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Year : 2018  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 40-45

Searching for chinese medicinal plants in greek classical medicine: A first approach

The Huntington, San Marino, CA; Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions, Washington, DC, USA

Date of Web Publication3-Jul-2018

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Emanuela Appetiti
Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions, Washington, DC
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_7_18

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This article examines the presence and uses of plants attested in the Chinese medical tradition in the materia medica literature of classical antiquity. It is based on the consultation of the major ancient compilations on materia medica of Chinese medicine and classical antiquity, specifically Bencao Gangmu by Li Shizhen (16th cent.) and De materia medica by Dioscorides (1st cent. A.D.). The article is divided in three major parts: the identification of plants used in the Chinese medical tradition in the medicine of the Mediterranean World in Antiquity; the analysis of the knowledge of these plants and their origin in classical antiquity; a comparison of the uses of these plants in the Bencao Gangmu and De materia medica. It traces the presence of plants of the Chinese medical tradition in Classical antiquity. Although their exact origin was not known, they were reputed at that time to be native to either India or the Black Sea, two areas that correspond to the ending points of the Silk Road. As for their uses in both traditions, they correspond for some plants, whereas they do not for others because either the uses attested in the Chinese tradition were not preserved on the Mediterranean or different uses appeared in the Mediterranean tradition. These differentiated uses hint at both continuities and ruptures, with the latter resulting from the long journey of the plants from the Chinese World to the Mediterranean and, at the same time, attempts aimed to diversify and optimize the applications of non-native medicinal substances.

Keywords: Apricot, Bencao Gangmu, Black Sea, Caper spurge, Cassia, Classical antiquity, Cucumber, Dioscorides, India, Japanese rose, Li Shizhen, materia medica, Mediterranean World, rhubarb, silk road, spikenard, Sweetflag

How to cite this article:
Touwaide A, Appetiti E. Searching for chinese medicinal plants in greek classical medicine: A first approach. Chin Med Cult 2018;1:40-5

How to cite this URL:
Touwaide A, Appetiti E. Searching for chinese medicinal plants in greek classical medicine: A first approach. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2018 [cited 2021 Jan 16];1:40-5. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2018/1/1/40/235852

Medicinal plants have been constantly present in Chinese medicine, and their historical uses have been brilliantly confirmed by the scientist Tu Youyou (), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2015 for her research on an antimalarial agent based on the traditional uses of Qing Hao ( Artemisia annua L.; sweet wormwood). In recent decades, the medicinal plants used in Chinese medical tradition have attracted the attention of the medical community and made audiences outside China know about the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). This worldwide interest raises the question of whether this is a new phenomenon or just the most recent manifestation of a process of exchanges deeply rooted in history. In this study, we examine Greek medical texts of classical antiquity to possibly detect the presence of Chinese medicinal plants in the Mediterranean region in antiquity, and if some can be traced, to determine how they were known and used.

  Textual Sources Top

Just as Li Shizhen (1518–1593) compiled all information known to him about the materia medica used in Chinese medicine in his time in the well-known Ben Cao Gang Mu ( Compendium of Materia Medica) posthumously published in 1596, the Greek Dioscorides (1st century AD) collected the data about the natural substances of all kinds from the three natural kingdoms (plant, mineral, and animal) used in his time as materia medica that he was able to collect, in his treatise traditionally designated by the Latin version of its title “De Materia Medica,” exactly rendering the original Greek title (peri ulês iatrikês).

In De Materia Medica, Dioscorides usually provided the following information for the plants used as ingredients for medicines:

  • Description, possibly including geographical origin and local varieties
  • Major therapeutic properties
  • Therapeutic applications by
    • Therapeutic property
    • Bodily parts
  • Preparation(s)
  • Iatrogenic side effect(s)
  • Alteration(s) and methods for detection
  • Other use(s) (cosmetic, veterinary, and economic).

In many manuscripts, textual information mentioned above is completed by polychrome representations of the plants, the origin of which is unknown: were they originally commissioned by Dioscorides or were they added at some point in time to his text? Whatever the case, they are present in the two most ancient manuscripts of the work currently known, dating to the 5th and early 6th century, respectively.

