Shen Nong was a Biohacker

Around 200 BC, a book was written that gathered together information about the most important Chinese herbs in use at the time. It was called the Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica (Chinese: Shen Nong Ben Cao). This book is widely regarded as the oldest extent materia medica from within the classical tradition of Chinese medicine. While it was written around 200 BC, the name of the text references a legendary or mythological figure named Shen Nong, who allegedly lived before 2500 BC.

While it is debatable whether this was an actual historical figure or that he was solely or even partially responsible for the contents of this text is not really important. What is important is that the text reflects a tradition of experimentation with substances derived from the natural world and the observation and recording of their effects on all aspects of physiology and psychology.

Now read this definition of biohacking from the Tony Robbins website (


Let’s start with the fundamentals. Biohacking is essentially the practice of changing our chemistry and our physiology through science and self-experimentation. It’s a broad definition, but that’s also because the idea of “biohacking” is constantly evolving. It can be as simple as lifestyle and dietary changes that improve the functioning of your body. It can be as daily as wearable technology that helps you monitor and regulate physiological data. Or it can be as extreme as implant technology and genetic engineering. The possibilities are endless, but they are all rooted in the idea that we can change our bodies and our brains, and that we can ultimately become smarter, faster, better.

That sounds like it could describe an ancient Daoist herbalist in China in 500 BC experimenting with herbs that had been classified as substances that nourish life and promote longevity. Or, maybe one of their counterparts on the other side of the Himalayas in India experimenting with mixtures of herbs known as Rasayanas. Or perhaps the alchemists of medieval Europe seeking their elixirs of immortality.

Many people associate biohacking primarily with enhancement via technology, such as implanting RFID chips under your skin so that you can gain access to a building without having to flash a badge. Or, the commonly recurring theme in many science-fiction stories of having some type of implant that allows you to communicate directly with computers. Things of that sort are now possible, and people are experimenting with them. However, my primary interest (for now) is on how to use natural methods such as meditation, breathing, herbs, diet, etc. to alter one’s physiology and biochemistry in ways that enhance physical and cognitive performance.

In one sense, anything humans have done to consciously alter their physiology and biochemistry to achieve goals other than the reproduction of the species is a biohack. This would include behavioral modification, diet, ingestion of pharmacologically active substances, etc. to impact the natural course of development, achieve peak levels of performance, and slow the decline of aging

As I mentioned, technology biohacks are the most well known, probably because they’re the most sensational. However, I would suggest that the ancient peoples around the world who explored the use of various pharmacologically active plants were some of the original biohackers. As were the yogis and the tai chi masters and the Shaolin monks.

To me, the story of the divine husbandman is not a story of a great man who single-handedly did a great thing. It’s more like a mythological archetype of the original biohackers. Exploring their natural world looking for substances that would enhance their physical and mental performance, relieve the aches and pains of day-to-day life, prevent the onset of serious disease, and delay or slow the decline of aging.

The mythology of Shen Nong is a fascinating one. His archetype appears to represent the type of activities many people would have to have been engaged in at the dawn of human civilization. He is credited with things like inventing agriculture (including many of the tools used as well as the process of irrigation) and also personally testing hundreds of medicinal substances on his own body and recording their effects. Again, I do not think he represents a person as much as the spirit of humanity where humans learn by constantly tinkering, inventing, experimenting and taking risks. You might call him the patron saint of ancient Chinese biohackers.

With consideration of risking in mind, I will end with a cautionary tale from his Wikipedia page:

According to some versions of the myths about Shennong, he eventually died as a result of his researches into the properties of plants by experimenting upon his own body, after, in one of his tests, he ate the yellow flower of a weed that caused his intestines to rupture before he had time to swallow his antidotal tea: having thus given his life for humanity, he has since received special honor though his worship as the Medicine King (藥王 Yàowáng).