Mythology: The Farmer God Shen Nong Tastes All the Plants

A cool introduction to one of the lesser-known deities, Shen Nong 神农 shén nóng, the God of Agriculture (and later called the Bodhisattva of Medicine). This is upper-intermediate reading: expect a lot of new words (mostly relating to plants and Chinese medicine) but intermediate sentence structure, and sentences mostly communicate a complete point.

Shen Nong, we are to understand, had a transparent abdomen so all his innards could be seen from the outside (yes, the first sentence does say ‘Shen Nong had a crystal belly’), and he always carried two bags with him – read the story to find out what the bags were for.

We touch on the origins of some well-known plants (one of which is poorly described, I think), but the last paragraph talks about the herb “heartbreak grass” – 断肠草 duàn cháng cǎo – which I’d never heard of and which is not a common plant. The English botanical name is Gelsemium elegans (yeah, no idea), which according to the abstract of one study is “a toxic plant indigenous to southeastern Asia, well known among hill tribes as an effective means for committing suicide”. So a very potent poison, then.

Original post was found on a cool mythology and fable website – you may find some other interesting stuff there. I made a tiny edit from the original to correct a mistake.





Show English translation »
All his life, Shen Nong had a crystal abdomen, and one could clearly see all of his internal organs. At that time, humans were often getting sick and even dying because they ate things indiscriminately [not knowing if they were good or bad]. Shen Nong determinedly tasted everything everywhere; the good-tasting things he put in a bag on his left side, those were for people to eat; the bad-tasting things he put in a bag on his right side, and those were used for medicine.

The first time, Shen Nong tasted a small fresh leaf. As this leaf fell into his stomach, it cleaned every inch of his insides so that every organ top and bottom was fresh and cool, as if [the leaf] was somehow on patrol [making the rounds], so Shen Nong called it “chá” [to investigate / check], and later generations of men called it “chá” [tea]. Shen Nong put it in the bag on the right. The second time, Shen Nong tasted a little light red flower that looked like a butterfly, which was sweet and delicious, with an exotic smell that filled his nostrils, so he called it “licorice”. He put it in the bag on the left. In this way, Shen Nong diligently tasted all manner of flora, and every time he was poisoned, he used tea to rescue himself. Before long, the bag on his left contained 47,000 kinds of flowers, grasses, roots and leaves, and the right side had 398,000 kinds.

But one day, Shen Nong tasted “heartbreak grass”, and this poison was too terrible, so there wasn’t enough time to eat the tea leaves to detoxify and he died. He sacrificed himself to save humanity, so people call him the “Bodhisattva of Medicine”, and people forever commemorate him through this story.

9 replies on “Mythology: The Farmer God Shen Nong Tastes All the Plants”

Orange County, California! We “OC Mamas” are pretty darn fun… let’s be hoenst! I bet we could easily find studio space, too.Probably a beginner course. You know you want to, Sarah!! 😉

This is interesting and at the same time educational. We get to learn about Shen Nong’s life and his death and at the same time we can enhance our Chinese vocabulary. Thank you so much. More power and Keep it up!

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