The Ben Cao Gang Mu - Compendium of Materia Medica

The Ben Cao Gang Mu - Compendium of Materia Medica


The Ben Cao Gang Mu is an encyclopaedic compendium written by LI Shi-zhen (1518-1593), a Chinese doctor who lived during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). This compendium is said to be the most complete and comprehensive medical book ever written in the history of traditional Chinese medicine. Besides being a book on medicine, it also deals with natural history, giving a classification of mineral, vegetable, and animal products. If this were not enough, this piece of work has chapters on chemical and industrial technology, as well as geographical, historical, dietetic, culinary, cosmological, philosophical, and philological data. This incredible piece of work, which contains 52 volumes, took 27 years to complete.  

In 2011, the Ben Cao Gang Mu received global recognition when it was included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. A copy of the compendium that was block-printed in 1593 by Hu Cheng-Long in Jinling (modern Nanjin city in Jiansu Province, China), is kept in the Library of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences. So, why is the Ben Cao Gang Mu so important?

It has been claimed that this piece of work, and the empirical approach employed by Li in his research and fieldwork have profoundly influenced the development and study of modern natural science. For instance, classification standards and the way materia medica should be compiled and formatted were laid down for the first time. This has been crucial in enhancing the credibility, scientific value, and accuracy of the biological classification of both flora and fauna. Its importance is also evident in the fact that it has been translated into all the languages of the Far East, as well as the principal Western languages. Despite being over 400 years old, the Ben Cao Gang Mu is still being used as a monumental reference work. Thus, the longevity of this work and its influence beyond the borders of its land of origin demonstrates that this was an incredible achievement.   

Nevertheless, there are some notable factual errors in the Ben Cao Gang Mu . For instance, lead was claimed to be non-toxic, otters are “always male”, and the Moupin langur is ten feet tall, has backwards feet and can be caught when it draws its upper lip over its eyes. These errors, however, may be attributed to the limitations of scientific and technical knowledge of the time. Fortunately, they have been corrected. I suppose this demonstrates the cumulative nature of human knowledge, which one generation builds upon the achievements of its predecessors. It is this process of accumulation that has allowed us to attain the technological progress that we enjoy today.

Taking its name from the original masterpiece, the Ben Cao Gang Mu was performed by the popular Taiwanese singer Jay Chow in his album Still Fantasy . While its lyrics deal with Chinese pride, the aspect of the song I found most amusing was that Jay Chow rapped his way through the references to Chinese herbal medicine!

So, anyone up for rapping Pliny’s Natural History ?

Featured image: The Ben Cao Gang Mu (Compendium of Material Medica). Photo source.

By Ḏḥwty


Huard, P. & Wong, M., 1968. Chinese Medicine. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson., 2014. Jay Chou Ben Cao Gang Mu (A Herbalist's Manual) Lyrics. [Online]
Available at:'s-manual)-lyrics.html
[Accessed 16 April 2014].

UNESCO, 2014. Ben Cao Gang Mu ( 《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica). [Online]
Available here.
[Accessed 16 April 2014].

Wikipedia, 2014. Compendium of Materia Medica. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 16 April 2014].

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