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Carving of a Seated Shen-Nung
Item No. 16530

19th Century, Taoist / Popular Religions, China
31" x 19" x 12"
( 78.74 x 48.26 x 30.48 cm)
(H x W x D)

This kneeling image probably represents Shen Nung, one of the best known and revered cultural heroes in China. Considered the Founder of Natural Medicine as well as the Father of Agriculture, Shen Nung, the second of the Three Emperors of the Celestial Ministry of Health, is both a Taoist and a poplar religion deity. He is believed by some to be an immortal who assumed human form and came down to Earth out of pity for and to benefit the plight of humanity with his many talents and gifts.

Shen Nung is believed to have lived in earliest times, and was already deified by the Han Dynasty as the Father of Agriculture, having been credited with inventing many farming implements such as the plow and the axe; introducing methods of planting, cultivation and crop rotation; and raising domestic animals.
Among his vast reputed admirable feats is writing the earliest known Chinese medical classic, Huang-ti Nei ching (The Canon of Internal Medicine) which, among other things, is a compilation of writing on medical physiology, anatomy, and acupuncture. Although attributed to Shen Nung, the true authorship of this bible of traditional Chinese medicine is unknown. Similarly, he is assumed to be the author of Shen-nung pen ts'ao ching (Divine Husbandman's Materia Medica), the earliest extant Chinese pharmacopoeia which includes 365 medicines derived from minerals, plants, and animals, but the true authorship of this work is also unknown.

Shen Nung is the patron of farmers and native herbalists throughout China. Intrigued by herbs, he was the first to analyze their beneficial and harmful properties. He determined the efficacy of herbs by testing hundreds of them on himself, either on their own or in combinations. He died after testing a poisonous herb after which his body turned black.

Shen Nung is usually portrayed sitting on a rock or seat, dressed only in leaves and grass either wound around his neck, waist and calves, or as a skirt of leaves. He is generally depicted with wide eyes, a red beard and black skin. In this masterfully carved image, he sits with his knee up, his shoulders covered with leaves which drape down his back and a ribbon draped underneath his bared navel. His face is set in a benevolent smile, emphasized by stylized curls in his eyebrows and beard. He sits on what appear to be clouds which surround the face of a mythical beast which is carved in the back of the image.


Stevens, Keith: Chinese Gods, The Unseen World of Spirits and Demons, Collins and Brown Limited, London, 1997

National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division online exhibit of the Classics of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Bethesda, MD, Oct 1999-May 2000.

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