Li Shizhen, ‘Medical Saint’ of China (Part 1)

Five different plant ingredients used in Traditional Chinese Medicine sit in piles on a table.

China's 'Medical Saint' Li Shizhen spent nearly 30 years recording information on herbs and drugs, accurately classifying thousands of medicines in his masterpiece of Chinese pharmacology, the 'Compendium of Materia Medica.' (Image: Huang Quanrong via Dreamstime)

Li Shizhen lived during the Ming Dynasty of China in the 16th century. He was a pioneer of medicine in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties who compiled a masterpiece to set standards for the identification, quality, strength, and purity of medicinal substances, the Compendium of Materia Medica, a task that took him nearly 30 years to complete. This effort earned him the title “Medical Saint” among future generations. However, many people don’t know the story of how he failed the Imperial exams three times.

Li Shizhen was born into a family legacy of three generations of doctors. However, doctors were looked down upon by the upper classes during this period in history. His father had high hopes for him, wanting him to study hard and gain fame in another field. Li’s commitment to helping others and his high moral standard made it very difficult for him to learn the boring eight-part structure needed to pass the state exams. After his third failure, he decided to give up and study his true passion, medicine.

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When he started his practice, Li Shizhen discovered that his predecessors’ pharmacopeia Materia Medica was incomplete and unreliable. Some drugs were not clearly or even accurately classified. He decided to take on the responsibility of compiling a new, accurate, and updated reference book. Li Shizhen was 35 in the year 1522 when he began this massive undertaking.

The 'Compendium Materia Medica', an ancient Chinese work of pharmacology, in the National Museum of China.
Li decided to take on the responsibility of compiling a new, accurate, and updated reference book. (Image: Maocheng via Dreamstime)

Li Shizhen completed the ‘Materia Medica’ after many years

Li Shizhen traveled tens of thousands of miles over the mountains and across the rivers south of the Yangtze River. With the help of the existing Materia Medica and other reference books, he uncovered the issues with many of the herbs and drugs. He made sure these were updated and accurately recorded. Finally, at the age of 61, in the year 1548 and after many revisions, the new and updated version of the Materia Medica was complete.

In later years, Li’s grandchildren and students made further contributions, making an even more complete version of the masterpiece he had created. The tome comprises 1.9 million words, 1,892 old medicines, 374 new medicines, over 10,000 prescriptions, and more than 1,000 illustrations spread over five volumes. It became an unprecedented masterpiece of Chinese pharmacology, with Li having corrected his predecessors’ mistakes and representing great plant and animal taxonomy achievements.

Illustration of a plant as found in Li Shizhen's 'Compendium Materia Medica.'
Li Shizhen’s classic work is made up of five volumes and contains more than a thousand illustrations. (Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

Li Shizhen also showed his genius as he also recorded a series of chemical reactions between pure metals, metal chlorides, and sulfides when chemistry was in its infancy. Some of the chemical methods he noted — such as distillation, crystallization, sublimation, precipitation, and drying — are still used in chemistry today.

The Compendium of Materia Medica is not only a masterpiece of pharmacology, but it is also an example of an ancient encyclopedia. This masterpiece is still in use today, and its wisdom has been used to benefit millions of people over the last 500 years, providing great health benefits and prolonging life. It is rightly recognized as a great national treasure in China.

Translator: Patty Zhang

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