An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Bencaojing jizhu 本草經集注

Jan 8, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Bencaojing jizhu 本草經集注 "Collected commentaries to the Classic on Roots and Herbs", shortly called Bencao jizhu 本草集注, was a compendium on pharmaceutical drugs compiled by the Liang period 梁 (502-557) scholar Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456-536) who is also known as a Daoist master. The original book is long since lost, except the preface (xulu 敘錄), but fragments of it were discovered in the caves of Dunhuang 敦煌, and it is often quoted in other books, notably the book Zhenglei bencao 證類本草 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279), and also the book Xinxiu bencao 新修本草, a Tang period 唐 (618-907) revision of the Bencaojing, the Song period pharmacopoeia Jiayou bencao 嘉祐本草, and the famous Ming period 明 (1368-1644) pharmaceutical encyclopedia Bencao gangmu 本草綱目.
The oldest Chinese book on pharmacology was the Shen Nong bencao jing 神農本草經 that included more than 300 different medical objects, but without arranging them in an appropriate system. The only category used in the Bencaojing was three grades (pin 品) of effectiveness. It was therefore not easy to recognize the character and potentials of the various materia medica, and not easy to look up for objects or certain diseases in a dictionary. Tao Hongjing therefore newly arranged the materia medica and added information on various drugs to be found in the book Mingyi fupin 名醫副品 "Additional objects by famous physicians". He composed the text according to the elementary nature of the particular drugs, beginning with anorganic materials (yushi 玉石), and going on to grasses and trees (caomu 草木), creeping and swimming animals (chongyu 蟲魚), birds and beasts (qinshou 禽獸), fruits and vegetables (guocai 果菜), and grains (mishi 米食). He also added a seventh category (you ming wei yong 有名未用) for objects that were not yet sufficiently tested. These six categories had a great impact on all later books on pharmacology and were first adapted by the Xinxiu bencao. In the Bencaojing, the names of the materia media was written in red, while the explaining text was written in normal black ink. This method was also used in excellent editions of pharmaceutical books in later times. All drugs were furthermore marked with a red dot in case of warming character, and with a black dot in case of cooling effects. Tao Hongjing did not only change the arrangement of the old Bencaojing, but also added his own commentaries (bielu 別錄) to the original text. In many cases he contributed advanced methods of treatment. While the old Shennong bencao jing suggested using cooling drugs in case of fever and heating drugs in case of cold, Tao Hongjing stressed that it was important to observe the general condition of the sickness, the gender and age of the patient, his overall physical condition, and even the climatic conditions of his living place, in order to apply appropriate doses of the right type of medicine. Diseases thought to be caused by wind (therefore categorically called feng 風 "wind") could be healed, for instance, by the root of Saposhnikovia divaricata (fangfeng 防風), the root of Stephania tetrandra (fangji 防己), the roots of large-leaved gentian (qinjiao 秦艽) or the rhizome of Luguoticum wallichii (xiongqiong 芎藭); oedemas were curable by the root of the Peking euphorbia (daji 大戟), the root of Euphorbia kansui (gansui 甘遂), the rhizome of the orienal water plantain (zexie 澤瀉) or the seeds of Descurainiae seu Lepidii (tingli 葶藶); and jaundice could be remedied by the application of Artemisia scopariae (yinchen 茵陳) or Cape yasmine or Fructus gardeniae (zhizi 栀子).
The final product included 730 pharmaceuticals, of which 365 "additional objects (mingyi fupin) were added to the old 365 items. The qualitative categorisation into three grades was perpetuated, according to which drugs were classified as of superior quality (shangpin 上品), mediocre (zhongpin 中品), and inferior (xiapin 下品). The main shortcoming of the Bencaojing jizhu is that Tao Hongjing lived in southern China under the Liang dynasty, while the north was ruled by the Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534) which made it impossible for him to gather information about drugs collected in the northern parts of China.
The surviving preface of the Bencaojing jizhu was republished during the late Qing period 清 (1644-1911) in Luo Zhenyu's 羅振玉 collection Jishi'an congshu 吉石盦叢書 (in the 1955 facsimile edition of the Qunlian press 群聯出版社, and the reprint series Zhongguo gudian yixue congkan 中國古典醫學叢刊). A list of often-used pharmaceuticals (Zhubing tongyong yao 諸病通用藥), and a table of the "seven affects" (qi qing 七情) of pharmaceuticals towards each other are included in the preface. The preface is the oldest text in which the indication of the poisonous or non-poisonous character of pharmaceuticals becomes a regular part of their characterization. The texts also occasionally adds information to the production of medicine, the collection of herbs, and doses. In spite of its clear advantages the Bencaojing jizhu records a lot of superstitial beliefs of magicians and immortals, due to Tao Hongjing's involvement in Daoist practice.
The surviving parts of the Bencaojing jizhu are also included in Mori Tachiyuki's 森立之 Chōjō Shin Nō honsō shōjū 重輯神農本草經集注, in two manuscript drafts. Shang Zhijun 尚志鈞 published a modern edition of the Bencaojing jizhu 本草經集注 in 1961.

Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰 (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典, vol. 2, p. 1655. Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe.
Lin Jianfu 林建福 (1996). "Xinxiu bencao 新修本草", in: Zhou Gucheng 周谷城 (ed.), Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Keji 科技卷, p. 513. Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe
Yu Ying'ao 余瀛鼇, Li Jingwei 李經緯 (ed. 2006). Zhongyi wenxian cidian 中醫文獻辭典, p. 177. Beijing: Beijing kexue jishu chubanshe.