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Religions in China - Yaowang 藥王, the King of Pharmaceuticals


The King of Pharmaceuticals (yaowang 藥王) is an ancient designation for historical people professing in medical arts, as well as for deities venerated in case of illness. The term "King of Pharmaceuticals" is mainly used for three persons: Bian Que 扁鵲, Sun Simiao 孫思邈, and Wei Cicang 韋慈藏.
Bian Que was a physician who lived during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) and was an expert in pulse diagnostics. His personal name was Qin Yue 秦越, and he came from Mo 鄚 in the commandery Bohai 渤海 (modern Renqiu 任丘, Hebei). According to legend he once drank a potion of a herb called changsangjun 長桑君 which made him immune against any disease and allowed him to perceive sickness in the organs of his patients. He wandered around and healed a lot of people. In the state of Qi 齊 he was known as Lu Yi 盧醫, while the name Bian Que originated in the state of Zhao 趙. He was very famous for his expert knowledge in many field. In Dandan 邯鄲, capital of Zhao, he was known as a gynecologist, in Luoyang 洛陽, the seat of the Zhou dynasty 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE), as an otolargynologist, and in Xianyang 咸陽, the capital of the state of Qin 秦, as a pediatrist. It is said that he was killed by the royal physician of Qin, Li Xi 李醯, out of jealousy. His veneration as an expertise as a pulse diagnostician seems to be of later date. Historiographical books like the Shiji 史記 and Zhanguoce 戰國策 report a few methods of how he worked, which seem to be a later addition to these books. His historical identity is not really reliable, although he has his own biography in the Shiji. The imperial bibliography Yiwenzhi 藝文志 in the history Hanshu 漢書 lists two books of him, the Bian Que neijing 扁鵲内經 and Waijing 外經, which are both lost. The book Huangdi bashiyi nanjing 黄帝八十一難經 is wrongly attributed to Qin Yue.
Sun Simiao was a Tang period physician. He came from Huayuan 華原 (modern Yaoxian 耀縣, Shaanxi) near the capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). The medical texts Qianjinfang 千金方 and Qianjin yifang 千金翼方 are attributed to him. Soon after his death he was venerated as a saint, and a lot of legends emerged. Duan Chengshi's 段成式 book Youyang zazu 酉陽雜俎 narrates how he went to Mt. Zhongnan 終南山, where he met with the monk Daoxuan 道宣 (or Xuanlü 宣律) and exchanged his knowledge with him. When a great drought arose in the Western Region, the Daoxuan was asked to pray for reign. An old man appeared and said that the missing rain was cause because of his disciple's guilt. The disciple, a dragon in the Kunming Pond 昆明池, offered his brain, from which a medicine was made that was offered to Heaven as a sacrifice. The old man also appeared to Sun Simao and asked for help. Sun required the 3,000 medical repices stored in the Dragon Palace of Kunming, which the old man gave to him after hesitating for some while. The monks all drowned in the emerging waters of Lake Kunming, but the country was rescued. From these recipes, Sun Simiao compiled the Qianjinfang "One thousand golden methods". The story is somewhat altered in the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) book Liexian quanzhuan 列仙全傳 by Wang Shizhen 王世貞. The story takes place in Jinyang 涇陽, and Sun Simiao is dealing with a dragon king (longwang 龍王).
After his death, Sun often appeared. One story is told about Emperor Xuan 唐玄宗 (r. 712-755) of the Tang dynasty who had fled to Sichuan during the rebellion of An Lushan 安祿山. In Sichuan he sent out an envoy to Mt. Emei 峨眉 to bring offerings to Sun, whom the emperor had seen in his dream. On Mt. Emei Sun Simiao appeared to the envoy, accompanied by to young boys and collecting herbs. He held a stone disk in his hand with a inscription that the envoy in vain tried to copy. The Liexian quanzhuan also includes a story how Sun sent a herb to a monk in Chengdu 成都, Sichuan, who consumed the medicine, became very light and was never ill. The historical person Sun Simiao had transformed into a Daoist master who knew the secrets of immortality.
The third "King of Pharmaceuticals" was Wei Cicang who also lived during the Tang period and was a famous physician whose name is mentioned together with Zhang Wenzhong 張文仲 and Li Qianzong 李虔縱. Wei Cicang is said to have hailed from the metropolitan region Jingzhao 京兆 and was a minister for splendid happiness (guanglu qing 光禄卿) during the early 8th century. According to Shen Fen's 沈汾 Xuxianzhuan 續仙傳 the Pharmaceuticals King was called Wei Gudao 韋古道, style Guicang 歸藏, and came from India. In 737 he arrived in the capital Chang'an, wearing a silken scarf and a woolen robe, walking in very large sandals. He was equipped with several dozen of gourds tied to his belt, in which he carried around medicine. He was granted an audience with the emperor and was thereupon bestowed the title of Pharmaceuticals King.
