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Review: Bencao Gangmu, Li Shizhen
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By Edward B. Jelks, PhD

Professor of Anthropology Emeritus

Illinois State University


This is the first complete English translation of Li Shizen’s classic compendium of Chinese medicines, prescriptions, and medical lore, published originally in 1593 and reprinted in China numerous times since.  A team of translators, editors, and English polishers accomplished the formidable task of translating the original 16th century Chinese into modern English.


Li’s 16th century compendium comprises 52 volumes: two introductory volumes (1 and 2), two volumes (3 and 4) describing “drugs for treating a hundred diseases”, and 48 volumes discussing the use of these medicinal categories: waters (Vol. 5); fires (Vol. 6; earth Vol. 7); metals, stones, and minerals (Vols. 8-11 ); herbs (Vols. 12-21); cereals (Vols. 22-25); vegetables (Vols. 26-28); fruits (Vols. 29-33); woods (Vols. 34-37); fabrics and utensils (Vol. 38); worms and amphibians (Vols. 39-42);  animals with scales (Vols. 43-44); animals with shells (Vols. 45-46);  fowls (Vols. 48-49); domestic animals (Vol. 50); wild animals (Vol. 51); and humans (Vol. 52).


This English translation includes all Li’s original 52 volumes plus a translator’s note, three prefaces (one that appeared in the first printing and two that appeared in the reprinting of 1603), a memorial to the throne (1596), and an author’s note (1590).  There are eight appendices that list the names of medicinal substances in English, in Latin, in Pinyin, and in Chinese characters; also listed in Pinjin and Chinese characters are titles of referenced books, names of prescriptions, persons, and places, and official titles.


There is no index as such, but volume and section numbers are provided in the alphabetical lists of medicinal substances, physicians, and places in the appendices, which makes it possible to locate references to those subjects in the text.


A typical entry for a medicinal substance includes comments by both Li and other notable medical practitioners about the substance’s medicinal qualities and the diseases it treats, about recommended methods of preparation, dosages, and how to administer it to a patient.  If the substance is a plant or an animal, there usually also are descriptions of the plant’s or animal’s physical appearance and sometimes of how it interacts with its environment.


As this work precedes modern scientific medicine, the genesis of diseases now known to be caused by bacteria and viruses are often attributed to such agents as the five pathogens (pathogenic cold, humidity, summer-heat, dryness, and cold); or to imbalances between yin and yang; or to pathogenic winds; or to vital-energy stagnation; or to other factors.  Accordance between a disease’s cause and a medicinal substance’s qualities sometimes underlies the logic for prescribing a substance for a particular disease.


While largely outmoded as a guide to modern pharmaceutical and medical practices, Bencao Gangmu is a treasure trove of information on traditional Chinese medicine and on Chinese folk views of the world, which underlie many of the prescribed treatment regimens.  Thus it is a valuable source of data for medical historians, especially those interested in folk medicine, and for folklorists in general.


The bulk of this work (Vols. 5-52) discusses specific medicinal substances, one at a time, which are arranged in major categories. Categories include water, fire, earth, minerals, various members of the plant and animal kingdoms, and manmade objects such as fabrics and utensils. Typically, the physical and medicinal characteristics of a substance are explicated, the diseases for which it is an effective treatment are identified, and methods for preparing and administering the substance are described. Cases where patients were successfully treated with the substance sometimes are given. There are drawings of some plants and animals. 


The following passages illustrate the way the medicinal substances typically are portrayed.


Renshen/radix ginseng/ginseng root that has grown little by little over many years will develop into a human shape and have a miraculous effect. . . .  Renshen/radix ginseng/ginseng is also called Huangshen, or yellow Shen, due to its color, yellow.  As yellow pertains to the Spleen and Stomach, the drug is a good tonic for the Spleen and Stomach. . . . it also replenishes the blood . . . [and] is enriched by the essence of the Earth. . . (p. 1246)


Prescription 12-03-24:  Prescription to improve the intelligence.  Blend the following drugs evenly:

  One liang of powder of Renshen/radix ginseng/ginseng root,

  10 liang of refined pig’s lard, and long-stored wine.

