China Odyssey

Hong Kong

Statue of Shennong, the Father of Chinese Medicine,
in the Chinese Herb Garden in the Queen Street Rest Garden

The Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Merchants Association provides the following tribute to Shennong in the Chinese herb garden:

Different folklores have been circulated about the life of Shennong, a figure generally venerated as the Father of Chinese Medicine. One of the legends identified him, whose surname was "Jiang" and given name was "Kui" as the common ruler of the Jiang tribes in ancient times. Shennong and two other legendary figures, Suiren and Fuxi, were collectively known as "The Three Sovereigns" in prehistoric China.

Chinese history goes that Shennong was the first medical expert in China and has been widely respected as the founder of Chinese medicine. Legend has it that Shennong, during his reign, was concerned about the health of his people who easily got sick after consuming wild fruits and preys. Seeing that taking grains as food could lead to good health, he came up with the idea that the fruits and root tubers of plants might have healing effects. He surveyed the topography of various places and collected different species of herbs in the wilderness. He tasted various plants and even water from rivers and springs. Then he told his people the healthy way of eating. In order to know clearly the properties of herbal medicines, he tried the herbs himself and got poisoned frequently. Huainanzi, a philosophical work published in the Han (206 BC - 220 AD) dynasty, recorded that Shennong had fallen ill more than 70 times in one day after tasting different species of herbs. This is the source from which originated the legend that Shennong became the founder of Chinese medicine by tasting a hundred species of herbs. It was said that Shennong had climbed mountains and crossed rivers and tasted a hundred species of herbs in order to find the best medicines for curing the sick and for detoxification, and finally lost his life after taking a deadly poisonous herb called huoyanzi (Radix Aconiti Sungpanensis). Shennong was said to be on the throne under the title of Yandi for 120 years. He was succeeded by seven generations spanning 380 years.

The earliest extant work on pharmacology in China was entitled Shennong Bencao Jing ("Shennong's Herbal Classic") as a token of respect to Shennong. Although the book was compiled circa the Qin and Han dynasties, it was attributed to Shennong as its author, it incorporated remarks on the use of medicine made by practitioners during the Period of Warring States, which had been collected and supplemented by experts in the Qin and Han dynasties. The book, divided into three volumes, covered 365 types of medicine with detailed descriptions on their names, tastes, properties, places of origins and effects. Shennong Bencao Jing is regarded as one of the four greatest classical works on Chinese medicine and has been widely studied by practitioners in later ages. Today, it is still a valuable and historic medical work that deserves in-depth study. Shennong is an influential figure in the development of Chinese medicine. His selfless devotion has made him an exemplar for later generations. The stone Lingzhi (Lucid Ganoderma) held in the hand of Shennong's statue in this Garden is a donation from our Association in memory of the Father of Chinese medicine.

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© Derrick Grose, 2014