  Chinese Plants in the Mediterranean World Top

A systematic screening of De Materia Medica in its original Greek language makes it possible to identify eight plants native to China and/or Southeast Asia, to which we have added a ubiquitous plant (China and Southern Europe) [no. 9 in [Table 1]. These plants are listed in [Table 1] with the following information:
Table 1: Origin of the Chinese medicinal plants known in the Mediterranean World according to Dioscorides, De Materia Medica

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  • Sequential number (1–9) for easy reference in the present essay
  • Reference to their entry in Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, in the Greek text. References are made of two numbers: first, a number from 1 to 4 referring to the books of De Materia Medica and second, a number referring to the chapters in the books where the plants are treated, being understood that each plant is treated in a specific chapter, with some exceptions, however
  • Greek name as in Dioscorides original language (classical Greek)
  • Greek name transliterated in Latin alphabet
  • Possible identification
  • Origin according to Dioscorides
  • Reference to Flora of China (volume and page)
  • Origin according to Flora of China.

In [Table 1], plants are listed in the order in which they are studied in De Materia Medica.

Knowledge of their origin

De Materia Medica does not provide much description for the plants 1–8 listed in [Table 1], and the manuscripts of its text do not contain representations of these plants.

As could be expected, Caper spurge (plant no. 9 listed in [Table 1]), instead, is described with great accuracy being present in Southern Europe.

Among the other plants, the text distinguishes different species of Cassia, all coming from Arabia (no. 3). Apart from the mention of the leaf of the first species, all are identified as tree branches with a thick bark. The different species are identified by their color or their name. Cassia also appears under a different name (no. 2), and it is described as a leaf floating on water (shallow lakes as the sequence of the text allows to conclude), without root. For this species, De Materia Medica reports a usage consisting in burning the vegetation left when the lakes dry during the summer as some sort of fertilization technique.

Sweet flag is briefly described as a knotty root (no. 4), something that clearly indicates that Dioscorides and his contemporaries only knew the drug and not the plant.

For spikenard (no. 1), there are two species defined by their geographic origin (in effect, the east/west orientation of the slopes of the mountain chain on which it grows, one being oriented toward west and defined as Syrian and the other toward east and defined as Indian). Spikenard is the only plant among those studied here, which is illustrated in the Greek manuscripts of De Materia Medica. Characteristically enough, this representation does not appear before the 11th century, whereas many of the other plants studied in De Materia Medica (except those ones discussed here) are illustrated in earlier manuscripts, from the early 6th century onward. A close examination of the representation of spikenard in the 11th-century manuscript reveals that the representation is not the plant (i.e., both the aerial and subterranean parts), but only its roots (actually rhizomes, surmounted by fibers, which are the drugs). Furthermore, the fibrous part of the roots, usually sold in the form of a small, dense bundle made of the fibers, is represented upside down, in the form of a small bush (identified in the Greek text as a spike), apparently coniferous in nature.

Rhubarb is identified as a dark (black in the text) root (no. 8).

For none of the plants, a Chinese origin is indicated. For three of them (nos. 1, 2, and 4 in [Table 1]), De Materia Medica gives India as their origin. For apricot (no. 6), the very name of the plant ( [mêla armeniaka]), meaning Armenian apples, indicates its origin: Armenia, on the Eastern Shore of the Black Sea. A similar origin – the Black Sea – is explicitly stated for rhubarb (no. 8).

On the basis of the above, it is clear that the Mediterranean World was not aware of the Chinese origin of the plants in [Table 1]. It credited them with two main origins: India and Arabia on the one hand and the Black Sea on the other hand. These two regions correspond to the South and North routes of the Silk Road and to the places where Mediterranean populations had contact with these plants, with two different situations: the taxa credited with an Indian or an Arabian origin were probably traded from China to these two regions, whereas those considered to be native to the Black Sea probably had been introduced from China to that region and acclimated there. These two regions can also be analyzed in terms of distance in the diffusion of Chinese plants westward and, conversely, of distance in the travel of Mediterranean population eastward: India is closer to China and is the farthest point that Mediterranean populations did reach, whereas Arabia and the Black Sea are farther from China and closer to the Mediterranean.

Therapeutic applications of Chinese plants in Mediterranean medicine

A comparison of the properties and uses of the plants as described by Dioscorides and Li Shizhen is no less instructive. In [Table 2], we have recorded the references to the study of seven plants native to China and used in the historical TCM according to Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, and Li Shizhen, Ben Cao Gang Mu, respectively.
Table 2: Plants of Chinese origin known and used in the Mediterranean World with references to Li Shizhen, Bencao gangmu

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In the first case [apricot, no. 4 in [Table 2], no relevant information is presented in Dioscorides, De Materia Medica.

