The Story of Li Shizhen

Hu Naiwen

PureInsight | April 30, 2007

[] According to
biography in The Unauthorized History of the Ming Dynasty, Li Shizhen
was born in Qizhou (today Qichun County in Hubei Province). His style
name was Dongbi. Li lived from the thirteenth year of Zhende of Wuzhong
(1518 AD) to the twenty-first year of Wanli of Shengzhong (1593 AD) in
the Ming dynasty.

Li's grandfather and father were all physicians. His father hoped
Shizhen would take the Civil Service Exam in order to be a government
official but a physician.

When Li Shizhen was born, a white deer entered the room and gave birth
to a baby deer. Since his childhood, therefore, he thought it had been
decreed by fate that he would study something related to immortality.

Since Li Shizhen was fourteen, he started to attend the Civil Service
Exam but "He was behind other students and failed three times in the
county exams."

Li Shenzhen loved to read books and was very knowledgeable since he
read all kind of books. Though he read books for ten years, he did not
leave his home. In his deep mind, he did not have the desire to be an
official. In those books, Li liked medical books the best and was very
good at medicine, so he regarded himself as a physician.

The king of the Chu kingdom learned that Li was very learned in
medicine and offered him a position in charge of civilian physicians.
Later on, the son of the King had a sudden potentially fatal disease
and Li cured him straightaway. The king recommended him to the emperor,
who gave him a post in the Imperial Medical Institute. However, after
one year at the post, Li quit and went back to his hometown.

As of Shennong in ancient China, there were only 365 herbs recorded in
the previous herbal books. In the Liang Dynasty, Tao Hongjing compiled
a summary of herbs but did not add any. Up to the Tang Dynasty, Su Gong
added 114 herbs. Liu Han added another 120 in the Song Dynasty. There
were a total of 1558 herbs after the additions made by Zhang Yuxi and
Tang Shenwei, which was considered to be comprehensive at the time.

However, Li Shizhen thought the categories were too complicated, the
names were not properly assigned, since sometimes one herb was
classified as two types or two herbs were mixed up with one, and he did
not think the herbs were properly documented.  Then Shizhen
devoted thirty-years of effort and finished the Bencao Gangmu (The
Great Compendium of Herbs) after three revisions and consultation with
more than 800 books.

Three hundred seventy-four more herbs were added in the Bencao Gangmu,
which consists of 16 volumes and 52 chapters. The principle
classification level was the Gang (Class) and then the Mu (Order) in
order to expand and rectify the previous descriptions of herbs.
Secondly, he also summarized explanations and corrected previous
mistakes, as well as providing detailed descriptions of the origins and
appearances of herbs, their scents, and the major functions of herbs.

Li Shenzhen wrote in the original introduction that reading classics is
like chewing sugar cane – the more one chews, the sweeter it gets. With
such enjoyment, he succeeded in finishing his Bencao Gangmu.

When the the Bencao Gangmu was nearly finished and dedicated to the
emperor, Li Shizhen was already 76 years old and could see that he was
going to die, which did happen shortly.

Before he died, Li Shizhen wrote a memorandum to the throne and left it to his son Jianyuan to give to the emperor.

In the period of Wanli of Emperor Sheng, the emperor wanted to compile
the history and demanded books from all over the country. Jianyan
contributed his father's message to the throne and the Bencao Gangmu
book. The emperor was very pleased and ordered the cultural department
to publish it. Since then every scholar has had a copy of this book at
home, which also advanced the success of herbal studies.

In his message to the throne, Li Shizhen said: Since the information
has been collected over a long time, some herbs are the same but have
different names. Some of them have the same name but they are
different. Some of them are very difficult to distinguish. Some of them
were classified incorrectly. Some of the toxic herbs are very similar
to the non-toxic ones. All of these factors have contributed to the
difficulties in collecting the proper herbs, resulting in
unsatisfactory results from treatments. Also, many new herbs have been
discovered recently that have not been documented.  More than 1500
herbs were recorded in the previous book; another 374 were added in the
Bencao Gangmu. This book consists of 16 volumes and 52 chapters. The
official names of the herbs were recorded as their Gang and the details
were recorded under Mu, in addition to descriptions, mistake
corrections, origins, scent, and functions. A wide range of references
were consulted. Although it is a medical book, it explains the
principles of the universe and medicine. I do hope the emperor can
arrange for scholars to review the book and have it published. Then it
will become an essential reference book for all physicians.

Li Shizhen named himself as a Recluse Near a Lake at his late years.
His other works included Poems of Suo Guan, Medical Cases, The Key to
the Internal Energy Passages, A Discussion of Five Organs, The
Difficulty of Sanjiaoke, A Research of Mingmen, and A Discussion of

Since his son Jianzhon was an official, Li Shizhen was honored as a Wenlin Lang.

Li Shizhen was not only a well-known physician and herbalist. He was
also a person who practiced magic things. He medicated himself every
night and regarded himself as a spirit. This was also recorded in the
Biography of Li Shizhen by Gu Jingxing: "When I was young I heard some
stories of Li Shizhen. He read according to the time of sunrise and
sunset and medicates at nights. He thinks of himself as a spirit, isn't
that a coincidence?"

In his An Examination of The Internal Energy Passages of Binhu (Near a
Lake), Li Shizhen commented on the principle of the eight passages
through which vital energy circulates by Zhang Zhiyang: "The passages
in Zhiyang's study are different from others; however, it is not wrong
for people to see the inner routines in a reversed way." This shows
that the eight passages observed by people who were seeking for
immorality were different from the observations of physicians, which
discovered them in a reversed way.

Though Li Shizhen was proficient in medicine and the practice of
seeking for immorality, he also paid great attention to the Eight
Internal Energy Passages. He pointed out in his A Study of Eight
Internal Passages that physicians and immorality seekers ought to know
the eight passages. Furthermore, he said that they would know the real
world of their profession if they understood the eight internal energy

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