Chinese herbalism is most often credited to the study of plants done by Shen Nung (Shennong, Shen Nong) who is believed to have been a Chinese Emperor that lived from 2737BC to 2698BC. Traditional stories portray him as a sage man of science and an inventor. He is also popularly regarded as a cultural hero and mythical being.
According to legend, Shen Nung tested hundreds of plants for their effects by tasting them himself. His findings are said to have been preserved through oral tradition until the 2nd century AD. A compilation of information attributed to him is thought to have been written then. It is called Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng and known by other names such as The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica or The Compendium of Materia Medica.
The book has taken many forms throughout the ages and ancient texts are still extant although the original is not.
Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng is thought to have evolved from its inception with new knowledge added in different eras. Here is an excerpt from a version available today (The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica: A Translation of the Shen Nong Ben Cao, edited by Shou-Zhong Yang):
Below are images of Shen Nung along with illustrations of plants (from other sources) most likely tasted and studied by him. He is often depicted in fine clothing and a position of reverence as a man of wisdom. Images in which he is at work are prevalent. Also, he can be seen portrayed as a mythical being at times or an ancient in the wild clothed in leaves.