A page from an 18th century edition of the Compendium of Materia Medica.

The Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu; 1596) was an encyclopedic work of medicine and natural history written by Li Shizhen (1518–1593) in the last decades of the sixteenth century. Since the early seventeenth century it has become one of the most widely cited and studied books in the history of Chinese science and medicine.

An encyclopedic work of medicine and natural history, the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu; 1596) was written by Li Shizhen (1518–1593) in the last decades of the sixteenth century. Although the author’s own text grafts together several scholarly genres, the Compendium is best known as the result of a rich tradition of bencao literature. The term bencao has variously been translated as “pharmacopoeia,” “materia medica,” “pandect of natural history,” “pharmaceutical literature,” and “encyclopedia,” all of which approximate the nature of the genre. This type of medical text focused on the drugs used in Chinese medical prescriptions, classifying each drug according to qualities such as flavor, toxicity, presence or absence of heat, and appearance, and occasionally provided an explanation of the most common or alternate names for the substance. Bencao texts could also include discussions of the textual and natural history of each drug or debates about its properties, and for this reason, bencao are valuable sources for the study of plants, animals, and stones throughout the history of China.

The Compendium comprises fifty-two juan (roughly equivalent to chapters) and almost 2 million characters, enormous in scope for a bencao work. Of the 1,892 drugs included, 374 were added for the first time by Li Shizhen. The Compendium broke from previous collections of materia medica in the extent to which it incorporated literature from nonmedical texts (poetry, history, tales of the strange, and so on) as sources on the natural history of medical drugs. The structure of the work was based largely on Tang Shenwei’s (ca. 1086–1093) Organized and Classified Materia Medica (Zhenglei bencao), a model in its own gestures toward incorporating nonmedical scholarly texts into the service of explicating the use of plants and animals in medicine. The title of the Compendium reflected Li’s intellectual debt to neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi (1130–1200): The phrase gangmu invokes the structure of Zhu Xi’s own Tongjian gangmu, with a basic macroclassification (gang) supplemented by more detailed analyses of individual entries (mu).

Contents of the Compendium of Materia Medica

Several editions of the Compendium have been published since its first printing in 1596, and most contain the same basic elements. (For a list of the contents, see table 1.) The text began with a section of introductory material, including a preface by famous Ming scholar Wang Shizhen (1526–1590), 1,109 illustrations drawn by Li Shizhen’s son Li Jianyuan and collected together in two separate juan, a table of contents, and a preface by Li Shizhen. Li’s own short, prefatory remarks provided background on the macrostructure of the text and the logic of its arrangement, from the most elemental (water) to the most complex (humans). Li also discussed the place of the Compendium with respect to prior works of its kind as well as the reasons behind the inclusion or arrangement of certain drug entries.

Next, Li chronicled the history of bencao literature and provided a bibliography of medical and nonmedical sources consulted in writing the Compendium, along with a list of previous bencao and the number of drugs in various categories that each contained. Extended descriptions of the contents of two foundational bencao texts (both of which Li attributed to Tao Hongjing, though the authorship of the second is now questioned), the Shennong bencao jing and the Mingyi bielu, were followed by Li’s discussion of medical principles such as seasonality, organ/functionality systems, flavor, and yin and yang and their relevance to the prescription of drugs. Li followed this with a long section on the theory and practice of pharmacology, including discussions of drug interactions and a list of materials organized according to major illnesses they were used to treat.

The remainder of the text consisted of classified descriptions of individual drugs, including elemental materials such as water and fire, stones, tools and implements, plants, animals, and humans. According to Li, the logic of the arrangement progressed from the lowliest of creatures to the most noble. The structure and contents of the Compendium were also influenced by Li’s deep interest in the five phases (water, fire, earth, metal, and wood).

