Nurturing life through the body, heart, and spirit with the wisdom of Chinese medicine


A collection of notes on the topics of classical Chinese, medicine, and traditional culture.

This blog is a collection of ruminations, translations, and personal opinions by Sabine and some guest authors. Reflecting my own personality, some posts are academic, some clinical, and some personal, some are excerpts from existing books and some may become part of future books. Please leave comments with feedback, questions, constructive criticism, and differences of opinion as long as you argue your reasons for disagreement logically. Any personal attacks, uncivil remarks, or self-promoting comments will be deleted.

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The Therapeutic Use of Water in the Bencao gangmu, Part One: Introduction to the Text


This post is written in preparation for a lecture I will be giving while soaking in the hot springs at Ojo Caliente in New Mexico, in the framework of a retreat on Chinese herbs and the Chinese medicine classics taught by Z’ev Rosenberg and myself in Taos on August 19-23, 2018. For more information on that retreat, see here. My interest in water is obviously also inspired by my current life on the Puget Sound on Whidbey Island where I go wade, swim, and play in the blue stuff almost every day.

Thanks to my daughter for modeling as a mermaid.

Thanks to my daughter for modeling as a mermaid.

While late Imperial China is not my specific area of expertise, I have always been intrigued by Li Shizhen 李時珍 and his grand masterpiece, the Bencao gangmu 本草綱目 “Classified Materia Medica,” and consult it frequently in my research in medical history. Anybody interested in the natural sciences in Chinese history needs to read Carla Nappi’s wonderful book on the subject, titled The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China! If you haven’t, the following information is meant to give you a little taster.

To provide a bit of historical background, this text was composed in the late Ming 明 dynasty and was perhaps influenced by three developments relevant to natural history in China:

1.     The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was a return to indigenous Chinese rule that followed after the Yuan 元 dynasty (1279-1368) when China was under Mongol control. While undoubtedly traumatic and associated with a horrendous loss of Chinese lives and cultural treasures, China’s incorporation into the Mongol empire also resulted in the creation of a multicultural, multiethnic society with a vibrant exchange of knowledge, substances, languages, religions, artefacts, and peoples all over central Asia, connecting Europe to India to China. As part of this diverse culture, medicine in China became more exposed than ever to the theories, clinical techniques, and medicinal substances of Greek, Arabic, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Indian medicine. In addition, the Mongols eventually succeeded in reunifying the north of China with a much more developed south.


2.     The cultural openness, confidence, and dynamism of the early Ming dynasty, exemplified by the famous seven voyages of Admiral Zheng He in his fleet of “treasure boats” between 1405 and 1433 was abruptly replaced with xenophobia and isolationism, especially after a humiliating defeat of the imperial army at the hands of the Mongols in 1449. Rather than collecting tributes in the Indian Ocean and bringing home giraffes from Africa, the Ming rulers turned their focus to defending against Northern invaders by fortifying what would become known as the Great Wall.

3.     The cultural and economic development of the Jiangnan region south of the Yangzi from the Song period on introduced different diseases into mainstream Chinese medicine. Consequently, both medical theory and clinical therapy expanded, as exemplified by the School of Warm Diseases 溫病 and an emphasis on supplementation of weak deficient Southern bodies. From the Ming dynasty forward, famous literati physicians tended to come from medical lineages in the Jiangnan area.

Against this backdrop, Li Shizhen 李時珍 lived and worked in the late Ming dynasty (1511-1593). Descended from a medical family, he ended up becoming a doctor like his father after he failed the highest level of the civil service examination. Besides being an accomplished physician and compiling one of the greatest books of Chinese natural history and eleven other medical texts, he was a voracious reader, skillful poet, and dedicated scientist and naturalist who spent decades traveling throughout China for his textual, oral, and clinical research. In his relentless pursuit of knowledge, he interviewed countless local sources and interacted with people from all backgrounds. He is reported to have poisoned himself repeatedly by experimenting on his own body and investigating the objects of his research directly by dissection, close observation, and even smelling and tasting. The reader should be warned that Li’s passion for research in his subject matter may be contagious and that it is easy to get lost in the plethora of mind-bending stories in his book.


The Bencao gangmu is undoubtedly one of the greatest books ever written in Chinese history, published posthumously by Li’s sons in 1603. Based on 27 years of research, it summarizes 40 bencao (materia medica) texts and 361 other medical sources, consulting a total of 932 texts, as listed in the bibliography! In the spirit of the Neo-Confucian “investigation of things” 格物, Li Shizhen embraced direct empirical research in combination with thorough studies of all relevant literature, to examine all sorts of natural phenomena and their effect on humans. In 53 volumes, almost 2 million characters, and 1892 main entries or categories (綱 gāng), which are further subdivided into specific entries (目 ), it classifies 1892 substances (plants, animals, “stones,” and objects employed, derived from, or otherwise related to humans) and offers 11,000 formulas for their medical use. The entries include clearly marked subsections identified as

·      “Elucidation of names” 釋名: Including sometimes lengthy lists of alternate names and discussion thereof, this philological preoccupation with naming can be traced back to the Confucian emphasis on “rectifying names” 正名 as an important aspect of scholarly activity.

·      “Collected explanations” 集解: A collection of quotations from a wide range of literature and contemporaneous local informants, with a critical discussion by Li Shizhen himself, on the object and its natural history, lifecycle, varieties and distinguishing features, myths and stories, and other general information. This is a goldmine of facts and fiction for any natural historian;

·      Separate entries on the specific parts used and their preparation and processing as a medicinal substance 修治;

·      Qi (i.e., thermodynamic quality) and flavor 氣味, including information on toxicity and substances to avoid while taking it, also faithfully quoting disagreements in the literature;

·      Indications 主治: The clinical uses of the substances, as traced through the bencao literature up to Li Shizhen’s time;

·      Elaboration 發明: Perhaps the most useful part for clinically inclined readers, this section elaborates on the reasons why the substances has the effect on the body described in the “Indications” section.

·      Attached formulas 附方: This section not only cites earlier sources, written and oral, but also includes Li’s personal experience, thereby providing great insight into the actual clinical use of the substance in the late Ming period.


Probably the most innovative feature of the Bencao gangmu is the classification of substances: In the earliest edition of the earliest transmitted bencao text, the Shennong bencao jing 神農本草經 (“Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica,” translated and published by yours truly here), contains 365 substances categorized into three levels associated with Heaven, Humanity, and Earth in that order, based on their effect on the body and with generally increasing levels of toxicity. This text does employ the system of the Five Dynamic Agents 五行 to classify the substances according to flavor, but not as an organizing principle for the text itself. In his later edition from 492 CE, Tao Hongjing uses the distinction between minerals, plants, and animals, in that order as his main organizing principle, and then subdivides each of these categories into the three classes of Heaven, Humanity, and Earth. Subsequent materia medica text followed this general organization but changed the order to start with plants, followed by minerals, then animals, and ending with human substances.


In sharp contrast to his predecessors, Li Shizhen used the Five Dynamic Agents wuxing 五行 as the overarching paradigm for organizing all substances that affect the human body and therefore created the following major “parts” 部: Waters, Fires, Earths, Metals and Stones, Herbs, Grains, Vegetables, Fruits, Trees, Clothes and Utensils, Bugs, Scaly Creatures, Shelled Creatures, Birds, Quadrupeds, and Humans. Of these major parts, the first three (waters, fires, and earths) are a radical departure from previous bencao literature! The order of the wuxing here does not follow either the cycle of creation or the cycle of control, but instead is subordinated to what Carla Nappi describes as progressing “from the most fundamental to the most exalted.” These large “Parts” 部 are then subdivided further and further into “Categories” 類 and individual entries or "types" 種. For example, we go from “bugs” to “egg-born bugs” to “bees,” or from “herbs” to “mountain herbs” to “gancao.” Besides this emphasis on correct classification and rectification of names, the organization of substances in this text also reflects the Confucian preoccupation with hierarchical ordering of the natural world, especially in the progression from plants to animals (and therein from bugs to scaly to shelled creatures to birds and then quadrupeds) and lastly to humans.

Among the main parts, the section on Fires is the shortest, with no separate “Categories” and only twelve Entries. The first of these is titled “Yin Fire and Yang Fire” and offers an introduction to the topic of fires. Here, Li states that Fire can be categorized into three “Guiding Principles” 綱 , namely Heaven Fire, Earth Fire, and Human Fire, and 12 “Entries” 目, perhaps because it “has Qi but no substance.” Part Two of this blog on the therapeutic uses of water in the Bencao gangmu will discuss the section on Waters in this text in greater detail. Stay tuned….. because right now the tide is high and it's time for a swim...