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Medical Marvel

A 16th-century healer dedicated 30 years of his life to correcting, standardizing and expanding the practice of herbal medicine in China by writing a masterpiece that is celebrated to this day

By Lü Weitao Updated Mar.1

An event celebrating Li Shizhen’s 500th birthday is held at the Li Shizhen Memorial Museum, Qichun, Huanggang, Hubei Province, May 26, 2018

An ancient copy of Compendium of Materia Medica, Huanggang Museum, Huanggang, Hubei Province, May 30, 2023 (Photos by VCG)

In the annals of medical history, one name stands as a towering figure, revered and celebrated for shaping the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) – Li Shizhen.  

Often hailed as the father of TCM, Li’s life story unfolds as a mesmerizing journey through the pages of time, leaving an indelible mark on the understanding and practice of holistic healing. From the tranquil landscapes of 16th-century China to the vibrant tapestry of herbal wisdom, Li’s legacy is a testament to the enduring power of ancient knowledge and the relentless pursuit of unlocking the secrets of the human body and nature’s pharmacy.  

Prescribed Path
Li Shizhen (1518-1593) was born into a family of medical practitioners in what is today’s Qichun County in Central China’s Hubei Province. His grandfather was a “bell doctor” – a practitioner who walked the streets ringing a bell to announce his arrival. His father was highly skilled in medicine and was well known throughout the county. But in those days, the status of private doctors was very low, and the Li family was treated poorly by officials and the landed gentry. Since Li was the second son, his father set him on a different path – preparing for the imperial examinations to become an official.  

Li Shizhen was a frail and sickly child, but was straightforward and pure in character. Over time, he grew weary of writing empty and tedious essays in preparation for and during the exam. In 1540, after failing the exam for the third time, 22-year-old Li gave up and joined the family business.  

His father eventually agreed and carefully taught him the art of medicine. The same year, the Qihe River in his hometown broke its banks. The flood inundated the county, causing a widespread epidemic. Witnessing the displacement of people and the numerous families impacted by the disaster, young Li could not stand idly by. He picked up his medical bag and rushed out to help anyone he could.  

Li made a name for himself in the region for his superb skills and medical ethos. Gradually, amazing stories about him emerged.  

Once, Li encountered a group of people carrying a coffin for a funeral. A young woman had died during childbirth, and the coffin was leaking blood. But as Li went up to take a closer look, he saw the blood was fresh. He stopped the funeral procession, claiming that the person inside must still be alive. The grieving family did not believe him. Also, opening a coffin once it has been sealed is considered a terrible offense.  

But Li implored the family to reconsider, and they agreed. After a careful examination, he stabbed the woman’s heart with a needle. Shortly after, the woman sighed and woke up. After Li’s treatment, the woman successfully gave birth to a son. Justifiably, the family and onlooking crowd were stupefied. Li’s “miracle” saw his fame grow.  

Around 1551, the Prince of Chu, Zhu Yingxian, heard of Li’s exceptional medical skills and appointed him as his court physician in Wuchang, Hubei Province and head of the Liangyi Clinic, a facility set up within his palace exclusively for the imperial family. One day, when Zhu’s son fainted and became unconscious, Li promptly revived him. A few years later, Zhu recommended Li to serve at the Imperial Medical Institute in Beijing, where he would treat the Ming emperor and his family.  

During his tenure, Li studied imperial medical texts day and night, identifying numerous errors in classical pharmacology works. He found that many toxic ingredients such as mercury were thought to prolong life, and their continued use had caused much harm. He proposed that the Imperial Hospital revise the texts, but his lone voice did not get enough attention as many incompetent doctors dominated medicine at the time.  

Li decided to put his early studies of literature to good use and write his own medical text. In 1557, filled with resentment and disappointment, Li resigned from his post at the Imperial Hospital and returned to Qichun County. While practicing medicine there, he began in earnest to collect his own data.  

Li referenced more than 800 medical texts, numerous books on history and geography, and works of literature. He even studied the complete works of many ancient poets, from which he extracted a surprising number of verses about medicine. These verses provided him with practical knowledge that helped him address medical fallacies perpetuated by his predecessors.  
However, the greatest issue he encountered was the widespread inconsistency in the use of drug names. He realized that while extensive reading is necessary, travel is even more important, so he began to conduct in-depth ffeld research.  

Materia Medica 
In 1565, Li put on his straw shoes, threw his medical bag over his shoulder and traveled far and wide into the mountains and wilderness, visiting well-known doctors and scholars in search of folk remedies. He observed their methods and collected specimens, accompanied by his apprentice Pang Xian and his son Li Jianyuan. They covered what are today’s provinces of Hunan, Jiangxi, Anhui and Jiangsu, and many other places.  

