Why I Treasure the "Divine Farmer's Classic of Materia Medica"
This blog is derived from the introductory material in my translation of the Shén Nóng Běncǎo Jīng 神農本草經, published last year by Happy Goat Productions. For more information on this book, see the listing in my online store here. This summary was compiled in preparation for the annual conference of the Shen Nong Society, which will be held in March 24, 2018 in New York City and where I will be a keynote speaker. See here for more information. The lovely illustrations of medicinals here were created by Maria Hicks, MSOM, LAc for inclusion in my published translation of the Shén Nóng Běncǎo Jīng. Please visit Maria's website here for more information.
It is not just because I am also a farmer with dirt under my nails that the “Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica” (Shén Nóng Běncǎo Jīng 神農本草經) has always been one of my favorite books. As a critical historian and teacher of classical Chinese medicine, I firmly believe this little book to be one of the most important, foundational texts of this medicine that I love so dearly and have dedicated my life to. For this reason, I produced a bilingual literal translation of this text last year and continue to promote this text and its teachings to anybody who will listen. Whether you are a practicing physician or pharmacist, a fellow “herb head” and plant lover, a historian of early Chinese culture and natural science, or just curious about one of the most ancient texts from early Chinese literature, you may enjoy listening to what the Divine Farmer has to say.
One reason for the importance of this text is obviously the ancient origin of the knowledge contained therein and its association with Shén Nóng, a name that translates literally as “Divine Farmer.” This ancient semi-mythological culture hero of Chinese civilization has been celebrated for thousands of years in China for the invention of agriculture, among many other achievements. A text from the second century BCE called Huáinánzǐ 淮南子 recounts the following legend:
In ancient times, the people subsisted on grasses to eat and water to drink, picked fruits and nuts from the trees and ate the meat of snails and clams. They frequently fell ill due to being injured by poisoning. For this reason the Divine Farmer began to teach the people how to sow and cultivate the Five Grains and assess the suitability of land and soil for dryness and moistness, fertile or rocky ground, and high or low elevation. He tasted the flavors of the hundred herbs and sweetness and bitterness of the water in their springs, letting the people know what places to avoid and what places to draw near to. During this time, he encountered seventy poisons in a single day…
In addition to his association with agriculture, bibliographic records and citations from the Han dynasty on connect Shén Nóng’s name to titles on the subject of “nurturing life” (yǎng shēng 養生), or in other words, the prevention of illness and preservation and optimization of health for the purpose of prolonging one’s lifespan or even attaining immortality by transcending the limitations of the mortal body. The content as well as the value judgments inherent in the categorization of medicinals in this text will show the astute reader the significance of this association with a tradition not primarily concerned with treating illness but with preventing it and with promoting longevity or even immortality instead. It is no coincidence either that the single other key figure associated with the text, namely the historical figure Táo Hóngjǐng 陶弘景 (see below), is better known in Chinese history as the founder of the Shàngqīng 上清 (“Supreme Clarity”) school of Daoism. His biography aptly depicts him as a hermit who specialized in academic, religious, and alchemical research into methods of transcending the limitations of the natural human body by transforming it into a refined immortal existence, similar to the emergence of a butterfly from the chrysalis.
“Materia medica” is the standard English translation for the Chinese term běncǎo 本草 (“roots and grasses”), which denotes a category of literature that has a long and illustrious, if somewhat overwhelming, history in Chinese medicine. The trusted catalogue of Chinese medical literature Zhōngguó Yī Jí Kǎo 中國醫籍考 (“Investigation of Chinese Medical Literature”), published in 1819 by the Japanese scholar Tanba no Mototane, lists no fewer than 2,605 titles in this category, a number that does not include the subsequent category of shízhì 食治 (“Materia Dietetica”)! In this catalogue, the title Shén Nóng Běncǎo Jīng (“Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica”) appears as the first book in the category of běncǎo 本草. Although recorded as a text in three volumes in the bibliography of the Sui 隨 dynasty (581-618 CE), the original, if we can even speak of a single source at all, has unfortunately not survived. Due to later scholars’ respect for the information contained in this work, however, we have countless copies of the preface and the text of the individual entries, as quoted in the major materia medica literature from classical times on. With some minor disagreements on the placement and order of individual substances in one or the other of the three categories, scholars agree that the original text contained descriptions of 365 medicinal substances, classified into the three categories of “upper,” “middle,” and “lower” in accordance with their effect on the human body and their association with Heaven, Humanity, and Earth, respectively. The preservation of this treasure trove of early Chinese knowledge about the natural world may be due mostly to the efforts of one of the earliest and most illustrious proponents of this text: the above-mentioned scholar, author, and Daoist practitioner Táo Hóngjǐng 陶弘景 (452-536), style name Yǐn Jū 隱居 (“Living in Hiding”).
