An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Bencao gangmu 本草綱目

Oct 23, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Bencao gangmu 本草綱目 "Guidelines and details of materia medica" is China's most important traditional book on pharmaceuticals. It is 52-juan long and was written by the famous Ming period 明 (1368-1644) herbologist Li Shizhen (1518-1593), courtesy name Li Dongbi 李東壁, style Pinhu shanren 瀕湖山人. He came from Qizhou 蘄州 (modern Qichun 蘄春, Hubei), and hailed from a family of physicians. His father Li Yanwen 李言聞, also called Li Yuechi 李月池, was a medical secretary in the Imperial Academy of Medicine (taiyi limu 太醫吏目) and had written the books Sizhen faming 四珍發明, Aiyezhuan 艾葉傳 and Douzhen zhengzhi 痘疹證治. Li Shizhen himself was an enganged student of his own father but did not have the ambition to achieve a career in the civil service. He nevertheless became a physician at the court of Zhu Yingxian 朱英㷿, the Prince of Chu 楚, and later even administrative assistant in the Imperial Academy of Medicine (taiyi yuanpan 太醫院判).

Li was a well-read person and had studied many kinds of books, from the obligatory Confucian Classics and the histories to the books of the masters and philophers, and, of course, specialized books on medicine and herbology. He therefore possessed an excellent overview of all statements on material medica in various types of literature. Yet Li Shizhen also gathered information from peasants, fishermen, travelers and craftsmen about drugs, their preparation and their effects, and was, as a physician, also experienced in the practical use of materia medica in clinical medicine. As a herb collector he was able to correct many errors and uncertainties in older books, for instance, the fact that the herb penglei 蓬虆 was in fact five different types of rubus. Old writings included many wrong statements about pharmaceuticals and it was therefore necessary to correct these errors and to add new, useful information. It was further necessary to add drugs that had not been known in earlier times. Li Shizhen took this task very seriously, visited experienced doctors and collected all kinds of information he was able to obtain. He had also prepared pictures of all pharmaceuticals that were later included in his book.

Li Shizhen evaluated more than 800 different sources, among these 276 medical books, and compiled his large book on material medica according to the pattern of the Song period 宋 (960-1279) pharmacopoeia Zhenglei bencao 類證本草. The compilation process consumed almost three decades, and the manuscript was revised three times. The book was finished in 1578 and the publication process began immediately, but Li Shizhen died before its completion.

Illustration of ginseng (renshen 人參) in the Siku quanshu 四庫全書 edition of the Bencao gangmu.

The book is divided into 16 large classes of pharmaceuticals, according to their nature, that are divided into 62 sub-classes. Herbs, for instance, are divided into mountain herbs (shancao 山草), fragrant herbs (fangcao 芳草), marshland herbs (xicao 隰草), creeping herbs (mancao 蔓草), poisonous herbs (ducao 毒草), aquatic herbs (shuicao 水草), stone herbs (shicao 石草), moss (taicao 苔類) and miscellaneous herbs (zacao 雜草). Inside the sub-classes the materia medica are arranged according from the smaller to the larger, the less valuable to the expensive drugs, and the simple to the complex.

The Bencao gangmu describes 1,892 different pharmaceutical objects, which is 374 more than in earlier pharmacopoeias. These additional herbs and objects mainly originate in regions that were formerly not part of the Chinese empire, especially the northwest and the southwest. Some drugs also come from abroad, like grapes (putao 葡萄), carrots (hu luobo 胡蘿蔔), pumpkins (nangua 南瓜), yam (ganshu 甘薯), Panax pseudo-ginseng (sanxi 三七), yasmin (moli 茉莉), tulips (yujinxiang 鬱金香) or camphor (zhangnao 樟腦). The Zhenglei bencao provided a number of 1,479 drugs, and 39 drugs were included in sources from the Jin empire 金 (1115-1234) and the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368). The book is enriched with 1,109 illustrations of minerals, plants and other pharmaceutical objects. These illustrations are in most editions of the Bencao gangmu positioned at the beginning of the book. The illustrations were compiled by Li Shizhen's son Li Jianzhong 李建中 and painted by Li Jianyuan 李建元 and Li Jianmu 李建木. The quality of the paintings it not very superior, but they suffice to identify the plants.

The Bencao gangmu includes 11,096 recipes and treatment methods for various diseases. The large amount of drugs covered in the Bencao gangmu is owed to the principle of Chen Cangqi's 陳藏器 Bencao shiyi 本草拾遺 "Collected addenda to the pharmacopoeias" not to leave out any single information, but also to the Neo-Confucian attempt at investigating all things (ge wu 格物), like the Song and Yuan period physicians Zhang Yuansu 張元素 and Li Dongyuan 李東垣 had already done.