Everywhere Li went, he talked with herb pickers, farmers, fisherfolk, woodcutters and hunters, all of whom helped Li understand various medicines. For example, yun moss was a term commonly used in prescriptions. Although described in many medical books, it was not precisely identified. But under the guidance of an elderly man who grew vegetables, Li learned that yun moss is nothing more than oilseed rape.  

During these decades, a Taoist temple in the Wudang Mountains abounded in a certain kind of plum. The Taoist priests there believed that by eating the fruit, one could become immortal, so they picked the plums every year for the emperor and banned others from picking them. Skeptical of the claim, Li stole one. He found it had the same efficacy as other ordinary fruits such as peaches and apricots.  

Another ingredient commonly used in TCM was the scales of the pangolin, now a highly endangered species. A medical practitioner in the 6th century described the pangolin as an amphibious creature that climbs onto rocks during the day, spreads its scales and pretends to be dead to lure ants under them. Then it traps them underneath, dives into the water and spreads its scales again so the ants float to the surface. Then it devours them.  

With the help of woodcutters and hunters, Li caught a pangolin and removed about one kilogram of ants from its stomach, confirming that pangolins eat ants. However, he found what we all know to be true today – pangolins simply dig into an anthill to lap up the swarming insects rather than lure them into some fantastical subterfuge.  

In this way, Li painstakingly completed the first draft of his pharmacological masterpiece, Bencao Gangmu, or the Compendium of Materia Medica in 1578, after more than a decade of field research. He revised the work at least three times right up until his death in 1593. Three years later, the Compendium was officially published in what is today’s Nanjing, Jiangsu Province.  

The Compendium contains 1.9 million words, encompasses 52 volumes, describes 1,892 kinds of drugs (374 of which were previously undocumented), 1,192 illustrations, 1,109 drawings, and more than 11,000 prescriptions, making it an unprecedented tome of Chinese pharmacology. It condensed the works of past generations, corrected many previous mistakes, supplemented deficiencies and included many important discoveries and breakthroughs.  

It encompasses natural sciences such as medicine, botany, zoology, mineralogy, geology, chemistry and physics, as well as social sciences such as history, philosophy and anthropology, making it a great source of inspiration for future generations. For example, it records that “Artemisia annua (wormwood), bitter and cold in odor, non-toxic, is used to treat malaria and cold fever.” In October 2015, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin to treat malaria, becoming the first Chinese to win a Nobel Prize in the category.  

Due to the limitations of science and technology at that time, the Compendium has some shortcomings. It sometimes oversimplifies the form and origin of some drugs, and the illustrations are roughly drawn. It also makes false claims, such as fireflies are born from the roots of decaying plants. But these deficiencies by no means undermine the overall value of the book.  

People visit Li Shizhen Memorial Museum, Qichun, Huanggang, Hubei Province, October 5, 2020

A visitor takes a photo of a traditional pharmacy display, Li Shizhen Memorial Museum, Qichun, Huanggang, Hubei Province, October 5, 2020 (Photos by VCG)

Global Influence 
Since its first publication in 1596, the Compendium has received worldwide recognition for its contributions. In 1606, a compilation of the book was published in Korea and received the attention of the royal family, which led to the development of herbal medicine on the peninsula. British naturalist Charles Darwin acknowledged the book as an “ancient Chinese encyclopedia.” Joseph Needham, also a British natural science historian, evaluated the book in the first volume of his History of Science and Civilization in China, saying that “undoubtedly the greatest scientific achievement of the Ming was the culminating work of the Bencao Compendium series.” 

The work has been translated into more than 100 languages, making it the most translated Chinese medical monograph. First editions are displayed in museums in Japan, South Korea, England, France and Germany, where they are preserved as world-class cultural treasures.  
At the conference of the World Peace Council in Vienna, Austria in 1951, Li Shizhen was unanimously honored as an eminent cultural figure of the world. And in 2011, the Compendium was listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.  

On May 28, 2017, the Belt and Road International Conference for Services Trade of Traditional Chinese Medicine was held in Beijing to celebrate Li’s 500th birthday, where Chinese medicine researchers, diplomatic envoys, sinologists and medical scholars from China and abroad discussed the cultural connotations of Chinese medicine.  

Today, there are a growing number of international exchanges centering on Li Shizhen and the Compendium, and many people around the world can still find the wisdom of human development in this ancient classic.