Home China Li Shizhen, 'Medical Saint' of China (Part 2)

Li Shizhen, ‘Medical Saint’ of China (Part 2)

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.

Though Li’s father wanted him to gain fame in another field, Li was unsuccessful in entering Imperial service because he found it difficult to learn the boring eight-part structure needed to pass the state exams.

However, in 1551, Li Shizhen became famous for curing the son of Zhu Houkun, the Duke of Fushun. Li later was appointed by the Duke of Chu as the “Director of the Sacrificial Office” (奉祠正, Fengci Zheng) and was to take charge of the medical needs of the Duke’s territory.

After a few years of serving the Duke in this capacity, Li was recommended to work in the Imperial Institute of Medicine. During this period, he had the opportunity to study the rich collections of rare books in the Royal Palace. He transcribed a large volume of medical excerpts and saw many scarce medicinal specimens which significantly broadened his medical knowledge.

A shrub with pink flowers.
During his time at the Imperial Institue of Medicine, Li Shizhen had the opportunity to see many scarce medicinal specimens. (Image: sjiong via flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Caring little about fame and fortune himself, Li resigned after serving in the Imperial Institute of Medicine for less than a year. Upon returning home, he continued to practice medicine and write his pharmacopeia.

There was no empirical method in his time. In addition to studying the medical knowledge passed down by the ancients, Li collected and investigated each herb and compared it with the plant it was derived from to understand it better. He even risked his life by ingesting the plants to discern similar-looking species.

When Li Shizhen was young, he heard about a strange plant known as the “thorn apple” (Datura stramonium). It was said that people would lose consciousness within proximity of the thorn apple or it would cause them to sing and dance. After great difficulty, Li found this plant and took it everywhere he went to dispel the myth.

He even ingested the thorn apple himself and found that it produced the effects of excitement and anesthesia. While a small amount of thorn apple could cure illnesses, taking an overdose would cause one to lose the ability to control one’s mind, allowing a person to be easily manipulated by others — if directed, they would sing and dance. Later, the thorn apple was used to make anesthetics.

There is a type of anteater with scales called a pangolin. The scales of this animal have been commonly used in Chinese medicine. Tao Hongjing, a doctor in the fifth century A.D., once said that the pangolin was an amphibian. He asserted that during the day, pangolins would climb on the rocks, open their scales, and pretend to be dead to lure ants into their armor. Then the pangolins would close their scales, dive into the water, and open their scales to allow the ants to emerge so they could swallow them.

A pangolin with its tongue out to catch ants.
Tao Hongjing, a doctor in the fifth century, thought pangolins were amphibians. (Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

To test Tao’s statement, Li Shizhen climbed a mountain to observe them. With the help of a woodsman and hunter, he obtained a pangolin. Upon dissecting it, he found a liter of ants in its stomach, confirming that the pangolin eats ants. Tao Hongjing was right about this point. However, after further observations, he discovered that the pangolin opened the ant nests and licked them out with its tongue instead of attracting the ants into its armor and swallowing them underwater. Li Shizhen confirmed one of Tao’s points, but overturned his other point.

Li Shizhen conducted such detailed field studies for 30 years and documented his knowledge of plants, animals, and minerals that were believed to have medicinal properties in his masterpiece, the Compendium of Materia Medica, which is also considered to be the medical encyclopedia of ancient China. The book became a widely referenced medical book, benefiting people for generations.

See Part 1 here.

Translated by Patty Zhang and edited by Angela M.

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  • Emma Lu is an author who specializes in Cultural and Historical myths and stories.

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