  Drink one cupful of the mixture as a dose twice a day.  Keep this up for 100 days.  Then the person will have sharp eyesight and hearing, strong bones full of marrow, moistened and lustrous skin, and a powerful memory.  It is also good for treating diseases caused by invasion of pathogenic Wind, Heat and phlegm.  (p. 1260)


Prescription 12-03-25:  For treating loss of consciousness at the sound of thunder.  This happened to a child seven years old.  It was a case of cowardice due to insufficient condition of Vital Energy. . . .  Take three spoonfuls of [a decoction containing ginseng] with Miyin (water in which rice has been cooked).  After finishing one jin of the extract, the child will not be afraid of thunder any longer.  (p. 1260)


The book Er Ya Yi:  The dragon is the leading figure among the scales. . . .  The head is like that of a camel, the horns like that of a deer.  The eyes look like those of a rabbit.  The ears look like those of an ox.  The neck looks like that of a snake.  The scales look like those of a golden carp. Its claws look like those of an eagle.  Is paws look like those of a tiger.  There are 81 scales on its back.  This is a Yang number of nine by nine. . . .   Under its lower jaw there is a pearl.  (p. 3500)


Su Song:  Now Longu/os draconis/ dragon’s bone is found in large quantity in prefectures in the Hedong area.  The book Goshi Bu by Li Zhao:  When seasonal water floods the land, fish jump over a place in the Jin area called Longmen (meaning “dragon gate”).  The floods leave large quantities of bones behind them.  People collect the bones and use them as drugs.  (p. 3501)


According to Shen Nong Bencao Jing . . .  [dragon bones] are the remains of dead dragons.  Tao Hongjing thought they are the sloughs of dragons.  (p. 3501)


Lei Xiao:  First simmer Longu/ os draconis/ dragon’s bone in a decoction of fragrant grass twice.  Then pound it into powder. Store the powder in a tough silk bag along with a swallow that has had its internal organs removed.  Hang the bag over a drinking well.  Remove the powdered bone and the swallow from the bag the next morning and grind them together into powder.  (p. 3502)


Prescription 38-21-1:  To facilitate baby delivery in a case of dystocia.  Find a deserted used straw sandal at the roadside.  Wash it clean and burn it into ash.  Have the patient drink two qian of the ash mixed with wine.  If the sandal is for the left foot, the baby will be a boy.  If it is for the right foot the baby will be a girl.  If the sandal was found upside down, the fetus will be born dead.  If the sandal was found standing on edge, there will be fright.  This is just natural.  –Taichan Fang.


The tortoise is in the shape of Li (the Fire in the Eight Trigrams).  Its divinity lies in the Kan (the “Water” in the Eight Trigrams). . . .  Its dorsal side pertains to the Yang and is exposed to the sunlight. . . .  It breathes through its ears.  Male and female tortoises copulate with their tails.  A tortoise also may copulate with a snake. . . .  When a tortoise grows old it becomes divine.  When it is 800 years old, it may shrink to the size of a coin. . . .  Some say:  When a tortoise hears the striking sound of iron, it lies prostrate.  If stung by a mosquito it will die.  (p. 3638)


Li’s Bencao Gangmu was the standard reference for Chinese medicine from the late 16th century until a more modern Chinese materia medica, the Zhong Yao Zhi was published by the Chinese government in 1959.  While many of Bencao Gangmu’s prescriptions are no longer used, some of its prescriptions survive in today’s Chinese medical practice, most notably herbal prescriptions.   Bencao Gangmu remains an important and unique historical document.


Product Details:


Bencao Gangmu:  Compendium of Materia Medica (6 vols.)

By Li Shizhen

Hardcover: 4,397 pages

Publisher: Foreign Languages Press (October 2003)

Language: English

ISBN: 7-119-03260-7

Product Size: 187x 258 mm

List Price: RMB 4,800 (domestic) Foreign Languages Press

US$1,000 (international) Cypress Book

( September 11, 2006)



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