TABLE 1 Contents of the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu)

Prefatory material Wang Shizhen 1590 preface*
Appended Illustrations
List of Contents
Author’s Preface
Juan 1: Introductory Materials A Bencao through the Ages
Medical Bibliography
Nonmedical Bibliography
Collected List of Drug Products Included in Previous Bencao
Introduction to the Shennong bencao jing
Measurement and Preparation of Drugs from Tao Hongjing’s Mingyi bielu
Timing of Drug Collection According to Qi and Wu
Seven Prescriptions
Ten Functions
Quality, Flavor, Yin, and Yang
Recommendations and Taboos Concerning the Five Flavors
Dominating and Submissive Relationships of the Five Flavors
Symptoms and Root Causes of Yin and Yang
Rising, Falling, Floating, and Sinking
Seasonal Drug Use
Principles of Using Drugs According to Five Evolutions and Six Excesses
Using Drugs to Nourish and Purge the Viscera (Six Fu and Six Zang)
Nourishing and Purging According to the Five Zang and Five Flavors
Principles of Using Drugs According to Emptiness and Fullness of the Viscera
Guiding Principles
Juan 2: Introductory Materials B Drugs with the Same Name and Drugs with Different Names
Drug Relationships of Mutual Affinity, Enhancement, Rejection, and Inhibition
Incompatible Drugs
Food Taboos When Taking Drugs
Taboos during Pregnancy
Taboos of Food and Drink
Li Dongyuan’s Preface to Suizheng yongyao
Chen Cangqi’s Preface to Zhuxun yongyao
Zhang Zihe’s Gantu xia sanfa
Eight Imperatives, Six Losses, and Six Incurable Illnesses
Yaodui’s Suiwu yaopin
Table of Contents of the Shennong bencao jing
Tables of Contents of Song Bencao Works
Juan 3–4: Main Indications of Drugs for One Hundred Illnesses 114 illnesses l
Juan 5: Waters 43 drugs: heaven (13); earth (30)
Juan 6: Fires 11 drugs
Juan 7: Earths 61 drugs
Juan 8–11: Metal and Stone 161 drugs: metals (28); precious stones (14); stones (72); salts (20 + 27 appended)
Juan 12–21: Herbs 611 drugs: mountain (70); fragrant (56); marshy (126); toxic (47); creeping (73 + 19 appended); aquatic (23); rocky (19); mosses (16); miscellaneous (9); with a name but no use (153)
Juan 22–25: Grains 73 drugs: sesame; wheat; and rice (12); millet (18); beans (14); fermented and prepared (29)
Juan 26–28: Vegetables 105 drugs: pungent (32); slippery (41); melons (11); aquatic (6); fungi (15)
Juan 29–33: Fruits 149 drugs: five fruits (11); mountain (34); exotic (31); flavorful (13); melons (9); aquatic (6 + 23 appended); appended miscellaneous (21 + 1)
Juan 34–37: Woods 180 drugs: fragrant (35); tall (52); watery (51); parasitic (12); luxuriant; bamboos (4); miscellaneous (7 + 19 appended)
Juan 38: Clothing and Tools 79 drugs: clothing (25); tools (54)
Juan 39–42: Bugs 106 drugs: egg-born (45); change-born (31); moisture-born (23 + 7 appended)
Juan 43–44: Scaly 94 drugs: dragons (9); snakes (17); fish (31); scaleless fish (28 + 9 appended)
Juan 45–46: Armored 46 drugs: turtles and tortoises (17); shellfish (29)
Juan 47–49: Birds 77 drugs: aquatic (23); grassland (23); forest (17); mountain (13 + 1 appended)
Juan 50–51: Beasts 86 drugs: domestic (28); beasts (38); mice (12); “dwellers” (8)
Juan 52: People 37 drugs
*This list was compiled on the basis of the Liu Hengru and Liu Shanyong edition of 2002, which in turn was based on the 1596 Jinling and 1603 Jiangxi printings of the Compendium. The Jiangxi edition also included prefaces from Xia Liangxin and Zhang Dingsi, along with Li Jianyuan’s memorial.

Printing of the Compendium of Materia Medica

Li Shizhen spent more than thirty years researching and compiling the Compendium and spent the last decade of his life searching for a publisher. The carving of blocks for the first edition of the Compendium by printer Hu Chenglong finally began in Nanjing in 1593, but the work was not printed until 1596, three years after Li’s death. This first edition of the Compendium, known as the Jinling edition (an archaic term for Nanjing), was probably sold in limited quantities to the relatively wealthy professionals who could afford it.

