The Story of Li Shizhen (1 of 2)
According to his biography in The Unauthorized History of the Ming Dynasty, Li Shizhen was born in Qizhou (today’s Qichun County in Hubei Province). His courtesy name was Dongbi. Li lived from 1518 to 1593 AD in the Ming dynasty.
Li's grandfather and father were both doctors. His father did not want Li Shizhen to become a doctor, rather he hoped that Li would take the Civil Service Exam and become a government official.
When Li Shizhen was born, a white deer entered the room and gave birth to a baby deer. Since his childhood, he thought it had been decreed by fate that he would study something related to divinity.
When 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 (lowest level) 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 heart, he did not have the desire to be an official. Among the books he read, Li liked medical books the best and was very good at medicine, so he regarded himself as a doctor.
The King of Chu at the time heard that Li was very proficient in medicine and offered him a position in charge of civilian physicians. Later on, the king’s son 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.
In ancient China, the first book about herbal medicine was written by Shennong before 2070 BC. There were only 365 herbs recorded in the book and none of the later books increased the number of identified herbs. In the Liang Dynasty (502 – 557 AD), Tao Hongjing compiled a summary of herbs but did not add any either. During the Tang Dynasty, Su Gong (599 – 674 AD) added 114 herbs. Liu Han (919 – 990 AD) added another 120 in the Song Dynasty. There were a total of 1558 herbs after the additions made by other notable doctors such as Zhang Yuxi (992 – 1068 AD) and Tang Shenwei, which was considered to be comprehensive at the time.
However, Li Shizhen thought the categories were too numerous and the names were not properly assigned. Sometimes one herb was classified as two or three types and sometimes two herbs were identified as the same. He did not think the herbs were properly documented. Therefore Li Shizhen devoted thirty-years of effort to compile 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 system 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, their major functions and side effects.
Li Shenzhen wrote in the original introduction of the book 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