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Year : 2018  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 68-70

The silk road and sources of Chinese medicine expansion: Part 2 – Formularies

Department of Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

Date of Web Publication9-Oct-2018

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Sean Bradley
David F Musto Centre for Drug Policy Studies, College of Liberal Arts, Shanghai University, Shanghai - 200444
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_20_18

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Medicines have been traded along the Silk Road from antiquity until modern times. These products and their associated knowledge have been transferred over the land and sea between Asia, Europe, and Africa. Numerous texts that contain formulas and treatments passed along the Silk Road. Collections of these formulas and treatment methods called formularies contain unique information that informs this transfer of medicine. The texts and information flowed in both directions along these routes and while Chinese medicine influenced foreign medical practices both in history, and today, the incorporation of non-Chinese medicine and information also continues to influence Chinese medicine.

Keywords: Chinese medicine, formulary, history, Materia medica, Silk Road

How to cite this article:
Bradley S. The silk road and sources of Chinese medicine expansion: Part 2 – Formularies. Chin Med Cult 2018;1:68-70

How to cite this URL:
Bradley S. The silk road and sources of Chinese medicine expansion: Part 2 – Formularies. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2018 [cited 2022 Jun 29];1:68-70. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2018/1/2/68/242575

  Introduction Top

Imported medicines are often looked at through the Materia medica texts that were discussed in the first part of this series; however, one of the most important sources of the actual applications and integration of foreign medicines are the formularies.[1],[2] The majority of formularies are divided into disease categories such as gynecology, pediatrics, traumatology, and ophthalmology. The earliest received text is the Zhou Hou Beiji Fang (《肘后备急方》 Emergency Formulas to Keep on Hand) attributed to the 4th century scholar Hong Ge 葛洪 (283-343 C.E.). There are also discovered formularies from the Han Dynasty 汉代 (209 B.C.E–220 C.E.) such as Wushier Bing Fang (《五十二病方 》) found at Mawangdui 马王堆 , and the Liushi Bing Fang (《六十病方》) found at Tian hui 天回 or Laoguanshan 老官山. Not only these formularies provide information about treatments for illness and disease but also often list ingredients. By examining these lists, we can further study the potential exchange of medicines.

Formularies are the second group of source materials and the second part in this series. The first part of this source text series was on Materia medica, and parts three and four will be miscellaneous texts and histories, respectively.

  Formularies Top

The spread of religion is often joined by the spread of medicine. The expansion of Buddhism and Islam into China were certainly no exceptions. Both of these religions, one from South Asia, and the other from Central Asia, brought with them new ideas, physicians, prescriptions, texts, and exotic medicines.

  South Asian Medicines Top

Early formularies often show influence from Indian medicine of South Asia. Simiao Sun 孙思邈 (581-670 C.E.), the proclaimed Yao Wang 药王 (King of Medicine) in China, incorporates a number of foreign elements in his formulas. His Beiji Qian Jin Yao Fang (《备急千金要方》 Priceless and Essential Formulas for Emergencies), printed in 652 C.E., includes quotes and prescriptions from the renowned Indian physician, Jīvaka.[3] Jīvaka is mentioned in references and formulas such as Qipo Wan Tong Wan Fang (《耆婆万病丸方》 Jīvaka's Pill Formula for One Thousand Diseases). A study of Sun Simiao's formulas was done by Professor Ming Chen 陈明 of Beijing University in 2003.[4]

Sun Simiao's references to South Asian practitioners and use of Indian medicines are not surprising given his interest and study of Buddhism. He was by no means alone, and as Buddhism continued to spread in China through major cities such as Dunhuang (敦煌) and Lanzhou (蘭州), medicine from South Asia further influenced Chinese medicine [Figure 1] and [Figure 2].
Figure 1: The Buddhist caves at Dunhuang show the influence of Buddhism along the Silk Road

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Figure 2: The Hui Medicine Culture Museum in Ningxia province

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Buddhist influence and references to Jīvaka continue into the 10th century where the Japanese text, Ishinpo (《医心方》 Formulas at the Heart of Medicine) cites Qipo Fang (《耆婆方》 Jīvaka's Formula), Qipo Fu Ru Fang (《耆婆服乳方》 Jīvaka's Taking of Stalactite Formulas), and Qipo Mai Jue Jing (《耆婆脉决经》 Jīvaka's Classic on Pulse Diagnosis). Several other Chinese medicine texts associated with Jīvaka were composed during the Song dynasty 宋代 (960-1279 C. E.) and can be found listed in the dynastic histories which will be discussed in Part 4 of this series.[5]