1,094 drugs are made of plants, which is more than half of all materia medica dealt with in the Bencao gangmu, and shows that "roots and herbs" (bencao 本草) were in fact the most important tools of an apothecary in ancient China. 276 drugs are made of minerals, and 444 out of parts of animals.

The pharmaceuticals are arranged according to their physical nature, beginning with anorganic substances, namely water (shui 水), fire (huo 火), earth (tu 土) and metals and minerals (jin shi 金石), which reflect four of the elements of the Five Processes 五行. The fifth element, wood (mu 木), is represented in the next part, divided into herbal plants (cao 草), grains (gu 穀), vegetables (cai 菜), fruits (guo 果), and trees (mu 木). This section is followed by six groups of moving creatures, namely worms, amphibia and reptiles (chong 蟲), fishes (lin 鱗), animals with a shell, including turles (jie 介), birds (qin 禽), beasts (shou 獸), and man (ren 人). Another anorganic section is that of textiles and tools (fuqi 服器).

The first two juan include an introduction (xuli 序例) in which the seven basic methods (qi fang 七方) are described, the ten preparation methods (shi ji 十劑), the concepts of energy (qi 氣), taste (wei 味), Yin and Yang 陰陽, rising and falling (shengjiang 升降), floating and submerging (fuchen 浮沉), the outwards phenomena (biaoben 標本) of the inner zang 臟 and fu 腑 organs, as well as the combination of drugs that mutually require each other, catalyse, avoid, "hate", "contradict" or even "kill" each other. The basic methods of application are described and what restrictions are to be observed. The introduction also explicates the functional quality of drugs that can be divided into "lords" (jun 君), "ministers" (chen 臣), and "assistants and runners" (zuo li 佐使). The introduction also includes an overview over pharmarcopoeias of earlier times and mentions 41 pharmaceutical books.

Juan 3 and 4 enumerate the most important standard pharmaceuticals that heal the 177 most oftenly occurring diseases and are easily to applicate. The main part of the book contains the detailed description of a huge number of pharmaceutical drugs. The description is systematically divided into eight parts, beginning with an analysis of the different names of drugs (shiming 釋名), collected explanations (jijie 集解) about the places of origin, the genral appearance and the colleting methods of the drug, discussions of doubts (bianyi 辨疑) and corrections of errors occurring in older texts (zhengwu 正誤), preparation methods (xiuzhi 修治), energy and taste (qiwei 氣味), healing effects (zhuzhi 主治), and "enlightenments" (faming 發明). All these parts quote extensively from older sources and are enriched by Li Shizheng's own remarks. An appendix chapter for each drug is commented regarding concrete treatment methods (fufang 附方).

Li Shizhen analysed many statements of older texts and found out many errors that he was able to rectify, like the fact that Polygonatum odoratum (weirui 葳蕤) and Clematis apiifolia (nüwei 女萎) are two different plants, or that nanxing 南星 and huzhang 虎掌 are the same drug, namely Pinellia temata. He also shifted ginger (jiangsheng 生薑) and Chinese yam (shuyu 薯蕷) from the herbs chapter to the chapter on vegetables, and betel (binlang 檳榔) and longans (longyan 龍眼) from the trees chapter to the fruits chapter. He discerned the proper orchids (lanhua 蘭花) and Eupatorium fortunei (lancao 蘭草), likewise Lilium lancifolium (juandan 卷丹) and proper lilies (baihe 百合), Polygonatum sibiricum (huangjing 黄精) and Gelsemium elegans (gouwu 鈎吻), Calystegia sepium (xuanhua 旋花) and Alpinia japonica (shanjiang 山薑). Li Shizhen also renounced some older statements that were wrong in a pharmacological way. Quicksilver (shuiyin 水銀), for instance, was thought to be non-toxic and was therefore consumed in great doses because people thought its consumption would lead to immortality. Ancient Daoist books like the Baopuzi 抱朴子 had an influence on medical treatises like the Mingyi bielu 名醫別錄 and the Bencao shiyi, so that statements about the allegedly healthy application of gold (huangjin 黄金), realgar (As4S4, xionghuang 雄黄), orpiment (As4S6, cihuang 雌黄) or cinnabar (HgS, dansha 丹砂) were recorded in pharmaceutical books. He also criticized superstitious beliefs like the theory of fish that grow out of grass seeds, or Cynomorium songaricum (suoyang 鎖陽) growing in the earth out of horse sperm. On the other side, Li Shizhen clinged to some of these beliefs, like the theory that flies emerge out of rubbish or the superstitious belief that if a pregant woman does not eat meat, her baby will be born without lips.

