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Table of Contents
Year : 2018  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 29-31

The silk road and sources of chinese medicine expansion: Part 1 – Materia Medica

Deaprtment of Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington, Washington, USA

Date of Web Publication3-Jul-2018

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Sean Bradley
University of Washington, Washington
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_9_18

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The Silk Road stretched over land and across seas connecting Europe, Africa, and Asia. The trade of medicine along these routes has had profound impacts on the populations and traditions they have come into contact with. Chinese Medicine is no exception as it has taken numerous nonnative products and incorporated them into the unique philosophical construct of systematic correspondences that govern its practice. By looking at the four categories of primary source materials and studying the history of medical exchange along the Silk Road, we can determine how and where this information is used in Chinese Medicine. The Materia Medica (ben cao 本草) texts are the first source of information for this study that will explore multiple sources to better understand the development of Chinese Medicine in relation to the rest of the world.

Keywords: Chinese Medicine, Materia Medica, medical exchange, Silk Road

How to cite this article:
Bradley S. The silk road and sources of chinese medicine expansion: Part 1 – Materia Medica. Chin Med Cult 2018;1:29-31

How to cite this URL:
Bradley S. The silk road and sources of chinese medicine expansion: Part 1 – Materia Medica. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2018 [cited 2022 May 23];1:29-31. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2018/1/1/29/235854

  Introduction Top

The Silk Road is a system of trade routes that extended over land and sea which brought exchange of products, finance, and knowledge between Asia, Europe, and Africa. One of the most important features of this trade was the exchange of medicines and of medical knowledge. This information flowed in both directions along these routes impacting cultures and civilizations all along the paths. These many widespread interactions and the expansion of knowledge are the ways that Traditional Chinese Medicine has been shaped into what it is today.

  Silk Road over the Land Top

Throughout its long history, Chinese Medicine continues to grow and develop. Since the earliest Materia Medica of China, the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing ( The Divine Farmer's Classic of Materia Medica), as well as in early archeological findings such as the Wu Shi Er Bing Fang ( Formulas for Fifty-two Illnesses) found at Mawangdui Tomb () and the Liu Shi Bing Fang ( Formulas for Sixty Illnesses) discovered at Laoguanshan (), Chinese Medicine has demonstrated a distinct and effective system of medicine. Native herbs and formulas have been used to treat all varieties of ailments and diseases, but with the expansion of trade along the Silk Road, new medicines were incorporated and Chinese Medicine expanded beyond its local roots. Over time, Materia Medica, formularies, and even theory expanded and continued to expand into the modern times [Figure 1].
Figure 1: A Han Dynasty Tower near Yumen

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  Materia Medicatexts Top

While some of these medicines are quietly incorporated into texts without mention, many can be traced to specialized Materia Medica on foreign medicines such as the the Hai Yao Ben Cao ( Materia Medica of Foreign Medicine), formularies of foreign cultures such as the Hui Hui Yao Fang ( The Islamic Formulary), and even trade or miscellaneous texts such as the You Yang Za Zu ( Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang Mountain).

In this four-part series, we are going to look diverse sources, in order to better understand the context by which the exchange of products and information took place, and, by extension, use this information to inform the current state and continued growth of Chinese Medicine. Four primary source types emerge as being essential for creating a comprehensive picture of the Silk Road as it pertains to the transfer of medicine.

These sources and the topics for this series are: (1) Materia Medica, (2) formularies, (3) miscellaneous texts, and (4) histories. Examining these categories in depth, the scope and paths of exchange of medicine on the Silk Road emerge to allow for the further study of how the Silk Road expanded Chinese Medicine.

Materia Medica

The first and most clear of these sources are the Materia Medica or ben cao () texts. These show the continued growth and expansion of diversity as foreign products are incorporated and used in Chinese Medicine in new and innovative ways. Two distinct types of Materia Medica that give insight into the growth of Chinese Medicine are: (1) specialized and regional texts that deal specifically with foreign medicines and (2) texts that are compendiums of the known medicines at that time that are primarily of domestic origin.

