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Shennong Q&As

Questions and answers about Sabine's Translation of the Divine Farmer's Classic of Materia Medica

Note that this list of questions and answers will get updated as I receive and answer more comments so feel free to check back periodically.

Question: Is your entry on page 169 (2.9) for tongcao actually what we currently call mùtōng Akebiae Caulis 木通? Blue Poppy's footnote to the tongcao entry says "what we presently call Mu Tong was, before the Song dynasty, called Tong Cao." Both Chen and Bensky list Tetrapanacis Medulla tōng căo as not being in the SNBCJ. 

Answer: Mùtōng 木通 is definitely not the same as tōngcǎo 通草. From what I know and have seen, the Blue Poppy edition is not an academic translation based on extensive textual, botanical, and historical research. I don't know where Chen and Bensky get their information on the SNBCJ from but I checked several editions and tōngcǎo is in fact listed in all of them, including the revision by Tao Hongjing and the earlier Han period reconstruction that I have based my translation on. I don't have the time to figure out where Bensky's and Chen's mistaken statement came from, maybe from a modern Materia Medica from China, something like the Zhōngyào Dàcídiǎn 中藥大辭典? But I did a lot of research in original sources, and it sure is in there. 


Question: I’m really interested in your translation of Mahuang as sweet. That goes against everything I know from my teachers and my clinical practice! Which source text did that come from? I’m just curious!

Answer: Oh you had me sweating! Did I make a mistake? But alas! I did just check four different editions and sure enough, the one that I used as a source edition, which is a reconstruction of the Han dynasty text by Ma Jixing 馬繼興 and his colleagues (see my Introduction), does indeed have it listed as sweet. Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 also lists it as sweet, by the way.  The Wu Pu Bencao《吴普本草》 ("Wu Pu's Materia Medica," third century CE), on the other hand, lists it as bitter. So there is in fact contrasting information floating around, already in the third century. I should have written a footnote to explain this matter in the book. 


Question: Quick question, I can't find Huang Bai in the Shen Nong, is it in there under a different name, or is this a medicinal that wasn't used at the time?

Answer: Middle book, item 2.63, bòmù 柏木. If you look it up under Phyllodendrum in the Latin index, you can find it that way. I should have added a footnote that it's identical with the modern huángbái 黃白. Bái is also pronounced bó and, in the name of the medicinal, can also be written with the same character as the one in bòmù: 柏 (i.e., “white” with a tree radical). So for a person literate in Chinese, the identification is easy. For somebody who doesn’t know Chinese characters, the only way to figure this out is through the Latin index. Thanks to your comment, I have now added a file to the website with an additional index with modern common names.


Question: I was wondering about the order of herbs in the translation. I attended a lecture by Jeffrey Yuen and he spoke about the importance of Ling Zhi - ganoderma being the first herb mentioned in this book. In the Blue Poppy translation Ling Zhi also is the first. Jeffrey Yuen claims that the text is codified for Daoist cultivation - via Tao Hongjing. He claims the first three herbs Ling Zhi, Tian Men Dong, Bai Zhu, are thought of as a lesson. Using the original Chinese he extrapolates - Ling meaning spirit, Tian heaven, and Zhu meaning guide/school offering a codified lesson in using superior herbs to improve the self or to teach (zhu) the spirit (ling) how to achieve heaven (tian). In your version, Chang Pu is listed as the first. Was he working from a different version? I would love to hear you thoughts on this.

Answer: Great question! I do explain some of my editorial choices in the Preface to my translation. Basically I have based my arrangement of the source text and translation on the leading current Chinese critical editions that attempt to reconstruct the text as early as humanly possible, with the help of recent manuscript discoveries, cross-references in other historical literature, etc., which I have confirmed with my own textual research. Tao Hongjing, as you mention, was one of the earliest redactors of the text, and the order in which he lists the medicinals is indeed different from the order in my book, precisely because I tried to reconstruct the Han dynasty order. Tao Hongjing actually created two versions himself, one an attempted reconstruction and one his own updated, annotated, and much expanded version. And just so you don't get the wrong idea, I did not reconstruct the text in my book myself but I relied in my research primarily on an authoritative edition by the medical historian Ma Jixing 馬繼興, whose work I respect greatly. So in other words, the difference between Jeffrey Yuen's approach and mine is perhaps that he is reading it as a practitioner interested in Daoist cultivation and I am still trying to wear my historian's hat and get to the earliest layer of the text from the Han dynasty. Don't get me wrong – I absolutely adore Tao Hongjing’s work! It was a hard decision, whether to publish the text as a restored Han dynasty version or in Tao Hongjing's expanded and revised form, and I decided to go for the first one, to present a more original version than Tao Hongjing’s redaction.


Question: Just wondering: Why was this

黃耆。一名戴糝。味甘, 微溫,無毒。治癰疽,久敗瘡,排膿止痛,大風癩疾,五痔,鼠瘻,補虛。小兒百病。生山谷。

translated as "Bitter flavor, cold, non-toxic..." instead of sweet, warm... 

Answer: I have no idea at all. This must have been a mistake introduced during the final layout stage. This is NOT GOOD! I just checked my translation file and I did translate it correctly. So I have no idea, literally, how this error could have been introduced into the text. That is all I can say. Thanks so much for reading the book so carefully and pointing this problem out to me! 

Note:  This mistake has been corrected and is only found in the first 200 or so copies of the book. This truly is a genuine error and a good lesson in the impossibility of perfection, I suppose! I have issued an “ERRATA” sheet and corrected the handful of errors that slipped into the first print-run. Please get in touch with me if you bought a copy of the book in February and have not received an email from me about it.


Question: Shouldn’t some of the words in your botanical identifications be in lower case, such as “Citrus” or “Poria”? Also, why are most pinyin terms written in lower case but some words capitalized, such as “Qin melon” on p. 175 as the alternate name for qīnjiāo?

Answer: I have followed standard rules of plant taxonomy and identified plants, wherever possible and reasonable, by GENUS, which is capitalized, and SPECIES, which is in lower case. These Latin botanical identifications have been italicized, again following standard practice. Regarding pinyin terms, they are generally written in lower case, unless they refer to proper nouns such as place names, dynasties, or historical figures.


Question: I am noticing that for some entries the botanical identification is missing, such as for entries II.56 (gūhuó) and II.57 (qūcǎo). Shouldn’t these be identified as Semen Abutili/Malvae and Herba Gnaphaiiaffinis respectively?

Answer: While I have made every effort to identify all the substances listed in this ancient text and have received much valuable assistance from Dr. Eugene Anderson in this area, I have chosen to err on the side of caution whenever there remained any doubt in my mind. So some contemporary Chinese and English books may identify a commonly used modern medicinal substance with an entry in the Divine Farmer’s Classic, but I may not, because I have been unable to establish this identity with certainty. In such cases, I have noted the problem in the footnotes and discussed possible alternatives. Any statement like “identity unknown” in a footnote is the unfortunate result of many days of painstaking research and was never made lightly. I am simply being a careful and critical historian.


Question: I had a question about one of the entries. For Mahuang in the text I just received, it says that the medicinal is sweet and warm. In the old text you translated as part of Sun Simiao's Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang 《備急千金要方》, it is listed as bitter and warm. This was the first one I looked at, but I am wondering why there is a discrepancy between the two? Thanks for your time and effort in translating such an important text. 

Answer: The answer to your question is as I suspected: There is different information in the different editions. The reconstructed Han dynasty version, or the oldest layer of the text, which I have been using as the main source for the critical edition in my current translation, has it categorized as sweet and warm. The Bie Lu 《別錄》, i.e. the records of other physicians that Tao Hongjing included in his expanded edition, lists it as “slightly warm.” The version of the Shén Nóng quoted in a different text called Wu Pu Bencao《吴普本草》 (third century CE, “Wu Pu’s Materia Medica”) lists it as bitter, and Bian Que 扁鵲 is cited as classifying it as sour. Oh the joys of various editions! I honestly don't remember which edition I used to translate the text for my dissertation and subsequent book publication, and it would take me a while to dig all that up. Thanks for looking so closely.