The Bencao gangmu has a scientific value that can not be underestimated. It is therefore the most important pharmaceutical book in traditional China. It is a thorough and systematic compendium on Chinese parmacology until the mid-16th century. The book is arranged as guidelines (gang 綱) surrounding "meshes" (mu 目), the drug and its direct description constituting the guidelines, and its specifics corresponding to the "meshes". Other explanations see the 16 basic categories as "guidelines" and the subcategories of drugs as "meshes". Similarly, "genera" (like liang 粱 "millet") can be seen as guidelines, while "species" (like chiliang 赤粱 "red sorghum" and huangliang 黄粱 "yellow sorghum") are the "meshes". The description of individual drugs includes the origin of the materia, the place where it grows, lives or can be found, its appearance and collection method, as well as the preparation method of the required drug. Li Shizhen also explains experiences with the drug made by earlier physicians, and his own experiments. The entry of each drug is enriched by an appendix on treatment (fufang 附方), in which Li Shizhen explains 8,161 different recipes and treatment methods.

Li Shizheng's text is so comprehensive that the Bencao gangmu is not only a pharmaceutical book but can be used for informations on botany, zoology, chemistry and mineralogy. In the field of biology, for instance, Li Shizhen describes many details on lotus. He says that wild lotus has a red flowers, many stalks, but few roots, while the cultivated white lotus has precious roots. The species or kind of hehuan 合歡 has great heads, yeshuhua 野舒荷 opens at day and rolls in the petals at night, while shuilian 睡蓮 submerges during the night. The kind of jinlian 金蓮 has golden flowers, that of bilian 碧蓮 green flowers, and xiulian 繡蓮 flowers look like embroideries. In the field of geology or mineralogy he lists the places where petrol (shiyou 石油) is to be found in China, and explains that the local population stores the oil in jars and uses it as a fuel for lamps. The water lever in course terracotta jars can say a lot about the moisture of the air, as he explains, and can eventually predict rainfall. Li Shizhen gives an example to test the identity of chalcantithe (shidan 石膽, today called danfan 膽礬). He also believed that the brain was the organ of the "primordial spirit" (yuanshen zhi fu 元神之府), and not, as traditionally believed, the heart.

Except the Bencao gangmu Li Shizhen has also written a number of other medical books, like Pinhu maixue 瀕湖脈學 (shortly called Maixue 脈學), Qijing bamai kao 奇經八脈考, Maijue kaozheng 脈訣考證, Wuzang tulun 五臟圖論, Sanjiao kenan 三焦客難, Mingmen kao 命門考, Shiwu bencao 食物本草, Pinhu yi'an 瀕湖醫案 and Jijianfang 集簡方. A biography of Li Shizhen can be found in the official dynastic history Mingshi 明史 (in the chapter of magicians, Fangjizhuan 方伎傳), and in Gu Jingxing's 顧景星 collected writings Baimaotang ji 白茅堂集.

The Bencao gangmu was first printed in 1596 by Hu Chenglong 胡承龍 in Jinling 金陵 (modern Nanjing 南京, Jiangsu). Another print dates from 1603 and was produced by Xia Liangxin 夏良心 and Zhang Dingsi 張鼎思 in Nanchang 南昌 (the Jiangxi version 江西本). In 1640 Qian Weiqi 錢蔚起 (Liuyou Hall 六有堂) in Hangzhou 杭州 (Wulin 武林), Zhejiang, printed the so-called Qianya version 錢衙本 in which 800 paintings were revised by Lu Zhe 陸喆. In 1655 the Shuye Hall 書業堂 in Suzhou printed the Bencao gangmu. The book is also included in the imperial collectanea Siku quanshu 四庫全書. Zhang Shaotang 張紹棠 (Weigu Hall 味古齋) printed a version in 1885 that includes 400 illustrations that were produced by Xu Gongfu 許功甫 according to the Wulin version. In 1954 the Shangwu yinshuguan 商務印書館 published a modern print, and in 1957 the Renmin weisheng press 人民衛生出版社. In 1977 the Renmin press 人民出版社 published a modern edition that is critically annotated by Liu Hengru 劉衡如. The first print was again published as a facsimile edition in 1993 by the Shanghai kexue jishu press 上海科學技術出版社. An important modern study in Chinese language was published by Chen Guiting 陳貴廷 (ed. 1992), Bencao gangmu tongshi 本草綱目通釋, Beijing: Xueyuan chubanshe.