Apricot (mêla armeniaka) – (xing)

Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 1.115.5

Li Shizhen, Ben Cao Gang Mu, 29.2; pp. 29.6b-13b

… dispersing pathogenic factors … dispelling the invading Wind … moistening the Dryness, dissolving indigestion … incised wound and physical injury … treating sores and killing worms, as it is toxic …

It is probably significant that the plant was introduced into the Mediterranean World during the 1st century BC. If no information seems to have been transmitted, no new information was generated.

In another case [spikenard, no. 1 in [Table 2], the therapeutic applications presented by both texts do not indicate any similarity.

Spikenard (nardos) – (gan song xiang)

Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 1.7

… nausea, heartburn, flatulence, liver ailments, jaundice, renal dysfunctions. Boiled down with water … uterine inflammations. purulent blepharitis, toning the eyelids and furthering the growth of eyelashes,… scented body powder against excessive perspiration …

Li Shizhen, Ben Cao Gang Mu, 14-11; pp. 14.35a-35b

… can disperse stagnation of the spleen … spleen and stomach trouble …

In the third case [Cassia, no. 2 in [Table 2], the general property attributed to the drug (warming, highlighted in boldface in the text below) is identical in both texts, even though the degree of intensity of this property is different (warming in Dioscorides and very hot in Li Shizhen). The applications of this property are different, however.

Cassia (kassia) – (jun gui)

Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 1.13

… warming, diuretic, desiccative, mildly astringent properties eye medicines … removes birthmarks … provokes menstruation … all internal inflammations and for the kidneys … women … dilating the cervix …

Li Shizhen, Ben Cao Gang Mu, no. 34.4-5; pp. 34.18b-27b

Sweet, pungent, very hot and slightly toxic … Relieves abdominal pain … warms the interior…

A similar case is provided by Caper spurge [no. 7 in [Table 2], where the major action of the plant (elimination) is identical in both De Materia Medica and Ben Cao Gang Mu, with also the same therapeutic applications: retention and purgation of phlegm including water in the case of dropsy.

Caper spurge (lathuris) – (xu sui zi)

Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 4.166

… seeds purge the bowel … eliminate phlegm, bile, and water

. Li Shizhen, Ben Cao Gang Mu, 17.1; pp. 17a. 31a-32b

…(against) phlegm retention … drastic function of purging water … edema and distension due to pathogenic water…

The same major action of the plant (cooling, highlighted in the texts below), together with a specific application (highlighted in the text), can be found in both texts about cucumber [no. 5 in [Table 2].

Cucumber (sikus êmeros) – (hu gua)

Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 2.135

… relaxes the bowel … cools … bladder … seed diuretic and for ulcerations of the bladder … leaves … pustules …… flesh digestive and diuretic … relieves inflammations of the eye as a cataplasm … children suffering from heatstroke … emetic … impetigo …

Li Shizhen, Ben Cao Gang Mu, 28.9; pp. 28.28b-19b

… sweet, cold … infantile dysentery due to invading pathogenic heat … edema with abdominal distension … excessive infantile sweating … sore throat … inflamed and swollen eye … burns …

The presence of the same specific application (children suffering from headstroke in Dioscorides and excessive infantile sweating in Li Shizhen) is all the more remarkable that this is an extremely specific application, the presence of which in both texts is certainly not accidental.

In two cases, the texts present clear similarities [rose, no. 3 in [Table 2], and rhubarb, no. 6]. These points of contact between the two texts below are highlighted in boldface. For Rose, the general property is the same (cooling) as are also three major applications: diarrhea, skin affections, and tooth problems (infection in Dioscorides and pain in Li Shizhen). Interestingly enough, the Greek text has cosmetic indications that its Chinese equivalent does not present.

Japanese Rose (rodon) – (ying shi qiang mi)

Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 1.99

… cool and contract … good when plastered on for inflammations of the hypochondrium, for excess of fluids in the stomach, and for erysipelas … lip salves … wound medications … eyelids and eyelashes makeup. suppuration from the gums … diarrhea and spitting of blood.

Li Shizhen, Ben Cao Gang Mu 18.16; pp. 18a. 40b-42b

… bitter, astringent, cold, and nontoxic … diarrhea and dysentery … disperses vicious pathogenic factors, treats malignant sores … pertinacious skin diseases … relieves toothache …

The organs affected by the action of rhubarb are the same in both texts (spleen and liver, highlighted below), even though there are other organs in the Ben Cao Gang Mu. Two specific applications (abdominal/stomach affections and asthma) are identical in the Greek and the Chinese works (they are highlighted in boldface in the text below). In spite of this, each of the two has indications that do not appear in the other text.

