Compendium of Materia Medica
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Compendium of Materia Medica
Compendium of Materia Medica
Siku quanshu Bencao Gangmu.jpg
The Siku Quanshu edition
Traditional Chinese?
Simplified Chinese?
Literal meaningPrinciples and Species of Roots and Herbs
Compendium of Materia Medica is a pharmaceutical text written by Li Shizhen (1518-1593 AD) during the Ming Dynasty of China. This edition was published in 1593.
Illustration from a copy of Compendium of Materia Medica, from 1800

The Compendium of Materia Medica (also known by the romanizations Bencao Gangmu or Pen-tsao Kang-mu) is a Chinese herbology volume written by Li Shizhen during the Ming dynasty; its first draft was completed in 1578 and printed in Nanjing in 1596. It is a work epitomizing the materia medica known at the time. The Compendium of Materia Medica is regarded as the most complete and comprehensive medical book ever written in the history of traditional Chinese medicine. It lists all the plants, animals, minerals, and other items that were believed to have medicinal properties.

The text consists of 1,892 entries, each entry with its own name called a gang. The mu in the title refers to the synonyms of each name.[1]

The British historian of Chinese science Joseph Needham calls Li Shizhen "the 'uncrowned king' of Chinese naturalists",[2] and his Bencao gangmu "undoubtedly the greatest scientific achievement of the Ming".[3]


The title, translated as "Materia Medica, Arranged according to Drug Descriptions and Technical Aspects",[4] uses two Chinese compounds. Bencao (Pen-tsao; "roots and herbs; based on herbs, pharmacopeia, materia medica") combines ben (pen; ? 'root; origin, basis') and cao (tsao; ? 'grass, plant, herb'). Gangmu (Kang-mu; 'detailed outline; table of contents') combines gang (kang; ? 'main rope, hawser; main threads, essential principles') and mu (? 'eye, look; category, division').

The characters ? and ? were later used as 'class' and 'order', respectively, in biological classification.


Li Shizhen completed the first draft of the text in 1578, after conducting readings of 800 other medical reference books and carrying out 30 years of field study. For this and many other achievements, Li Shizhen is compared to Shennong, a god in Chinese mythology who gave instruction on agriculture and herbal medicine.


The Compendium of Materia Medica has 53 volumes in total:

  1. At the very beginning is the table of contents, containing a list of entries included and 1,160 hand drawn diagrams to serve as illustrations.
  2. Volume 1 to 4 - an index () and a comprehensive list of herbs that would treat the most common sickness ().
  3. Volume 5 to 53 - the main content of the text, containing 1,892 distinct herbs, of which 374 were added by Li himself. There are 11,096 side prescriptions to treat common illness (8,160 of which is compiled or collected by Li).

The text is written in almost 2 million Chinese characters, classified into 16 divisions and 60 orders. For every herb there are entries on their names, a detailed description of their appearance and odor, nature, medical function, effects and side recipes etc.


With the publication of Compendium of Materia Medica, not only did it improve the classification of how traditional medicine was compiled and formatted, but it was also an important medium in improving the credibility and scientific values of biology classification of both plants and animals.

The compendium corrected many mistakes and misapprehensions of the nature of herbs and diseases. Li also included many new herbs, adding his own discoveries of particular drugs and their efficacity and function, as well as more detailed descriptions of the results of experiments. It also has notes and records on general medical data and medical history.

Compendium of Materia Medica is also more than a mere pharmaceutical text, for it includes a vast amount of information on topics as wide-ranging as biology, chemistry, geography, mineralogy, geology, history, and even mining and astronomy, which might appear to have little connection with herbal medicine. It has been translated into more than 20 languages and spread all over the world. Even now it is still in print and used as a reference book.


Compendium of Materia Medica also contains information that has since been proven to be erroneous due to the contemporary limited scientific and technical knowledge. For example, it is claimed that lead is not toxic. It is also claimed that otters are "always male", and that the Moupin langur is ten feet tall, has backwards feet and can be caught when it draws its upper lip over its eyes.[5]

Efficacy of pangolin scales

The Compendium of Materia Medica has a brief explanation of the medical efficacy of pangolin scales: "Pangolins (chuan shang jia, meaning "mountain-penetrating scales") are able to penetrate mountains, accordingly they can pass through in the meridians." In other words, it is able to pass through blockages in the meridians.[6]

Popular culture

"Compendium of Materia Medica" is the title of a song performed by the Taiwanese singer Jay Chou in his album Still Fantasy. The lyrics discuss Chinese pride and make references to aspects of Chinese herbal medicine.

See also


  1. ^ Zohara Yaniv; Uriel Bachrach (2005). Handbook Of Medicinal Plants. Psychology Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-1-56022-995-7.
  2. ^ Needham, Joseph, Ho Ping-Yu and Lu Gwei-djen (1976), Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 5 Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 3: Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Historical Survey, from Cinnabar Elixirs to Synthetic Insulin, Cambridge University Press, p. 216.
  3. ^ Needham, Joseph, and Wang Ling (1954), Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 1 Introductory Orientations, Cambridge University Press, p. 47.
  4. ^ Unschuld (1986), p. 145.
  5. ^ Roach, Mary (2009). Bonk : the curious coupling of science and sex. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. pp. 164, 165f. ISBN 9780393334791.
  6. ^ "". bilibili. May 5, 2019. Retrieved 2020. ","


  • Li Shizhen (2003). Luo, Xiwen (ed.). Compendium of Materia Medica: Bencao Gangmu. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. ISBN 7119032607. (Review, Edward B. Jelks)
  • Unschuld, Paul U. (1986). Medicine in China: A history of Pharmaceutics. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520050259.

External links

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