledge.
Asclepius was killed by Zeus for violating the natural order when he gained the ability to revive the dead. Shennong, on the other hand, was made a fellow deity by the king of the gods who was moved by his self-sacrifice.
Shennong was the leader of a small band of early hunter-gatherers. In his youth, he noted the perils of this primitive lifestyle so, one day, he vowed that he would systematically sample and taste all the plants around him to find out which ones were edible, which had medicinal properties and which were poisonous.
Shennong’s mission was regarded by many to be a noble one and many flocked to him to join him in his endeavour. However, as Shennong and his followers fanned out into the field to begin their task, they soon came to realize the harsh reality and circumstances that they faced.
One by one, Shennong and his followers became victims of countless poisonings. Some were revived, but many were lost. In time, Shennong’s followers dwindled. Until finally, only a single old man was left alongside Shennong.
“We have already sampled enough plants,” the old man pleaded. “This job is too dangerous. It’s suicidal. Let’s bring an end to this.”
“If you wish to go,” Shennong replied, “then go. I will continue as long as I am able. Just imagine, how many lives will be saved if we gained a thorough understanding of medicinal, edible and non-edible plants. What’s one life compared to that?”
And so, Shennong and his old friend continued their labour. It is said that Shennong became poisoned up to 70 times a day. Each time it happened, the old man had to scramble to try and resuscitate Shennong with prepared medicinal herbs. It was hard and dangerous work.
One day, Shennong came upon a small vine with bright yellow flowers that grew on the side of a cliff. “These could be medicinal plants,” Shennong thought to himself as he picked one of the leaves and began chewing on it.
Suddenly, Shennong began to lose consciousness. The plant was poisonous and Shennong was rapidly dying. The old man scrambled to Shennong’s aid but, alas, he was too late. Shennong had died.
Up in heaven, the king of the gods was watching and, as Shennong’s life flickered, the god decided to make Shennong a deity. Shennong became the god of agriculture and medicine.
It is said that this agricultural and medicine deity was responsible for introducing rice cultivation to early humans. He was also believed to be the discoverer of what has become the most widely consumed drink after water—tea.