The earliest print of the Bencao gangmu was soon transmitted to Japan and Korea where it was widely used. There are some important addenda to Li Shizhen's book, like Zhao Xuemin's 趙學敏 Bencao gangmu shiyi 本草綱目拾遺, Cai Liexian's 蔡烈先 Bencao wanfang zhenxian 本草萬方針線, or Li Zhongli 's 李中立 Bencao yuanshi 本草原始. The Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Dai Baoyuan 戴葆元 published a digest version of Li Shizhen's book, the Bencao gangmu yizhi lu 本草綱目易知錄. It includes the most important information from the two pharmacopoeias Bencao gangmu and Bencao beiyao 本草備要 by Wang Ang 汪昂 (Qing period) and describes 1,208 drugs that are arranged in the same manner as in the Bencao gangmu.

Table 1. Chapters of the Bencao gangmu
1.-2. 序例 Xuli Preface
3.-4. 百病主治藥 Baibing zhuzhi yao Various diseases and how to treat them with materia medica
5. Shui Waters
天水 Tianshui Precipitations
地水 Dishui Phreatic water
6. Huo Fire
7. Tu Earth
8.-11. 金石 Jin shi Metals and minerals
Jin Metals
Yu Jades and gems
Shi Stones
Lu Salts
12.-21. 草 Cao Herbs
山草 Shancao Mountain herbs
芳草 Fangcao Fragrant herbs
隰草 Xicao Marshland herbs
毒草 Ducao Toxic herbs
蔓草 Mancao Creeping herbs
水草 Shuicao Aquatic herbs
石草 Shicao Stone herbs
Tai Moss
雜草 Zacao Miscellaneous herbs
有名未用 You ming wu yong Listed but non-useable herbs
22.-25. 穀 Gu Grains
麻, 麥, 稻 Ma mai dao Hemp, wheat, rice
稷, 粟 Ji, su Millets
菽豆 Shu dou Beans
造釀 Zaoniang Yeast
26.-28. 菜 Cai Vegetables
葷辛 Hunxin Strong smelling spices
柔滑 Rouhua Soft vegetables
蓏菜 Luocai Melons
水菜 Shuicai Watery vegetables
芝栭 Zhinai Sesame and nuts
29.-33. 果 Guo Fruits
五果 Wuguo The five fruits (plum, abricot, prune, peach, chestnut)
山果 Shanguo Mountain fruits
夷果 Yiguo Foreign fruits
味, 蓏 Tasty fruits, melons
水果 Shuiguo Watery fruits
34.-37. 木 Mu Trees
香木 Xiangmu Odorous trees
喬木 Qiaomu Large trees
灌木 Guanmu Shrubs
寓木 Yumu Annual shrubs
苞木 Baomu Bamboos
雜木 Various trees
38. 服器 Fuqi Tools and objects
服帛 Fubo Textiles
器物 Qiwu Various objects
39-42. 蟲 Chong Creeping animals
卵生 Luansheng Oviparous animals
化生 Huasheng Metabolic animals
濕生 Shisheng Aquatic animals
附錄 Fulu Appendix
43.-44. 鱗 Lin Scaly animals
Long Dragons
She Snakes
Yu Fishes
無鱗魚 Wulin yu Non-scaly fishes
45.-46. 介 Jie Reptiles and shells
Gui Tortoises
Bang Oysters
Ge Clams
47.-49. 禽 Qin Birds
水禽 Shuiqin Aquatic birds
原禽 Yuanqin Birds living in plains
林禽 Linqin Birds living in the forest
山禽 Shanqin Birds living in the mountains
50.-51. 獸 Shou Beasts
Chu Domestic mammals
Shou Wild mammals
Shu Rats and mice
Yu Monkeys
Guai Fabulous beasts
52. 人 Ren The human body, secretions, etc.
Li Jingwei 李經緯 et al., ed. (1995). Zhongyi da cidian 中醫大辭典 (Beijing: Renmin weisheng chubanshe), 379.
Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰, ed. (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1680.
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Yu Ying'ao 余瀛鼇, Li Jingwei 李經緯, ed. (2006). Zhongyi wenxian cidian 中醫文獻辭典 (Beijing: Beijing kexue jishu chubanshe), 167.
Zhongguo da baike quanshu zongbianji weiyuanhui Zhongguo chuantong yixue bianji weiyuanhui 中國大百科全書總編輯委員會《中國傳統醫學》編輯委員會, ed. (1992). "Shen Nong bencao jing 神農本草經", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo chuantong yixue 中國傳統醫學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 17.