As Táo’s preface to the text shows, it was already obvious to scholars in the early sixth century that the information contained in the various materia medica texts associated with the Divine Farmer did not come directly from his pen but had been expanded on in the process of oral transmission over several thousand years:
The old explanations all refer to a “Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica.” I consider this to be reliable. In the past, in his rule of Under Heaven, the Divine Farmer drew the trigrams of the “Classic of Changes” to provide access to the dispositions of the supernatural entities; set up the plowing and planting of fields to save people from death from terminal injuries; and promulgated [information on] medicinals and the curing of illnesses, to rescue from the fate of premature loss of life and injuries. These three Teachings (lit. “Dao”) were [then] enriched and illuminated by passing through large numbers of sages. King Wén and Confucius added judgments, images, and commentaries, acclaiming humanity and heaven through obscurity. Hòu Jì and Yī Yǐn disseminated the Hundred Grains, bestowing their benevolence on all living people. Qí Bó, Huángdì, Péngzǔ, and Biǎn Qùe provided guidance and support with great fervor. In this way, the [Divine Farmer’s] beneficence has circulated and remained alive. And even though three thousand years have gone by, the people still rely on it to this day!
Nevertheless, before the time of the Yellow Emperor, written characters were not yet transmitted and the six lines [from the Classic of Changes] were bequeathed to posterity with finger gestures, while the tasks of sowing and reaping were transmitted by means of pictures…
舊說皆稱《神農本草經》，余以為信然。昔神農氏之王天下也，畫易卦以通鬼神之情；造耕種，以省煞害之弊；宣藥療疾，以拯夭傷之命。此三道者，歷群聖而滋彰。文王、孔子， 彖象繇辭，幽贊人天。后稷、伊芳尹，播厥百谷，惠被生民。岐、皇、彭、扁，振揚輔導，恩 流含氣。並歲逾三千，民到於今賴之。但軒轅以前，文字未傳，如六爻指垂，畫象稼穡。。。
While in pursuit of immortality, alchemical transformation of the body, and transcendence of this mundane world in his hermitage on Mount Máo, Táo Hóngjǐng collated and compiled the materia medica information of his times into first a shorter three-volume, and then a longer seven-volume version of a so-called “Classic of Materia Medica.” Making matters a bit confusing, he titled the first one Shén Nóng Běncǎo Jīng 神農本草經 (“Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica”) and the second one Běncǎo Jīng Jí Zhù 本草經集註 (“Collected Comments on the Classic of Materia Medica”). Their content overlaps substantially, and these texts have themselves been lost in their original version. Nevertheless, because the text of Táo’s materia medica, regardless of the version, has been quoted and expanded on innumerable times by later authors, it has been possible to reconstruct the original with considerable confidence.
In his preface to the “Collected Comments,” Táo mentions that the original information of the text, referred to by its abbreviated title as Běn Jīng 本經 (“Root Classic”), was first written down during the Hàn dynasty in four volumes, one containing general information and the other three containing monographs on medicinal substances in three categories associated with Heaven, Humanity, and Earth respectively. Táo further explains that his work includes an expansion of the original 365 substances by another 365 substances and commentaries by himself and by “famous physicians” (míng yī 名醫) on such topics as alternate names, information on growing, harvesting, preparation, and storage, and medicinal uses, which he set off from the original text by using a different ink color. Táo’s collected commentaries were subsequently published separately under the title Míng Yī Bié Lù 名醫別錄 (“Separate Records by Famous Physicians”). More importantly, however, the text of his original “Classic of Materia Medica” and the commentary by himself and the “Famous Doctors” has been preserved and expanded upon ever since, ensuring not just their survival but their continued preponderance as one of the pivotal texts in the traditional literature of Chinese medicine.