The Song period 宋 (960-1279) book Tongyin jiuhua 桐陰舊話 by Han Yuanji 韓元吉 narrates the story of Duke Zhongxian 忠獻 who at the age of six or seven who fell ill. When his parents guarded his sickbed he suddenly opened his mouth as if he was given medicine by someone, whereafter he recovered. He later on said that a man with a dog had appeared that gave to him some medicine. A legend in the Liexianzhuan 列仙傳 says that during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 (r. 690-704) a certain Wei Shanjun 韋善俊 came into the capital who was known as a practitioner of ascetic observance. He was accompanied by a black dog called wulong 烏龍 "black dragon", and was called Pharmaceuticals King. This person might be identical to the Buddhist figure of the Bhaiṣajyaguru (yaoshifo 藥師佛), the god of medicine.
All these three persons were venerated as Kings of Pharmaceuticals, yet it can be seen that in the provinces of Hebei and Henan, Bian Que is more often venerated than the others, while Shaanxi and Shanxi is the place where Sun Simiao seems to occupy the position of King of Pharmaceuticals. Bian Que is also venerated by Daoist masters, and there is a book written on his behalf, the Yuanshi tianzun shuo yaowang jiu bashiyi nan zhenjing 元始天尊說藥王救八十一難真經. He was bestowed the honorific title of Lingzing yaowang zhenjun 靈應藥王真君 "Perfect Lord, Spiritual Recompense, King of Pharmaceuticals" and was interpreted as a person able to connect Heaven and Earth, and to perceive the mysteria that make able to move spirits and ghosts and to heal from disaster and illness. The earliest shrine for Bian Que was erected in his home town. Zhu Guozhen's 朱國禎 book Yongzhuang xiaopin 涌幢小品 from the Ming period says that there was a shrine of Bian Que in Mo, where he was venerated as Prince Shenying 神應王 "Numinous Recompense". In order to avoid the term shen 神, which was the temple name of Emperor Shenzong 明神宗 (the Wanli Emperor 萬曆, r. 1572-1619), a new temple was built as a protective building for all physicians. In this temple, the deities Shen Nong 神農, Xuan Yuan 軒轅 (i.e. the Yellow Emperor 黄帝), and the Three Augusts 三皇 were venerated. The Qing period writer Gao Qishi 高士奇 reports of the ruins of his ancient shrine, and says that in the fourth lunar month it was common to bring offerings to Bian Que.
Sun Simiao was also highly venerated in his home town. A lot of villages in Shaanxi disposed of Sun Simiao shrines. Those in Shanxi were often called Anle Temple 安樂廟. In Yishixian 猗氏縣 a shrine for Sun Simiao was erected directly behind the temple of Ma Sui 馬燧. When the latter was a general in the campaign against Li Huaiguang 李懷光, Sun served as a military doctor to his troops.
In the capital, there was a shrine for the King of Pharmaceuticals north of the Temple of Heaven 天壇, but it was not directly dedicated to one of the three persons identified with the King. Instead, the mythical persons Fu Xi 伏羲, Shen Nong and the Yellow Emperor were venerated. All these mythical semigods were thought to have contributed to the development of pharmacology and medicine in China. Shen Nong, for instance, is said to have written a book on material medica, the Shen Nong bencao 神農本草, and the Yellow Emperor is credited with the authorship of the early medical compendium Huangdi neijing 黄帝内經. The book Dijing jingwu lüe 帝京景物略 from the Ming period describes how their statutes in the Medicine temple looked like. Fu Xi had the body of a snake and the head of a unicorn, large red eyes and a fierce beard. His hand held a jade chart and one of the eight trigrams (see Yijing 易經). Shen Nong had a stout appearance and the head of a bull, with large lips and a dragon beard, and with herbs in his hands. The Yellow Emperor had the appearance of a state official. These three deities were accompanied by Sun Simiao to the left and Wei Cicang to the right. The latter held a pill in his left, and was flanked by a black dog to his right. This temple was still standing during the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), as the local gazetteer Jifu tongzhi 畿辅通志 proves. Gu Tieqing's 顧鐵卿 book Qingjialu 清嘉錄 describes a temple of the King of Pharmaceuticals in Suzhou 蘇州, Jiangsu, and the festival on the 28th day of the 4th lunar month, which was celebrated as the birthday of the King of Pharmaceuticals (Bian Que).

Sources: Yuan Ke 袁珂 (ed. 1985), Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), pp. 33-34, 302. ● Li Yangzheng 李養正 (ed. 1993), Daojiao shouce 道教手冊 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), p. 184. ● Qing Xitai 卿希泰 (ed. 1994), Zhongguo daojiao 中國道教 (Shanghai: Zhishi chubanshe), Vol. 3, pp. NNN.

December 22, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail