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Table of Contents
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 32-35

Historical background of Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica)

Medical Ancient Literature Teaching and Research Department, School of Chinese Classics, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, Beijing, China

Date of Web Publication18-Mar-2019

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Dongfang Yang
School of Chinese Classics, Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, Beijing
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_8_19

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The compilation of Compendium of Materia Medica by Li Shizhen is the product of both his great dream of writing and years of diligent work and it was also all round related to the historical times when he lived. At that time, the appreciation from the Emperor, competitive publication of medical works by the state kings and the rapid developments in medicine in the Ming dynasty all contributed to the establishment of a solid foundation for the success of Compendium of Materia Medica. This paper explored the contributing factors of the great work from a perspective of the historical environment.

Keywords: Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》Compendium of Materia Medica), herbal works, historical stages

How to cite this article:
Yang D, Yang X. Historical background of Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica). Chin Med Cult 2019;2:32-5

How to cite this URL:
Yang D, Yang X. Historical background of Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica). Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2019 [cited 2022 Jun 29];2:32-5. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2019/2/1/32/254383

The birth of a work is always bound with its time. Although the writing of Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》) Compendium of Materia Medica) was attributed to his great ideal and hard work, it was also closely related to the times when he lived. Therefore, its publication was the product of the corresponding society in the Ming dynasty, and factors such as government policies on medicine, special appreciation by state palaces, and the developments in medical works had all contributed directly or indirectly to the formation of this prominent herbal masterpiece, influencing its styles and features. This paper studied on Li Shizhen's life to explore the historical stage when he wrote the great work of Compendium of Materia Medica [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Compendium of Materia Medica

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Part One

Rescript to print medical works by the Emperor of Jiajing

Appreciation by the Emperor favors the development of Chinese medicine

In the 21st of Jiajing (嘉靖1542 A.D.), Li Shizhen (李时珍) was in his twenties and wondered what to pursue as a career: participating the imperial examinations or studying Chinese medicine. He was dedicated to the Confucian study and prepared for the imperial examinations for years. Yet, failure in the provincial examinations for three times frustrated him deeply. At the same year, under the rescript of the Emperor Jiajing, Ying Tong Bai Wen (《婴童百问》Hundred Questions about Infants and Children) was published.

Ying Tong Bai Wen was regarded as a book written by Lu Bosi. Yet in Jiajing years, its author was unknown. In the 18th of Jiajing (1539 A.D.), Xu Jin (许进) submitted the book to and was praised by the Emperor. Later, it was ordered to be printed by the Ministry of Rites (礼部), with a preface written by the first Cabinet Minister (首辅大臣) of Yan Song (严嵩). This implied a medical work could reach readers at home and abroad through government publicity. It thus was quite tempting to a scholar who intended to keep his ideas immortal. Especially to those like Li Shizhen, who had failed in the examinations, this also meant a new choice of life.

It was not explicitly recorded in history when Li was dedicated to medicine. However according to the speculations of Li Shi Zhen Zhuan(《李时珍传》Biography of Li Shizhen) by Gu Jingxing (顾景星), Li was 14 years old when he passed the county-level examination and elected as Xiucai, so he must be in his twenties after he failed for three times in the provincial examinations which was held every 3 years. There was also no document to confirm the publishment of Ying Tong Bai Wen was directly related to Li's determination to practice medicine. Since even an authorless work like this could win special attention, it was easy to imagine how inspiring it was to average authors of medical books like Li Shizhen.

Certainly, Ying Tong Bai Wen was only one of the various medical works printed under the Emperor's order. Influential ones include include Yi Fang Xuan Yao (《医方选要》Selected Essentials of Medical Prescriptions), Wai Ke Ji Yan Fang (《外科集验方》Collection of Effective Surgical Prescriptions), and Wei Sheng Yi Jian Fang (《卫生易简方》Simple Hygiene Prescriptions), etc. Li Shizhen once praised in his late memorial to submit Compendium of Materia Medica, “His Majesty of Emperor Shizong once ordered to print Yi Fang Xuan Yao and Wei Sheng Yi Jian, whose benevolent government and reputation had gone beyond his reign”.

Encouraged by the publication of medical books supported by the Emperor, Li Shizhen, who took deep interest in writing and was determined to record his thoughts, found a new route to revive his ideas in later generations. Then, he endured decades of hardships and succeeded in writing the work of Compendium of Materia Medica. Medical books like Ying Tong Bai Wen were also listed in the Cited Catalogue of Ancient and Present Medical Scientists.

In the 6th of Wanli (万历六年1578 A.D.), the compilation of Compendium of Materia Medica was completed. Li Shizhen intended to submit his work to the Emperor, prepared and wrote a memorial, but it was not fulfilled even on his death, so he demanded his son submit it for him. Li's late memorial began with his life profile and the reasons for submission, which involved the importance of Materia Medica, its numerous mistakes, and his decades of effort in emendations. In the latter part, it also elaborated the development of herbal medicine in history and problems existing, the further work he had done and using guide of his work, and recalled the importance Emperors of Taizu and Shizong had attached to medicine. Li Shizhen not only emphasized stating facts and reasoning in his late memorial but also mentioned several times the royal support and his own painstaking devotions, reflecting his eagerness to win his work acknowledge by the royal court.

In addition to writing the submission memorial, Li Shizhen made other preparations. In the 8th of Wanli (1580 A.D.), he invited Wang Shizhen (王世贞), the leader of the literary field of that time and one of the Late Seven Sages (后七子), to write preface for his work to improve its publicity. Unfortunately, Li died before submitting himself, and what's more regrettable was that the submission by his son Li Jianyuan (李建元) failed to realize his expectations as well.

Part Two

Fan (State) Palaces Advocating Medicine

Promotion of Medical Book Printed by State Palaces

Li Shizhen once presided over the Good Doctor Department (良医所) for the King Chu (良医所),[1] which was an institution for medicine administration set up by state kings after the 4th of Hongwu (明洪武四年1371 A.D.), involving Good Doctor Official (良医正, Eighth Grade) and Good Doctor Vice-Official (良医副, Sub-Eighth Grade) titles. In the 44th of Jiajing (1565 A.D.), the position of Good Doctor Vice-Official was abolished. Although the Eighth Grade official was not a high rank position, Li was delighted to take it, and the reason behind this may be attributed to a medical phenomenon, the emphasis by state kings on medicine and publishing medical books.

In the Ming dynasty (明朝), due to reasons of political diversion and healthcare promotion, state kings around the country devoted enormous efforts to the compilation (by oneself or inviting others) and publication of many medical books. King Zhou of Zhu Su (周定王朱橚) and King Ning of Zhu Quan (宁献王朱权) had contributed more to the compilation of medical works, such as Jiu Huang Ben Cao (《救荒本草》Herbs for Relief of Famines), Pu Ji Fang (《普济方》 Prescriptions for Universal Relief), and Xiu Zhen Fang (《袖珍方》Pocket-size Prescriptions) by King Zhou, and Yan Shou Shen Fang (《延寿神方》 Life-extending Miraculous Recipes), Huo Ren Xin Fa (《活人心法》Effective Methods on Preserving Life), Geng Xin Yu Ce (《庚辛玉册》Geng Xin Jade Book), and Qian Kun Sheng Yi (《乾坤生意》Heaven and Earthly Benevolence of Life) by King Ning. In Sorting literature on herbal medicine, Li Shizhen had specially listed Zhu Su's [Figure 2] Jiu Huang Ben Cao, and Zhu Quan's Geng Xin Yu Ce.
Figure 2: Portrait of Zhusu

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When Li Shizhen served as sacrifice official and presided over Good Doctor Department in Chu Palace was lost of track in available documents. By the deduction of common sense, competent staff for these posts should have enough experience and/or abundant clinical experience. Li began to learn medicine in his twenties and it was probable he should be over thirty or forty when he took these positions. During that time, medical works such as Yi Fang Xuan Yao had been reprinted by the Ministry of Rites, and Li's idea of compiling Compendium of Materia Medica could be formed as well, so he went to the king's palace to seek for support. Unfortunately, King Chu was not interested in compiling medical books and appreciated Li Shizhen only because of the prescription of Fu Zi He Qi Tang (附子和气汤 Radix Aconiti Qi-harmonizing Decoction) he submitted. Li's main duty was to offer sacrifice and conduct Yuefu. There is also no record on the compilation and printing books by King Chu in present data. It was then meaningless to maintain his post, so Li Shizhen left Chu Palace and dedicated himself to the work of Compendium of Materia Medica until his success. Although this work experience did not help a lot in his compilation, his enthusiasm was inspired by the state kings' attaching importance to medicine in the early and middle Ming dynasty, and he also benefited greatly from the medical books compiled and printed by state kings all over the empire.

Part Three

Contribution from medical literatures

Compilation of Materia Medica through extensive reading and intensive citation

Any work exists and lies in the chain of the historical development of its field, absorbing nutrition from related works of its time; so was Li Shizhen's Compendium of Materia Medica with other medical works, especially those in the Ming dynasty.

His work was directly related with herbal medical literature.

There appeared many works of herbal medicine in the Ming dynasty. Li Shizhen sorted in the Numerical Examples of Herbal Literature 42 kinds of works, which include 9 Ming books, such as Ben Cao Fa Hui (《本草发挥》Elaborations on Herbal Medicine), Jiu Huang Ben Cao, Geng Xin Yu Ce, Ben Cao Ji Yao (《本草集要》Collection of Essentials on Herbal Medicine), Shi Wu Ben Cao (《食物本草》Herbs for Food), Shi Jian Ben Cao (《食鉴本草》Identification of Edible Herbs), Ben Cao Hui Bian (《本草会编》Collection of Herbs), and Ben Cao Meng Quan (《本草蒙筌》Herbal Medicine for Beginners), in addition to his own work.

Li's evaluation of these eight works varied greatly. Some were praised moderately, such as “elaborate and reasonably cited” Jiu Huang Ben Cao and Ben Cao Meng Quan “with meritorious elaboration.” Li's work also quoted several items from them. While, the other six works were bitterly criticized by Li, maybe out of reasons to establish the necessity to compile Compendium of Materia Medica or summarize failure lessons from them. However, what is the real relationship between those “not benefiting”, “with no elaborations,” and “without real witness” works with Li's own work? We will take the Ben Cao Hui Bian by medical scholar of Wang Ji from Qimen in the Middle Jiajing period as an example.

Li Shizhen regarded there were only several items meritorious in the Ben Cao Hui Bian, and accordingly, this work should not be of much referable value to him. But when examining Li's work, we can find at least dozens of quotations from this book. Moreover, three medicines such as Shuixian (水仙 Daffodil), Chongbaila (虫白蜡 Cera chinensis) and Mabinlang (马槟榔 Capparis masaikai) are put just based on Ben Cao Hui Bian's record.

One of the great contributions Compendium of Materia Medica had made to herbal medicine is the compilation style of items following outlines, with 1892 kinds of medicines introduced in Volume 5 to Volume 52, classified into 16 radicals (outlines) and 60 categories (items). This style has largely promoted the development of herbal medicine.

Prior to Compendium of Materia Medica, the prevalent method in herbal literature was Three Grade Classification, initiated by Shennong's Classic of Herbal Medicine, which classified 120 kinds of medicines into upper, middle, and lower grades according to their efficacy and purpose of the application. This method once changed the situation of nonsystemic knowledge of ancient medicines and thus created a new era for Materia Medica. Yet, with the increase of medicine categories, Tao Hongjing began to use the natural property classification of medicines, which was followed by herbal literature in Tang to Song dynasties. What is notable is that these works had adopted a mixture use of both Three Grade and natural property classifications. After all, it is hard to overthrow the sacred status of the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (《神农本草经》Shennong's Classic of Herbal Medicine) entirely. This had naturally lead to chaos use of compiling styles, medicines with wrong species, and even discrepancy of names with items. Li Shizhen pointed that although the name of three grades was employed, there were different kinds of actual mistakes such as “one medicine recorded as several items”.

On that account, Li Shizhen adopted a new classification system. However, the prototype of this innovation was from the Ben Cao Hui Bian criticized by Li, which was a good example of how Ben Cao Hui Bian enlightened Compendium of Materia Medica to form its compiling style.

That is just a glimpse of the whole picture and leads us to the conclusion that the compilation of Compendium of Materia Medica was dependent on other herbal literature, especially those in the Ming dynasty.

In the Compendium of Materia Medica, medical literature was categorized as herbal and medical books. Although it pertained to the herbal category, Compendium of Materia Medica also cited remarkable records from works by medical physicians in the Ming dynasty.

The Yin Ju Gu Jin Yi Jia Shu Mu(《引据古今医家书目》Cited Catalogue of Ancient and Present Medical Scientists) included two categories of books: cited by previous editions V.S. cited by Shizhen. The category of “cited by Shizhen” involved 276 books from Ling Shu Jing (《灵枢经》Classic of Miraculous Pivot) to Yan Hou Kou Chi-Fang (《咽喉口齿方》Prescriptions for Throat, Mouth and Teeth Diseases). Although the number was questionable since some books were cited repeatedly or some were cited by previous editions, the number of medical books actually cited by Shizhen must have been over 200 kinds, many of which were Ming books, including nearly 80 kinds by preliminary estimate.

It can be seen that medical works in the Ming dynasty had provided Li Shizhen with adequate beneficial resources, and the product of Compendium of Materia Medica owed much to the achievements in medicine by masters and professionals in both previous and Ming dynasties.

Of course, we shall admit the complexity and variety in reasons why Li Shizhen was encouraged to write the work of Compendium of Materia Medica. It is hard to restore what really happened in history. Through exploring the historical influence of the medical context of the Ming dynasty on Li's compilation of Compendium of Materia Medica, we managed to draw a global outline of the development of Chinese medicine in the Ming dynasty (especially early and middle periods), hoping have demonstrated a new perspective of study on discovering the reasons for the formation of Compendium of Materia Medica.

Translator: Yingshuai Duan(《咽喉口齿方》)

Financial support and sponsorship

Scientific Research Innovation Team of BUCM--Arrangement and Research on Traditional Chinese Medicine Classics (2019-JYB-TD017).

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Wu ZX. Examination on the office-holding duration of Li Shizhen in the palace of King Chu. Shanghai J Tradit Chin Med 1988;1:37-8.  Back to cited text no. 1


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]


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