Foreign or specialized Materia Medica

Two specialized and regional Materia Medica that emphasize the influence of specifically Arabic and Persian medicines are the Hu Ben Cao ( Foreign Materia Medica) and the Hai Yao Ben Cao. These specialized Materia Medica explicitly discuss nonnative plants and their incorporation into Chinese Medicine. The Hu Ben Cao was written by the scholar ZhengQian () around 875(CE) and the Hai Yao Ben Cao was written about a century later by Li Xun (, also called Li Derun ), an ethnic Persian who spent time in Sichuan and Guangzhou during the Five Dynasties' period (907–960 CE) [Figure 2].[1]
Figure 2: Herbs both Foreign and Domestic for Sale in Dunhaung, Gansu Province

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While both texts are no longer extant, significant portions of the Hai Yao Ben Cao survive and have been recreated from various sources. Much of the information on the 130 medicines of the Hai Yao Ben Cao had been pieced together which clarify the origin of many substances that are now part of Chinese Medicine.[2] Some of these medicines are known to be of foreign origin, but many have become such a part of Chinese Medicine that their foreign origin is easily forgotten. Herbs such as Mo Yao (myrrh Commiphora spp.), Ru Xiang (frankincense Boswellia carterii Birdw.), Ding Xiang (clove Syzygium aromaticum L.), and An Xi Xiang (benzoin Styrax benzoin Dryand) are mentioned in the received fragments of the Hai Yao Ben Cao.[3] All of these medicines are used in Chinese Medicine and have become regularly used products in a number of formulas.

Compendiums and domestic Materia Medica

While the foreign Materia Medica are a great source of information about the trade of medicines along the Silk Road, as is evident by the Hai Yao Ben Cao, we often must rely on much larger compendiums of Chinese Medicines that give geographical references and sources to actually determine the origins of plants. The monumental Ben Cao Gang Mu ( Compendium of Materia Medica) of Li Shizhen ( 1518-1593 CE) is the starting point for nearly all researches like this as Li was meticulous in his citations and research with 932 texts referenced [Figure 3].[4]
Figure 3: Materia Medica Texts

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The gradual growth of these standard formularies that culminate in antiquity with the Ben Cao Gang Mu also gives insight into the trade along the Silk Road. The Xin Xiu Ben Cao ( Newly Compiled Materia Medica) by Su Jing (d. 674), was the first known government-sponsored compendium and was completed in 659 (CE) during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE).[5] The Xin Xiu Ben Cao identifies 114 new medicines including Bei Ma Zi (castor beanRicinus communis L.) and He Zi (myrobalan Terminalia chebula retz).[6]

While there are many plants native to China and listed in the earliest Materia Medica, the Silk Road served as a catalyst to expand this as numerous medicines were absorbed and incorporated into Chinese Medicine. These compendiums of Chinese Medicine continue to expand into the modern times. There are over 5700 herbs identified in the Zhong Yao Da Ci Dian ( Dictionary of Chinese Medicines) published in 1977.[7] Even today, the Materia Medica of Chinese Medicine expand as more researches are done on other traditional world medicines such as Australian, North and South American, African, and numerous other native practices and they are incorporated into the theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

  Conclusion Top

The Silk Road was a thoroughfare of products, people, knowledge, and medicine that lasted for thousands of years. Medicines and their associated information were oftentimes incorporated into or influenced medical practices they came into contact with. Chinese Medicine, as a distinct and complex system of medicine, has been growing consistently since its beginning with a modest start of a few hundred medicines from a small geographic region to thousands of medicines from around the world.

The Materia Medica mentioned here are only the first of the four categories of texts that we can investigate to look more closely at the incorporation of medicines transferred along the Silk Road into Chinese Medicine. While we get base information from these works, it is our next category, formularies, that gives us more insight into the use of the medicines and how these foreign products blend with native Chinese Medicines.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Ming C. The transmission of foreign medicine via the silk roads in medieval China: A case study of Hai Yao Ben Cao. Asian Med 2007;3:245.  Back to cited text no. 1
Xun L, Ming C. 8th to 9th century. Hai Yao Ben Cao. Beijing: Renmin Wei Sheng Chu Ban She; 1997. p. 253.  Back to cited text no. 2
Ma Jixiang, Shen Nong Bencao Jing Ji Zhu. Beijing: Renmin Wei Sheng Chu Ban She; 2000.  Back to cited text no. 3
Nappi C. The Monkey and Inkpot: Natural History and its Transformations in Early Modern China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press; 2009. p. 25.  Back to cited text no. 4
Peiran Q, editor. Zhong Guo Yi Ji Da Ci Dian. Shanghai: Shanghai Ke Xue Ji Shu Chu Ban She; 2002. p. 252.  Back to cited text no. 5
Hinrichs TJ, Barnes LL, Ming C. Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 2013. p. 77, 245.  Back to cited text no. 6
Jiangsu xinyixueyuan, ed. Zhong Yao Da Ci Dian. Vol. 2. Hong Kong: Shang Wu Yin Shu Guan; 1977-9.  Back to cited text no. 7


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3]


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