Up to this point I have attempted to show how Shen Nung was portrayed in late Warring States and early Han texts. I have also reviewed what we know about Nung (or Chu) and Lieh Shan shih, Keng-fu (Plough Father), and T'ien-tsu (Field Ancestor), since it may be one or all four of these figures that comes to be known as Shen Nung.
We can argue nothing for certain on this, and certainly T'ien-tsu in the Shih, was, we assume, a god of the Chou. But that point aside, there seems to be good reason to think that Shen Nung was originally a farming god of the Shang people. He is the hero who invented the plough, and the god to whom they turned when they needed rain. Ultimately, this may have been Hsieh, the first-born of the Shang people, known to us in our texts as Shu-chün or Yi-chün. That Shen Nung would become prominent only in texts that date from the late Chou should be no surprise; we should expect him to be overshadowed in early Chou times by their hero Hou Chi.
It is important to keep in mind as we proceed that in the materials we have examined so far, we have seen repeated references to ‘fire’ and ‘rain’ and ‘drought’. Ritual ways of producing rainfall and combating the drought could involve fire (yen-huo, in Shih, 211); they might also involve ‘invocations’, charging the drought demon to ‘Go to the north!’ (Shan-hai ching).