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Ancient Pharmaceutical Wisdom
Li Shizhen: Icon of Chinese medicine

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The lotus flower
Li Shizhen (1518-1593 A.D.), also named Li Dong Bi, was from Chai State of the Ming Dynasty or today’s Chai Cun, Hubei Province of China. Li Shizhen was the author of Compendium of Materia Medica (or Ben Cao Gang Mu in Chinese). [1] It took Li Shizhen 30 years, 800 medical books, and three revisions to finish Compendium of Materia Medica. The book has 52 volumes and is still a very popular book in print. Li Shizhen was also the author of Seven Channels and Eight Pulses (or Qi Jing Ba Mai in Chinese) and Lake Bin Pulse Diagnosis (or Bin Hu Mai.) Li Shizhen is one of the best known Chinese pharmacists in ancient times.

Li Shizhen’s research methods were to “study medical reference books intensively” and “consult uneducated people who live close to nature.” To “study medical reference books intensively” refers to the fact that Li Shizhen read over 800 medical reference books. “Consult uneducated people who live close to nature” refers to the fact that Li Shizhen learned the medicinal properties of herbs from knowledgeable herb growers, firewood choppers, farmers and hunters. Li Shizhen roamed over mountains and ridges for thousands of miles to conduct field studies on medicinal herbs. He never felt ashamed of asking and learning from the less educated people about medicine. After 30 years of reading and field study, Li Shizhen finally finished the first draft of Compendium of Materia Medica in 1578.

Li Shizhen wrote in his Seven Channels and Eight Pulses: “The inner passageways of a human body can only be observed by those who are capable of introspection.” In other words, Li Shizhen said only those who have their Third Eye open can see within a human body to examine its inner channels and pulses.

In this portrait, Li Shizhen, the Shen Nong of the Ming Dynasty is walking in nature wearing a pair of straw sandals, while carrying an herb hoe and herb basket filled with herbs he had collected. [2]

[1] Compendium of Materia Medica is a pharmaceutical text written by Li Shizhen during the Ming Dynasty (1386 - 1644 A.D.), which lists all the animals, vegetables and other objects believed to contain medicinal properties in traditional Chinese Medicine.

[2] Shen Nong was a God in ancient Chinese mythology who led people to travel thousands of miles to look for crops and herbs. He taught humankind agricultural knowledge and skills. He tasted hundreds of herbs to learn their medical properties and thus created Chinese herbal medicine.

The painting is by artist Zhang Cuiying.

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