Notes from Prof. Paul Unschuld’s lecture on the Ben Cao Gang Mu

During Dr. Unschuld’s lecture in Maryland University of Integrative Health in October 2019 he spoke of his admiration for Li Shizhen and how he views his Ben Cao Gang Mu as an incredible achievement of human scholarship. Dr. Unschuld’s primary goal for translating the text was to “globally promote the contribution of Li Shizhen to world knowledge.” He was very critical of the previous English edition by Luo Xiwen/Foreign Language Press, stating that this translation is unworthy of Li Shizhen and “inadequate to globally promote the significance of Li Shizhen and his Ben cao gang mu.” He explained that this work listed “incorrect annotations, place names, book titles, and identification of persons, as well as misleading translation of disease terms/therapeutic indications, omissions of text passages, and mistranslation of entire passages.”

Prof. Unschuld spoke of the BCGM as a museum of “many thoughts and achievements in the history of Chinese science and civilization” whose content consists of a “collection of pharmaceutical therapeutic advice still valid today.” He discussed how the compilation was created, that it was heavily influenced by the Silk road and other foreign contributions, and that the BCGM is a critical source for deepening our understanding of China and its evolution of thought, particularly the transition from magical to systematic correspondence as well as Chinese pharmaceutical sciences.

Personal notes of interest from Dr. Paul Unschuld’s lecture via TCM Academy on 4-11-21

Dr. Unschuld had much similar to say during this presentation as well.

In the 1970’s the TCM community was dependent on China for understanding of CM, little access or knowledge of CM history, scant access to ancient literature, and identity of TCM.

Lingshu is a like a modern text, not from a different world view or mystic or difficult to understand. As opposed to the Ben Cao Gang Mu, which is the most important work of pre-modern TCM. Dr. Unschuld finds it to be a fascinating text.

Practical value: a historical lab, collection of experience by persons who closely observed human condition and health and provided their own conclusions from different experiences. Hundreds or thousands of ingredients that may be relevant today. Li Shizhen the first to give a voice to thinkers regardless of whether he agreed or disagreed with their verdict. Allowed these other authors to speak in their own voice. Many interesting methods, processing, creative pharmaceutical processing and therapeutic goals and techniques. Paul says there is nothing like this expression of creativity and comprehensiveness in European pharmacology.

Li Shizhen warns about being too dogmatic. Never before had materia media referenced case histories, and no other work before or after compares. He did this to tell his readers that these practitioners were successful because they knew how to be flexible, trust their own experience, and not be to be guided by Yinyang and 5 Phases as if in a straight jacket. There are many sources of knowledge, it can come from anywhere. Caution against intellectual  elitism. A statement to practitioners about how to be educated yet adaptive and resourceful, which is really what yinyang thinking was always intended to be. Syncretic methodology is admirable. How to practice a historical medicine in a modern setting, which is a tremendous benefit for taking the correlative cosmology beyond metaphor and cultural awareness.

Written with a view toward the application of natural substances to the human condition. Li Shizhen wanted to show “everything,” from elitist recipes to the common everyday person; very specific applications or how to use a few things in multiple settings. How to be adaptive with a few recipes or ingredients.

Li Shizhen’s grandfather was an itinerant physician, the lowest of the low. His father was a settled physician, Li Shizhen was supposed to be a civil servant, but he failed the highest level of exams. Decided to continue his father’s work tradition. The name of his book parallels an esteemed Confucian text. Made a statement that his family was intelligent and schooled and a social assertion that physicians and pharmacists were on the level of Confucian scholars.

Foreign Language Press version of BCGM is geared to be a reflection of modern knowledge, whereas Paul’s approach is to allow readers to access as closely as possible the naturalist thinking and conception of health and disease; to be honest to the original text. For example, “obstruction” vs “abscess.”

BCGM was an expensive work in its own time, difficult to access. Few practitioners read it directly but rather through the BCGM’s influence on medical texts.

The BCGM is a significant resource for TCM research. No one has yet evaluated its knowledge or researched its contents. To this day 70% of biomedical pharmaceuticals have their source in plants. “This landscape has been dark so far.” No other work in the history of Chinese medical literature will be as accessible as the BCGM. A lighthouse of culture with no parallel.

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