By, Trish Cooper

History of Shennong and Herbal Medicine

Born in the 28th century BC, a mythical herbalist by the name of Shennong, allegedly invented agriculture and herbal medicine in China. As legends suggest, Shennong tamed the ox, yoked the horses, and invented the cart and pull. He also identified hundreds of medicinal and poisonous herbs through personal consumption. His transparent body acted as the perfect vessel to ascertain the medicinal value and effects of each herb (1). Using the knowledge he acquired, he wrote the oldest surviving Chinese materia medica (the Shennong Ben Cao Jing).   

Shennong Ben Cao Jing

The Shennong Ben Cao Jing contains 365 herbs divided into three separate categories. The Upper Class herbs have the power to heal spiritual diseases, the Middle Class treats constitutional disorders, and the Lower Class is used to expel disease. The individual herbs are further broken down into taste, temperature, function, and toxicity. Each of these characteristics are critical for determining what type of ailments and symptoms the herbs should be used for.  

Di Dao and Pao Zhi of Herbal Medicine

Aside from individual properties, it is important to note where the herbs grow, and how they are collected and processed. Traditionally, each herb had an affinity toward specific growing areas, seasons, times of day, and harvesting methods. In order to achieve maximum effectiveness and safety, it is essential that herbs are sourced and processed similarly to how they were by our ancestors. If one of these steps is modified, it can change the function, potency and toxicity levels of the herbs.  

Lastly, comes preparation. When an individual is prescribed an herbal formula, it can be administered in many ways including as a decoction, granule, pills or a plaster. The severity of the condition, the lifestyle and compliance of the patient, and required modifications should all be considered when deciding the method of preparation.  

A personalized formula is an intricate piece of artwork that is designed to match the patient’s current constitution. From beginning to end, the herbs are carefully grown, collected, harvested and processed. They are then methodically arranged into a formula that meets the patient’s needs. As the patient’s constitution changes, the formula is modified. It continues to be a beautifully complex dance between the patient and the herbs, until finally the patient has reached a state of balance and harmony.


Asiado T. Shennong. Edible Wild Food. Accessed August 8, 2019.