By Paul U. Unschuld, translator of the Ben cao gang mu series

The Ben cao gang mu series is the first complete and annotated translation of the classic work, combining the original Chinese text and its English equivalent.

The Ben cao gang mu is a unique document based on literal quotes from more than 1000 literary sources from the preceding two millennia. Its author, the physician Li Shizhen (1518-1593), took his knowledge from all echelons of Chinese historical society; Beggars, convicts, monks, priests, physicians, scholars, dukes and emperors were equally acknowledged as contributors.

Lay persons, health care personnel and a wide range of academics interested in Chinese medicine and culture will find in these books a wealth of data reaching far beyond the realm of health and illness.  The series provides detailed information on more than 1900 substances from the plant, mineral and animal kingdoms that were used since antiquity for pharmaceutical therapies. The books also include information on the items’ natural habitats, collection and processing, and show their use in arenas of daily life unrelated to medicine and health care. Numerous case histories refer to the experiences of attentive naturalists and healers. What emerges is a unique and valuable record of Chinese culture.

One of the most impressive features of the Ben cao gang mu is the detailed style of discussion presented by author Li Shizhen. Nowhere else in pre-modern Chinese literature can you find citations of numerous different views and voices in a way that illustrates the development of knowledge about specific substances. In this way, the texts guide readers to definite judgment about the items’ therapeutic potential and possible dangers.

I hope that the English translation of the Ben cao gang mu will open a new era in the Western reception of Chinese Medicine. As valuable and indispensable as the many books on Chinese materia medica written in Western languages are, their content has been sifted through the sieves of modern knowledge, worldviews, and expectations. This Ben cao gang mu translation offers direct access to a vast accumulation of Chinese knowledge, a unique and valuable window into China’s past and culture.  

New Releases in the Ben cao gang mu series

Volume III in the Ben cao gang mu series offers a complete translation of chapters 12 through 14, devoted to mountain herbs and fragrant herbs.

Volume IV in the Ben cao gang mu series offers a complete translation of chapters 15 through 17, devoted to marshland herbs and poisonous herbs.

Volume V in the Ben cao gang mu series offers a complete translation of chapters 18 through 25, devoted to creeping herbs, water herbs, herbs growing on stones, mosses, and cereals.

The contribution of this work is immense: a complete translation of one of the landmark scientific/medical works in Chinese history. The Ben cao gang mu, historically, has been the most comprehensive materia medica, with 1,892 medical substances. But because of the various regions of mainland China explored by Li Shizhen, Ming dynasty–era social mores, language, the multiple cultures of China, and different usages of medicinals throughout China, it has been difficult at best to translate this work into European languages, including English. Previous attempts have led to inferior works. The Ben cao gang mu also quotes many preceding works of materia medica, some no longer available, and folk knowledge of remedies, so few herbal medicine texts can compete with this one. It is an invaluable resource, indeed, for the clinician and the scholar and in university libraries. It is academic, precise, readable, and well sourced.

—Z’ev Rosenberg, author of Returning to the Source: Han Dynasty Medical Classics in Modern Clinical Practice

Learn more about the series