An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草

Dec 17, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草 "Roots and herbs for disaster relief" is a medical encyclopedia written by the early Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Zhu Su 朱橚 (1361-1425), Prince of Wu 吳, from 1378 of Zhou 周, who was the fifth son of Emperor Taizu 明太祖 (r. 1368-1398). In 1389 he was deprived of his title and only given back his territory during the Yongle reign-period 永樂 (1403-1424). His posthumous title is Prince Ding 定王.

During his exile in Yunnan, Zhu Su had the opportunity to learn much about drugs from among the common folks. Zhu Su was not only a famous poet who published the collection Yuan gongci 元宮詞, but he was also very interested in pharmacology and medicine and authored the books Jiuhuang bencao and Pujifang 普濟方 "Common healing methods". In two cases authorship of the book is attributed to Zhu Youdun 朱有燉 (1379-1439), Prince Xian of Zhou 周憲王, first in Li Shizhen's 李時珍 (1518-1593) pharmaceutical encyclopaedia Bencao gangmu 本草綱目, and then in the 1555 edition of the Jiuhuang bencao.

His illustrated book is 4-juan-long (originally 2, but there were also versions of 8 juan length) and was printed in 1406. The 5 chapters of the book described 414 kinds of pharmaceutical plants, of which 80 are trees, 20 grains, 23 fruits, 46 edible plants, and the 245 remaining other various herbs. Of these plants, 276 are not included in earlier writings. For each plant the author gives information about alternative names, the place where it grows, its shape, colours and taste, how it is prepared and consumed, and which diseases can be cured with it. For an easy identification, an excellent illustration is added for each plant.

The book was written with the purpose to provide quick medical help in case of natural disasters for a large number of afflicted persons, particularly in the region around the city of Kaifeng 開封, Henan, where Zhu Su had his residence. The book was rated as of a superior quality and has largely been made use of by Bao Shan 鮑山 for his book Yecai bolu 野菜博錄 and by Wang Qing 王磐 (c. 1550) in his treatise Yecaipu 野菜譜.

Figure 1. Illustration from the Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草
Images and description of cardoon (Cynara cardunculus, cijicai 刺薊菜) and large thistle (Cirsium japonicum, daji 大薊). 1525 edition.

The book in total has been included in Xu Guangqi's 徐光啟 (1562-1633) encyclopedia Nongzheng quanshu 農政全書, in the section Huangzheng 荒政 "Disaster relief", and is often quoted in Li Shizhen's Bencao gangmu. It is also to be found in the series Gezhi congshu 格致叢書 and Siku quanshu 四庫全書. In 1959 the Zhonghua Shuju Press 中華書局 published it separately in a modern edition.

Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰 (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1647.
Liu Changzhi 劉昌芝 (1993). "Jiuhuang bencao tiyao《救荒本草》題要", in Gou Cuihua 茍萃華, ed. Zhongguo kexue jishu dianji tonghui 中國科學技術典籍通彙, part Shengwu 生物卷 (Zhengzhou: Henan jiaoyu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 105-106.
Peng Shijiang 彭世獎 (1990). "Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Nongye 農業 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 487.
Wang Guozhong 王國忠 (1996). "Jiuhuang bencao 救荒本草", in Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Vol. Keji 科技卷 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 420.
Zhao Hankun 趙含坤, ed. (2005). Zhongguo leishu 中國類書 (Shijiazhuang: Hebei renmin chubanshe), 195-196.