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Bencao Gangmu

  Bencao Gangmu (traditional Chinese: 本草綱目; simplified Chinese: 本草纲目; pinyin: Běncǎo Gāngmù; Wade-Giles: Pen-ts'ao Kang-mu), also known as Compendium of Materia Medica, is Chinese materia medica work written by Li Shizhen in Ming Dynasty. It is a work epitomizing materia medica (本草) in Ming Dynasty. The Bencao Gangmu 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 objects that were believed to have medicinal properties.



The Bencao Gangmu title, which Unschuld (1986:145) translates as "Materia Medica, Arranged according to Drug Descriptions and Technical Aspects," uses two Chinese compounds. Bencao ("roots and herbs; based on herbs, pharmacopeia, materia medica") combines ben (本 "root; origin; basis") and cao (草 "grass; plant; herb"). Gangmu ("detailed outline; table of contents") combines gang (綱 "main rope, hawser; main threads, essential principles") and mu (目 "eye; look; category, division").


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 being compared to the Shennong, a mythological God in Chinese myth who taught them about 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 illustration.

2. Volume 1 to 4 — an 'index' (序例) and a comprehensive list of herbs that would treat the most common sickness (百病主治藥).

3. Volume 5 to 53 — the main content of the text, containing 1,892 distinct herbs, of which 374 was added by Li himself. There are some 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 names, detailed description of appearance and odor, nature, medical function, effects and side recipes etc.


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

The compendium corrected many mistakes and false understandings of the nature of herbs and illness. Li also included many new herbs, added his own discovery in certain drugs, their effectiveness and function, as well as more detailed description according to experiments. It also has notes and records on general medical data and medical history.

Compendium of Materia Medica is also more than a pharmaceutical text, for it contains information so vast that it covered topics in biology, chemistry, geography, mineralogy, geology, history, and even mining and astronomy, which would seem to have little to do 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 much incorrect information. For example, it claims that lead is not toxic.


  • Luo Xiwen, tr. Bencao Gangmu: Compendium of Materia Medica. 6 vols. Foreign Languages Press. 2003. ISBN 7-119-03260-7. (Review, Edward B. Jelks)
  • Unschuld, Paul U. Medicine in China: A History of Pharmaceutics. University of California Press. 1986. ISBN 0-520-05025-8

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Bencao_Gangmu". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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