In contemporary Chinese bookstores, editions of the Shén Nóng Běncǎo Jīng are ubiquitous but unfortunately not consistent in regard to the order, numbering, and classification of substances. This does not need to concern the practitioner who is merely looking for information contained in the individual monographs. It can, however, cause serious headaches to critical scholars or translators like myself who are trying to publish a new version of the text. Táo Hóngjǐng himself had already mentioned categorizing the monographs both in the original three tiers of upper, middle, and lower, and in accordance with their natural origin into “precious stones” (yù shí 玉石), “herbs and trees” (cǎo mù 草木), “insects and wild animals” (chóng shòu 蟲獸) and “fruits, vegetables, rice, and grains” (guǒ cài mǐ gǔ 果菜米穀), as most scholars believe he had done in his own edition. Modern English-language editions follow either of these two models and can therefore differ in structure and order of individual entries.
For the Western reader, a bigger problem than these editorial issues is the translation of many terms that simply do not have accurate direct equivalents in modern English. The character 毒 dú, for example, is most commonly translated as “toxin” or “toxic,” depending on its grammatical function. Most importantly, it is used in each entry of the text in the phrases wú dú 無毒 or yǒu dú, 有毒, translated as “non-toxic” or “toxic” respectively. For each substance, the text gives information on the “toxicity” right after the categorization into the Five Flavors (wǔ wèi 五味, namely sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and acrid) and Four Qì (sì qì 四氣, often translated as “thermodynamic qualities,” namely cold, hot, cool, and warm). Given the use of this text as a materia medica, in other words, as a collection of information on substances recommended for human consumption for the purpose of improving or preserving health and longevity, we are led to wonder: Why would a full third of this text be classified as “toxic,” namely the so-called “lower” category of medicinals that are associated with earth, identified as “assistants and messengers,” and said to “eliminate the evil qì of cold and heat, break up accumulations and gatherings, and cure diseases”? And then there is the middle category of “vassals” who are “in charge of nurturing the Heavenly nature,” about whom the text warns: “Some of them are toxic and some are not, so deliberate their suitability carefully!” Why would the substances with the highest efficacy, which are actually able to “treat disease” (zhì bìng 治病), be classified as the lowest category, directly contrary to the way in which most modern doctors would rank them?
To cite just one example, the medicinal effect of the substance Qínjiāo 秦艽 (book 2, line 70, Zanthoxylum bungeanum or “Shenxi pepper”), which is classified as toxic, is described in this way: “It treats wind evil qì, warms the center, gets rid of cold-related bì impediment, makes the teeth firm, grows the hair on the head, and brightens the eyes.” These effects certainly make it look like a highly useful substance. More significantly, the text continues: “Consumed over a long period of time, it lightens the body, makes the complexion beautiful, allows you to withstand aging, increases the years, and facilitates the breakthrough of spirit [illumination].” How do we reconcile this description, and the advice on long-term consumption, with its classification as “toxic”? This entry might in fact shed light not only on the meaning of dú 毒 (“toxic/toxin”), but also on two other phrases of great significance throughout this text: The phrases jiǔ fú 久服 (“consumed over a long time”) and tōng shén 通神, which I have ended up translating with considerable awkwardness as “facilitate the breakthrough of spirit [illumination].”
Let us first return to our consideration of the meaning of toxicity in The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica. When we look at the categorization of substances as toxic (or the sub-category of slightly toxic) or non-toxic, it becomes clear that our contemporary, whether scientific or popular, meaning of “toxic” does not fit neatly into the ancient Chinese meaning of dú 毒. For example, why are shíliúhuáng 石硫黃 (sulfur; book 2, line 96) and Máfén (hemp seed; book 2, line 95) categorized as “toxic” when Dānshā (cinnabar, a.k.a. mercuric sulfide; vol. 1, line 90) and Féngzǐ (wasp, Vol. 1, line 118) are said to be “non-toxic”? For an answer, we need to recall the primary intention and authorship and audience of the information contained in this text. Today, the Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica is considered one of the most important classics in Chinese Medicine and is therefore treasured deeply by students and practitioners of this form of medicine. For many centuries, physicians have found insights in this text into the medicinal effect of substances for human consumption, to support their practice of treating disease and alleviating their patients’ suffering. Nevertheless, we must never forget that our modern understanding of the scope and goals of “medicine” or of “materia medica” was very different from the early notions of yī 醫 (“medicine”) and of běncǎo 本草 (lit. “roots and grasses”). As expressed in most classical medical literature in one form or another, the creators of the early Chinese classics, for example, idealized the approach of “treating disease before it arises” (zhì wéi bìng 治未病). Even more drastically, many if not most of the leading researchers of natural science in early and medieval China were actively engaged in efforts to physically and spiritually transform their natural body and transcend the limitations of its mortal human form (xíng 形), to avoid or transform death and turn into spirit immortals (xiān 仙). We must never forget this alchemical background, which differs so greatly from our own intentions for the use of “medicinal” substances.
