Compendium of Materia Medica

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Compendium of Materia Medica
Siku quanshu Bencao Gangmu.jpg
The Siku Quanshu edition
Traditional Chinese本草綱目
Simplified Chinese本草纲目
Literal meaningPrinciples and Species of Roots and Herbs

The Compendium of Materia Medica or Bencao Gangmu (Chinese: 本草綱目), also the Great Pharmacopoeia,[1] 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. The Compendium lists the materia medica of traditional Chinese medicine known at the time, including plants, animals, minerals, that were believed to have medicinal properties.

Li spent much of a lifetime gathering and evaluating information on drugs and herbs from every kind of source: classics, histories, encyclopedias, collections of anecdotes, literary prose, and poetry. He reasoned that a poem might have better value that a medical work, a tale of the strange could illustrate a drug's effects.[2] The work became a classic known to educated Chinese down to the present day whose reputation spread around the world; when Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species described the breeding of chickens and goldfish in China, his source was the Bencao Gangmu.[3]


The title, translated as "Materia Medica, Arranged according to Drug Descriptions and Technical Aspects",[4] uses two Chinese compounds. Bencao ("roots and herbs; based on herbs, pharmacopeia, materia medica") combines ben ( 'origin, basis') and cao ( '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.


The text was written by Li Shizhen, who borrowed from the existing writings of Chinese medical scholars at the time. He wrote 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. But the final version was only published after he died. At the time, the Ming dynasty emperor did not pay much attention to it.


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.[5]

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 (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 were added by Li Shizhen himself. There are 11,096 side prescriptions to treat common illness (8,160 of which is compiled in the text).

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, side effects, recipes, etc.


The Ming emperor did not pay much attention to the work at the time it was published. It was only published after Li Shizhen died.

The British historian Joseph Needham writes about the Compendium in his Science and Civilisation in China.[6][7]

With the publication of Compendium of Materia Medica provided classification of how traditional medicine was compiled and formatted, as well as biology classification of both plants and animals.

The compendium corrected some mistakes in the knowledge of herbs and diseases at the time. Several new herbs and more details from experiments were also included. It also has notes and records on general medical data and medical history.

Compendium of Materia Medica includes information on pharmaceutics, biology, chemistry, geography, mineralogy, geology, history, and even mining and astronomy.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ History of Medicine: China / Encyclopædia Britannica // "There were famous herbals from ancient times, but all these, to the number of about 1,000, were embodied by Li Shijen in the compilation of Bencao gangmu (the “Great Pharmacopoeia”) in the 16th century CE."
  2. ^ Nappi (2009), p. 139.
  3. ^ Sivin, Nathan (2010). "[Review] Nappi, The Monkey and the Inkpot". American Historical Review. 115 (4): 1121. JSTOR 23303233. Retrieved 10 June 2022.
  4. ^ Unschuld (1986), p. 145.
  5. ^ Zohara Yaniv; Uriel Bachrach (2005). Handbook Of Medicinal Plants. Psychology Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-1-56022-995-7.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Needham, Joseph, and Wang Ling (1954), Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 1 Introductory Orientations, Cambridge University Press, p. 47.


  • Li Shizhen (2003). Luo, Xiwen (ed.). Compendium of Materia Medica: Bencao Gangmu. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. ISBN 7119032607. (Review, Edward B. Jelks)
  • Nappi, Carla Suzan (2009). The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674035294.
  • Unschuld, Paul U. (1986). Medicine in China: A history of Pharmaceutics. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520050259.
  • Zhang, Zhibin; Unschuld, Paul U. (2014). Dictionary of the Ben Cao Gang Mu. U. of California Press.

External links[edit]