Li’s son Li Jianyuan had accompanied his father along many of his travels, had drawn the illustrations for the Compendium, and was foundational in ultimately getting the work published. He submitted a memorial to the imperial palace in the first lunar month (January or February) of 1596, presenting the first printed copy of the Compendium of Materia Medica to the emperor in an attempt to obtain imperial backing for the printing of his father’s work. An account in the Ming History attests that the emperor admired the Compendium, ordering that it should be printed and circulated throughout the empire so that scholars would all have the book. However, this account is probably an exaggeration: The inscription on the manuscript in the Ming imperial library simply stated that the emperor saw the Compendium, the Ministry of Rites knew of it, and it would stay in the palace.

Further editions were printed in 1603, 1606, 1640, and then countless times through the twenty-first century. The 1603 Jiangxi printing included additional prefaces, along with Li Jianyuan’s memorial to the emperor. More illustrations were added in successive printings of the Compendium, some illustrations were significantly altered, and Qing editions began appending Li’s shorter works to the text. Zhao Xuemin’s (1719–1805) Correction of Omissions in the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu shiyi) was the most significant revision of and commentary to Li’s text. It was added as a further appendix to later editions of the Compendium after its initial publication in 1871.

Current Influence in China

The Compendium of Materia Medica is still studied as part of Chinese medical curricula, and modern scientists are still researching the biochemical bases of many of the drugs discussed by Li Shizhen. Partial or complete translations of the text have been published in Japanese, French, German, and English. Li was reinvented as a father of traditional Chinese medicine under Chinese Communist rule, and the Compendium is now typically acknowledged as a fundamental text in the history of Chinese science and medicine. Several Chinese artists in the twenty-first century, including the installation artist Huang Yongping and the popular musician Jay Chou, have reinterpreted the Compendium in works that challenge ideas of traditional Chinese culture.

Li Shizhen on Dragons

The excerpt below is a translation of a discussion on dragons from Li Shizhen’s Compendium of Materia Medica.

Li Shizhen says: According to Luo Yuan in the Erya yi: The dragon is the chief of the scaly creatures. Wang Fu described how its shape contains nine similarities. To wit, the head of a camel, the antlers of a deer, the eyes of a rabbit, the ears of an ox, the neck of a snake, the belly of a clam, the scales of a fish, the claws of an eagle, and the paws of a tiger. Its back has 81 scales, which as nine-nines is a yang number. Its sound is like tapping on a copper plate. The sides of its mouth have whiskers. Beneath its chin is a bright pearl. Under its throat are reversed scales. On top of its head is the boshan, also called the chimu. Without the chimu, the dragon cannot ascend to the heavens. Its exhalations of qi form clouds, and can transform into both water and fire.


Further Reading

Cooper, W., & Sivin, N. (1973). Man as medicine: Pharmacological and ritual aspects of traditional therapy using drugs derived from the human body. In S. Nakayama & N. Sivin (Eds.), Chinese science: Explorations of an ancient tradition (pp. 203–272). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Furth, C. (1988). Androgynous males and deficient females: Biology and gender boundaries in sixteenth and seventeenth century China. Late Imperial China, 9(2), 1–31.

Luo Xiwen. (Trans.). (2003). Bencao gangmu [Compendium of materia medica] (Vols. 1–6), Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. (Original work published 1596)

Métailié, G. (2001). The Bencao gangmu of Li Shizhen. In Elisabeth Hsu (Ed.), Innovation in Chinese medicine (pp. 221–261). Cambridge, UK: Cambrid
ge University Press.

Needham, J., & Lu, G.-D. (1986). Science and civilisation in China: Vol. 6.1. Botany. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Read, B. E. (1982). Chinese materia medica. Taipei, Taiwan: Southern Materials Center. (Reprinted from Chinese materia medica, Beijing: Peking Natural History Bulletin, 1923–1931)

Unschuld, P. (1986). Medicine in China: A history of pharmaceutics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Source: Nappi, Carla. (2009). Compendium of Materia Medica. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 462–466. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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