Jul 032021

Today is the birthday (1518) of Li Shizhen (李时珍), a Chinese acupuncturist, herbalist, naturalist, pharmacologist, physician, and writer of the Ming dynasty. He is known chiefly as the author of Compendium of Materia Medica (本草綱目) which for 400 years was the cornerstone of Chinese medicine.  Traditional medicine is still of major importance in China to this day, although it does not get much attention in the West. In addition to Compendium of Materia Medica, Shizhen wrote eleven other books, including Binhu Maixue (湖脈學; “A Study of the Pulse”) and Qijing Bamai Kao ( 奇經八脈考; “An Examination of the Eight Extra Meridians”). He lived during the Ming Dynasty and was influenced by the Neo-Confucian beliefs of the time. He was born in what is today Qizhou, Qichun County, Hubei and died 75 years later, in 1593.

Shizhen’s grandfather was a doctor who traveled the countryside and was considered relatively low on the social scale of the time. His father was a traditional physician and scholar who had written several influential books. He encouraged his son to seek a government position. Li took the national civil service exam three times, but after failing each one, he turned to medicine and his father took him on as an apprentice. When he was 38, and a practicing physician, he cured the son of the Prince of Chu and was invited to be an official there. A few years later he got a government position as assistant president at the Imperial Medical Institute in Beijing. However, even though he had climbed up the social ladder, as his father had originally wanted, he left a year later to return to being a doctor.

In his government position, Li was able to read many rare medical books. He began correcting some of the mistakes and conflicting information found in them. He soon began the book Compendium of Materia Medica to compile correct information with a logical system of organization. A small part was based on another book which had been written several hundred years earlier, Jingshi Zhenglei Beiji Bencao (“Classified Materia Medica for Emergencies”) – which, unlike many other books, had formulas and recipes for most of the entries. In the writing of the Compendium of Materia Medica, he travelled, gaining first-hand experience with many herbs and local remedies and is said to have consulted over 800 books. Altogether, the writing of Compendium of Materia Medica took 27 years, which included three revisions. Ironically, writing the book allegedly took a considerable toll on his health. It was rumored that he stayed indoors for ten consecutive years during the writing of the Compendium of Materia Medica. After he had completed it, a friend reported that Li was emaciated. Li died before the book was officially published, and the Ming emperor at the time paid it little regard.

The Compendium of Materia Medica is full of recipes, most of which are extracts or decoctions for medicinal purposes. The following recipe, quoted by Li from Beiji qianjin yaofang (北京千金药房) to cure xiong bi (pressure in the chest) is a decoction that is more like a concentrated soup stock than a medicinal preparation. On the other hand, the ingredients are processed by biting and chewing, a method from the repertoire of drug manufacture.  Pinellia produces a tuber that is toxic when raw because of high concentrations of oxalates.  Snake gourd is Trichosanthes cucumerina, a common vegetable throughout south and southeast Asia

Pinellia and scallion decoction

Use: 4 liang scallion bulbs, 1 ge (decilitre) pinellia, ½ liang zhishi (trifoliate orange), 1 liang fresh ginger, ½ snake gourd. Bite and chew. Boil with 3 sheng of “plain minced meat sauce” until reduced to 1 sheng. Administer warm, 3 times a day.