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Li Shizhen


Li Shizhen (1518-1593), author ofBen Cao Gang Mu(Compendium of Materia Medica), was a pharmacist and naturalist of the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). He was born into a family of doctors in Qizhou (present-day Qichun County of Hubei Province).

Both Li Shizhen's grandfather and father were doctors. His grandfather had been an itinerant doctor, carrying medicine pills and acupuncture needles as he journeyed from place to place. Such doctors were called Lingyi (bell doctors), because they would announce their presence by ringing a bell. Li Shizhen's father, Li Yenwen attained the rank of a subordinate medical officer of the Imperial Medical Academy. He was widely respected by his peers and wrote several famous medical works such asTale of the Ginseng,Tale of the Aiye,andSi Zhun Faming.

Li Shizhen went to the mountains with his father to pick herbs since childhood and acquired a lot of knowledge on animals, plants and medicine. In 1531, when he was only 14 years old, he passed the imperial examination at the county level (entitled Xiucai), but failed to passed the provincial examinations (entitled Juren) for three times. Then he turned his attention to medicine.

Later, he started to work in a hospital in the capital city and had the opportunity to read a lot of books on medicine. During the period, he found that there was a mess in the naming and categorization of the herbs. So he resigned in 1561 and devoted all his time to writing a book in this regard.

He collected and consulted about 800 medical books and traveled extensively, and consulting experts in each area of interest and finding individuals who worked daily with field plants, water animals, snakes, birds, minerals. After 27 years' of efforts, the first draft ofBen Cao Gang Mu(Compendium of Materia Medica) was completed in 1578 when he was 61 years old, and it was later revised three times.

The book summed up the previous medical knowledge and experience, and corrected the previous errors, lifting the Chinese medicine science to a new level. The book also contained much information on animals, plants and minerals, including 1,167 plants and 478 animals.

In the book, Li Shizhen also developed the categorization method of animals and plants, dividing them into 11 categories.

Three years after Li Shizhen died in 1593,Ben Cao Gang Muwas first published in Nanjing. Later, it was re-published for tens of times. In the 17th century, the book was introduced to Japan. In the 18th century, it went to Europe and was translated into several other languages, including Korean, Japanese, German, French, Russian and Latin.

Ben Cao Gang Mu, one of the most frequently mentioned books in the Chinese herbal tradition, contains 52 chapters. Li Shizhen wrote more than ten books, but only three survived, includingBin Hu Mai(a book on pulse diagnosis),Study on the Eight Extra ChannelsandBen Cao Gang Mu.

The Pulse Studies of Bin Huhas been regarded as the guidance for generations of medical workers. Even today it is a must for students of pulse study.The Study of the Eight Extra Channelsconfirmed the basic methodology of diagnosis on the basis of analysis of the eight extra channels. It laid the foundation for Chinese theories on channels and clinical medicine.

The three books established his incomparable position in the history of Chinese medicine. Today, Li Shizhen's image is to be found at every traditional medical college in China and in any illustrated books about the history of Chinese medicine.

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