God of Five Grains

In Roman mythology, there is a goddess Demeter who blesses farming people. In ancient Chinese culture, there is a god of agriculture – the God of Five Grains.

Among the beliefs of the Han Chinese people, the God of Five Grains, also known as Shennong the Great Emperor or the legendary Shennong, was a pioneer in agriculture and medicine. Shennong the Great Emperor was a legendary ruler from ancient times in Chinese mythology, who was also known as "Emperor Yan".

(Photo: CNA)

He tasted hundreds of herbs, taught the people what to eat and what not to eat, and recorded the plants that can be used as herbal medicine to heal people’s diseases. In addition, he taught the people to make farm tools, and personally demonstrated farming skills to the people so they knew how to sow grains and other crops. Since then, agriculture has flourished and the people no longer suffered from hunger. In the end, however, Shennong died after tasting a poisonous herb. In order to show gratitude for his kindness, the people built temples to worship him and called him Shennong the Great Emperor. Statues or other images of the God of Five Grains show him holding rice ears or herbs, which symbolizes his teachings to people on how to grow crops and his tasting of all kinds of herbs to find the right medicine for people.

The God of Five Grains is a common belief of Han people in the early agricultural society; both Fujianese and Hakka ethnic groups believed in it. In Taiwan, in many Hakka settlements, the belief in Shennong is very common. Since most Hakka people are engaged in agricultural production for a living, they are especially pious in worshipping the God of Five Grains. Since that Hakka people came to Taiwan from mainland China relatively late, most of them could only carry out land reclamation for farming in mountainous or remote areas. Due to the difficult farming conditions, they needed the blessing of Emperor Shennong for a smooth reclamation and a good harvest. Therefore, the God of Five Grains is a very important part of Hakka faith.

In the early days, the God of Five Grains was represented by a deity placard with the words "The Throne of the Five Grains Lord" written on one side. Afterwards, the Hakka ethnic group was also influenced by the Fujianese people, which gave Emperor Shennong a different shape, interpretation and symbolism. For example, some depictions show Shennong wearing imperial robes due to the legend that Emperor Shennong is also the "Emperor Yan"; others show him wearing only a few leaves covering his body to show that Shennong tasted all kinds of herbs and taught people how to cultivate crops. There are also three colors of Emperor Shennong’s face: the white face deity represents the appearance of Shennong as the great emperor, the black face is the image of Shennong tasting herbs and being poisoned countless times, and the red face is the state of Shennong when he’s burning the mountain forest land to prepare it for cultivation.

Many Shennong temples are located in Hakka areas, such as Taoyuan City, Hsinchu County, Miaoli County, Kaohsiung City, and Pingtung County. The last two counties to be reclaimed for agricultural use, Taitung and Hualien counties, also have a lot of Shennong temples in Hakka villages there. According to local storytelling, early life was difficult, and the Shennong temples were even responsible for providing prescriptions for the residents so they could get medicine for treatment. And because some temples are located on high ground, when a typhoon hits with flooding, the residents will go to the temple in groups to seek refuge, so the Shennong temples can be said to have served local residents as a provider of spiritual and material comfort for many years.

When offering sacrifices to the God of Five Grains, beef cannot be used as a sacrificial item, because farmers thought that water buffalos were a great help to them. For this reason, too, farmers in the past did not eat beef. This also symbolized that behind the faith in Shennong, believers cherished their good fortune and were grateful to Nature for what it provided to them.