Rhubarb (ra)– (da huang)

Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 3.2

… good for flatulence in the stomach, lack of energy, all sorts of pains, spasms … spleen, liver, and kidney disease, colic, bladder and chest problems, tension on the stomach, disorders in the area of the uterus, pain in the hip, blood-spitting, asthma, hiccups, dysentery, bowel conditions, intermittent fever …

Li Shizhen, Ben Cao Gang Mu, 17.1; pp. 17a. 7a-14b

… bitter, cold, nontoxic …… blood system of the following five channels: Spleen, Large intestine, Stomach, Pericardium, Liver … hematemesis … febrile disease … epigastric and abdominal diseases … asthma …

  Conclusions Top

Some plants native to China and used in Chinese historical medicine were present in the Mediterranean World in the 1st century AD. Their exact origin was not known, however. Most were considered to come from India, which was the farthest point eastward that Mediterranean populations reached. Plants native to China might have already been introduced to India by that time or they were traded as drugs. Whatever the case, these plants were not well known on the Mediterranean: Only the drugs obtained from them were known.

As for the plants that were not native to China but were used in Chinese medicine and were known to Mediterranean populations, the situation is not much different: they might have been known as drugs, traded on Indian markets.

Some species might have been discovered in areas closer to the Mediterranean World as the Black Sea. Interestingly, one of these species is known to have entered the Mediterranean World at a later epoch (1st century BC), suggesting that the diffusion westward of Southeast Asian plants was continuous. The plants encountered in that area at that time were supposed to be native to that area. Whereas India was the farthest area where Mediterranean became in contact with Chinese medicinal plants, the Black Sea was the nearest to their habitat.

It has to be noted that these two areas for contact between the Mediterranean populations and Chinese plants (India and the Black Sea) correspond to the south and north routes of the Silk Road. Whereas India was on the Road – being it through land or via sea – the Black Sea was its ending point.

With regard to the therapeutic properties and applications of plants native to China in Greek medicine, information is differentiated.

For some plants, no information seems to have traveled with the plants themselves, unless information was lost at some point along the road. This might have happened for several reasons, including because the pathologies these plants were treating were not significantly present among the populations who transmitted information, or the medical way of accounting for their action could not be absorbed in a different system.

For others, instead, precise information on both theoretical properties and therapeutic applications reached the Mediterranean World. It even seems that the more specific the indications were, the more probable their transmission went without modification, most probably because of their high specificity which made information precious.

In spite of clear identities, the properties and indications of the plants do not totally correspond in both texts under consideration. Many indications of Ben Cao Gang Mu did not arrive on the Mediterranean and new indications and uses appeared in De Materia Medica. This is certainly a result of the different conceptual systems used to account for the action of the plants, in addition to the distance and the multiple relays along the way from China and Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean.

A new field for applications (cosmetics) appears in Dioscorides, possibly attesting to attempts aimed to diversify the uses of the plants beyond medicine and to optimize their use.


This article is based on a lecture presented in September 2017 at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing by Alain Touwaide upon invitation of Professor Zhu Jianping, Director of The China Institute for History of Medicine and Medical Literature of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, whom we warmly thank for the invitation.

Research for the preparation of this lecture and completion of this article has benefited from the collaboration of Sean Bradley (University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA) and Rui Sun (University of California Los Angeles UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, USA), who read the Chinese text of the Ben Cao Gang Mu for us.

Financial support and sponsorship

Support for this research has been provided by the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions, Washington, DC (USA), and The Huntington, San Marino, CA (USA).

Conflicts of interest

The authors do not have conflicting interests.

  Bibliography Top

Flora of China

Zhengyi W, Raven PH, Deyuan H, editors. Flora of China. Vol. 25. Beijing, St. Louis (MO): Science Press, Missouri Botanical Garden Press; 1994-2013.

Dioscorides, De materia medica:

Wellmann M. editor. Pedanii Dioscuridis Anazarbei, De Materia Medica Libri Quinque. Vol. 3. Berlin: Weidmann; 1906-1914, 1958.

Beck LY, Translated. Pedanius Dioscorides of Anazarbus, De Materia Medica. Altertumswissenschaftliche Texte und Studien 38. 3rd ed. Hildesheim, Zürich, New York: Olms-Weidmann; 2017.

Li Shizhen, Ben Cao Gang Mu:

Shizhen L. Bencao Gangmu. Vol. 33. Hangzhou: Wu Lin Qian Ya; 1640.

Shizhen L. Compendium of Materia Medica (Ben Cao Gang Mu). Translated by Xiwen L. Vol. 6. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press; 2003.


  [Table 1], [Table 2]


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