From this perspective, the character dú 毒 “toxin/toxic” takes on a different meaning. Looking at its etymology, it is a combination of the two characters 生 shēng (“life”), or 草 cǎo (“grass”) over 毋 wú (“do not!”), aptly paraphrased by the famous Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren as “forbidden herbs.” Early variations of the graph include the characters 刀 dāo (“knife”) or 虫 chóng (“insect”), both things that are associated with harming people. So in other contexts, the character can safely be equated with the English term “toxin,” which is why I have chosen to do so here as well. The issue, in other words, is not that the Chinese character 毒 means something different from the English word “toxin,” but that it carries a specific meaning here that we must keep in mind. I used to explain it as “medicinal efficacy” in the context of this book, but such an explanation only works if we are clear on the different meaning of “medicinal” in the early texts: Yes, treating disease was one desired outcome of using natural substances, but the actual transformation of the physical body, which in cases like the long-term consumption of cinnabar and other minerals might involve inflicting real and permanent harm on it, was a higher and more important goal, associated with the connection to Heaven.
The long-term consumption of substances aimed at the gradual alchemical transformation of the physiological body is therefore an essential aspect of the information presented in The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica. The reader can gain a better understanding of the specific goals of this alchemical transformation by looking at the effects of substances described after the phrase jiǔ fú 久服 (“consumed over a long time”). The most important effects are related to three actions: lightening the body (qīng shén 輕身), staving off aging (or extending the years or some variation thereof, nài lǎo yán niān 耐老延年), and, the most difficult phrase to translate in the entire book, “facilitate the breakthrough of spirit [illumination] (tōng shén 通神). The goal of preventing or reversing aging requires no more explanation here. Similarly, “lightening the body” is an effect that the reader can experience on a personal level. In my mind, I read it literally, in the sense that the body feels light and airy, instead of being weighted down in such a way that it requires effort to keep it upright or move limbs.
Resolving the conundrum of translating the expression tōng shén 通神, or its common relative tōng shénmíng 通神明, proves much harder. I have changed my translation dozens of times, from the awfully prosaic “unclog the spirit” to the unclear “connect [the body’s?] spirit/s with [Heaven’s brightness?],” to my current choice, “facilitate the breakthrough of spirit [illumination].” There are almost as many possibilities for interpreting and translating this phrase as there are readers and translators. Neither tōng 通 nor shén 神 are characters that are easily translatable into any modern language. In the case of shén 神, the English “spirit” or “Spirit” may express the connection to Heavenly Spirit, or to spirit in the sense of a person’s vitality or esprit, but it leaves out the plurality of “spirits” that inhabit the human body, surround it in the natural environment, and connect it upwards with Heaven. Those of you who practice Chinese medicine or any of the Chinese arts of self-cultivation know that shén is just shén, and that “spirit,” whether in the singular or plural, is indeed a questionable and uneasy English rendition of one of the most important concepts in Chinese culture. Etymologically, you could perhaps explain it as the act of “stretching upward toward something sacred,” a place or entity that most people associate with the Chinese concept of “Heaven.”
Concerning the character tōng 通, it implies the idea of connecting, of penetrating through something all the way to the end, of unclogging, as in the medical action of tōng jīng 通經, of unclogging the channels, or the menstrual period, by removing obstructions, of restoring free flow. Again, this is perhaps a concept that is more easily grasped by experiencing the effect of this action on the human body in person. In the oldest Chinese dictionary Shuō Wén Jiě Zì 說文解字, the character 通 is defined as dá 達, “to reach.” In addition, the classical meanings of the character include notions like “to pervade,” “to comprehend,” “to move forcefully,” and “to communicate and interact.” In my mind, especially in the phrase tōng shénmíng 通神明 (“facilitate the break-through of spirit illumination”), the medicinal substance that is said to have this effect allows the light of the spirit or spirits to shine through, to illuminate the farthest reaches of “Under Heaven” like the supercharged beam of a magical flashlight. Ultimately, this phrase may just be impossible to express in a modern Western language but can only be grasped on a non-rational level, because it is beyond the limitations of our linguistic capacities.
In conclusion, I hope that you enjoy pondering these sorts of conundrums as much as I do and that this text invites you to ponder a few new ones.
“Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet)