The Impacts of Li Shizhen’s Bencao gangmu

The context in which the Bencao gangmu was compiled plays a large role in the wider story tracing humankind’s curiosity with the natural world. Europe’s scientific culture in the early modern period became incommensurable to that of the East by the 17th century, and 20th century historiography has marked this as the rise of European intellectual history. Practices of knowledge exchange became central to scientific thought, particularly the dissemination of various astronomical theories between Europe and the Ottomans. However, little has been said about the rise of natural history in China and its impact in a global context. This too was a product of the early modern transformation of science, which – just like in Europe – had been made possible by the diffusion of science into the wider public sphere, and the increased accessibility of scholarly texts for the literate. The print market of the late Ming provided this new textual landscape at “ridiculously low prices”, according to the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. As well as the increase in available texts, new objects had begun to be documented in the medical canon due to increased trade networks and a new demand for exotica. As a result of these factors, natural history emerged in China and notably, Li’s Bencao gangmu entered Japan in the 17th century. The subsequently institutionalised knowledge of nature in premodern Japan depended largely on this canonical text, which initiated the study of nature in Tokugawa Japan.  

Given the status of natural history in the early modern period, it is of no surprise that the ambitious Li Shizhen embarked on a pursuit of the “broad learning of the things” (bowu). His pursuit was largely based on observation, as he claimed to have personally consumed remedies to check their qualities, and this was a common practice among physicians. However, he also adopted an approach different to his naturalist predecessors. Li understood that the natural world was in a constant state of flux, or transformation, and that it was necessary to account for this when harvesting flora or fauna for medical use, for example. In order to pinpoint normal patterns of change that existed in this natural world, Li used epistemically varied sources, alongside his own learnings of how the world operated,  to create a generalised and abstract image of how bodies work within a universe of metamorphoses and transformation. Thus, he spent thirty years travelling across southern China in order to gather these sources for his medical encyclopaedia; he interviewed farmers and hunters, performed experiments, treated patients and extensively read previous naturalist works. By 1561, Li returned to his home reigion of Qizhou and began to synthesise everything he had learned in his garden house on Rain Lake shore. This period of change, in which his adventure as a “crusader of knowledge” shifted into a time of reflection and writing, was marked by his decision to change his name to Binhu – little did he know that his adventure was far from over. Once he had finished constructing his Bencao gangmu in 1587, at the age of 72, he was not able to convince a printer at the Nanjing print market to publish the several million-character long manuscript he had dedicated his life to. Subsequently, he visited his acquaintance Wang Shizhen in Taicang, with the hopes that this scholar-official would be able to endorse his work. Li was eventually left satisfied after obtaining Wang’s preface and the man’s word that a printer, Hu Chenglong, would publish his work. Unfortunately, Li died in Hubei before he could oversee the publication. Nonetheless, Wang certainly paid sufficient homage to his friend, describing Li’s vast scope of work: “Like entering the Golden Grain Garden, the varieties of colours dazzle the eyes.” 

What was unique enough about the Bencao gangmu that it could be granted the title of a “dictionary of Chinese knowledge”? The text reorganised natural knowledge systematically through (1) the standardisation of species names; and (2) the hierarchical classification of species. Regarding the latter, Li separated natural specimens into minerals, plants and animals, and distinguished them from the pharmacological substances developed from them. While he categorised various medicinal substances according to the disease they allegedly cured, his systematic taxonomy of species was concerned with the division of species into groups called gang and smaller categories called mu (hence using the name gangmu to denote this hierarchical organisation). The 52 chapters (juan) of this work is also structured in an orderly manner, moving from the most fundamental natural objects (water, air, earth and fire) to plants and animals, and lastly to mankind. Notably, much of the text is on disease and the natural history of known drugs, which were also categorised, this time in accordance with their qualities such as flavour (wei), toxicity (d), or presence of heat and seasonality. Thus, his materia medica was considered in the Ming dynasty to be an exegetical text – one with an impressive breadth of classifications that synthesised all known Chinese medical and natural knowledge.  

Li Shizhen’s materia medica remains an important source for the research of traditional Chinese medicine. The historical uses of the medicinal plants of China were confirmed by the scientist Tu Youyou, who was rewarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2015, and used the Bencao as a prime source for his research. There has also been more recent research in identifying Chinese medicinal plants in the medicine of the Mediterranean world in Antiquity using Li’s work. For example, a comparison between the therapeutic uses of Chinese plants by Li and the earlier text Dioscorides suggest that these plants may have been introduced into the Mediterranean regions as early as the first century BC. Therefore, it is possible that cross-cultural interactions between the Chinese medical tradition and wider parts of the globe existed well before the early modern world, probably reaching the Mediterranean through trade with Indian markets, since this area of contact along with the Black Sea corresponds to the south and north routes of the Silk Road. It is evident that this medical encyclopaedia will always remain an important body of text in the natural history framework, and therefore we must continue to study its contents and how it influenced the wider world in the early modern period.  

Written by Kat Jivkova


Touwaide, Alain and Emanuela Appetiti. “Searching for Chinese Medicinal Plants in Greek Classical Medicine: A First Approach.” Chinese Medicine and Culture 1, no. 1 (2018): 40-45. 

Marcon, Federico. The Knowledge of Nature and the Nature of Knowledge in Early Modern Japan. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 

Nappi, Carla Suzan. The Monkey and the Inkpot Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. 

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