Waitai Bi yao (《外台秘要》 Arcane Essentials from the Imperial Library) [Figure 3] written by Tao Wang 王焘 (670-755 C. E.) lists close to 7000 formulas and also has a number of references to Indian medicines. In juan 21, Wang Tao references the Tianzhu Jing Lun Yan (《天竺经论眼》 Indian Classic Discussing the Eye) which he attributes to Taoist Long shang 龙上道人.[6] Taoist Long Shang has an extensive discussion on ophthalmology from an Indian perspective and elaborates on how eye disorders can be effectively treated.[7] Wang also references other Indian sources including ones copied from the works of Sun Simiao.
Figure 3: The Wai tai bi yao has numerous formulas from Indian and Buddhist origins

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  Arabic and Persian (Unani) Medicines Top

In addition to the South Asian exchange, Arabic and Persian medical knowledge, commonly referred to as Unani medicine were also being transferred along the Silk Road as seen in the Materia medica.[5] With works such as the al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb (Canon of Medicine) by Avicenna (980-1037 C.E.) completed in 1025, just as Buddhism helped spread South Asian medicine, so did Islam help spread medicine from the Middle East.

A major work that demonstrates the influence of Islamic medicine is a formulary of the Yuan dynasty 元朝 (1271-1368 C.E.), the Huihui Yao Fang (《回回药方》) [Figure 4]. This work was originally over 3000 pages long, but only 484 remain. In the chapters that survive, there are 517 Islamic medicines with their Persian or Arabic name and Chinese transliteration, 58 medicines with transliterated names with Chinese equivalents, and also 128 with only Chinese names.[8] Some examples of imported medicines mentioned in this text are the senna (fanxieye番泻叶 Cassia acutifolia Del.), fennel (huixiang茴香 Foeniculum vulgare Mill.) and even some medicines commonly used in European herbal medicine such as lavender (xunyicao 熏衣草 Lavendula stoechas L.), rosemary (midiexiang 迷迭香 Rosmarinus officinalis L.), and St. John's wort (jinsitao 金丝桃 Hypericum perforatum L.).[9]
Figure 4: The Hui hui yao fang or Islamic Formulary

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  Conclusion Top

These formularies show how some geographically foreign medicines made their way into China but also shed insight onto the types of disease and injuries the formulas within these texts were used to treat. While two traditions that came into China alongside major religions are mentioned above, it is likely that other foreign sources of medicine also made their way into Chinese medicine. A greater in-depth study of the specific formularies and comparison to other traditions is the only way to better understand the exchange of these formulas.

While the examples above only give a brief introduction to how these formulas may have impacted Chinese medicine they do give a glimpse into how practitioners, such as Sun Simiao, may have incorporated these new substances into their treatment protocols and formula writing.

Over thousands of years China and its neighbors, both near and far, exchanged medicines along the Silk Road. The addition of exotic elements shows the dynamic nature of Chinese medicine in its ability to grow and expand. Even to this day, Chinese medicine continues to grow and adapts foreign substances to its principles and practice. Better understanding how these formularies were compiled will allow practitioners to better apply those principles to approaching new medical formulas today.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Qinglu X. Zhongguo zhongyi guji zongmu. Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe; 2007. p. 1.  Back to cited text no. 1
Peiran Q (ed.). Zhongyi ji da cidian. Shanghai: Shanghai kexue jishu chubanshe; 2002. p. 40-66.  Back to cited text no. 2
Simiao S. Beiji qianjin yao fang 备急千金要方. Beijing: Renmin Weisheng Chubanshe; 1955. p. 225-2.  Back to cited text no. 3
Ming C. Qianjingfang zhong deQipo yiyao fang (The Jīvaka's Prescriptions in Qianjingfang). Beijing Ligong Daxue Xuebao 2003;2:91-6.  Back to cited text no. 4
Salguero CP. The Buddhist medicine king in literary context: Reconsidering an early example of Indian influence on Chinese medicine and surgery. History of Religions 2009;48:210.  Back to cited text no. 5
Tao W. Taoist Long Shang has the Family Name Xie. He Livedin Qizhou, but Received his Knowledge from Foreign Priests of the Western Countries. This is Likely Referring to India. Waitai Miyao[INSIDE:34]. Taipei: National Institute of Chinese Medicine Press; 1976.p. 562.  Back to cited text no. 6
Kovacs J, Unschuld P. Discuss this more in depth in their translation of the Yinhai jingwei (Essential subtleties of the Silver Sea). While the textis attributed to Sun Simiao, it is more likely a compilation of sourcescompleted in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Essential Subtletieson the Silver Sea. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1998. p. 4,38-42.  Back to cited text no. 7
Kong YC, Chen DS. Elucidation of Islamic drugs in Hui Hui Yao Fang: A linguistic and pharmaceutical approach. J Ethnopharmacol 1996;54:85-102.  Back to cited text no. 8
Kong YC, Chen DS. Elucidation of Islamic drugs in Hui Hui Yao Fang: Alinguistic and pharmaceutical approach. J Ethnopharmacol 1996;54:90-3.  Back to cited text no. 9


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4]


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