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

Personal notes of interest from Dr. Paul Unschuld’s lecture on the Ben Cao Gang Mu, 6-20-21.

See below for generous discount codes on Dictionary of the BCGM volume 1, along with volumes 2, 8, and 9 of the Ben Cao.

Learned to speak Russian from a teacher and WWII vet; decided he wanted to become a specialist in Russian-Sino foreign relations. Spent a year in Taiwan in 1970. Wrote dissertation in 1971. Hype about Chinese medicine began in 1972 from the Nixon event. Transitioned also into Chinese pharmaceutics. Medicine in China published in 1973.

BCGM is the apex of Chinese medical history. Is to him the most important literary witness of Chinese history, investigation of substances that may be used to mitigate disease.

2018 was the 500 year anniversary of Li Shizhen’s birthday. He and Sun Simiao are Paul’s favorite physicians from history. Chinese materia medica is diverse and comprehensive, resourceful. 1.65 million characters of pharmacopeia; needs to be available in a complete translation without censoring because what we consider meaningful and useful today may not be so in the past or future. Must preserve authentically so each person and age can select from the BCGM what it needs. Reaches back in the 2-3rd c. BCE, providing 1800 years of pharmaceutical literary history. Includes the Recipes for 52 Ailments Wushier Bingfang found at the Mawangdui tombsite that include 250 substances. Already at that time there existed sophisticated pharmaceutical vocabulary and processing methodologies, not at all a primitive endeavor but rather quite impressive. 365 substances in the Shen Nong Ben Cao; curious that in the time of the Neijing the 365 days of the solar year were not considered as important as the days of the lunar year. Mysterious as to why that changed over time. Authors over the years would add layers to the Ben Cao, and by the time it reached 1750 substances in the Zheng Lei Ben Cao it began to become complex and suffocated by its own wealth of information. 1892 approximate substances in the BCGM. It’s a medical museum.

In 12th century this changed, millennia old theories of Yin Yang and 5 Phases were applied for the first time, and systematic correspondence was applied to pharmacology. Prior to this the two worlds of acupuncture and pharmacology were separate. * Personal Note: Read more about this topic as it relates to the Neijing on page 102, and more widely 98-109, in Early Chinese Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts by Donald Harper. Ben Cao literature broke off after this. Authors at that time were “in with the new” and less wiling to defer to or incorporate older knowledge into the current system. This occurred for 200-300 years until eventually in 1500’s another new approach with the Ben Cao divided the knowledge into categories of information with headings that helped direct the reader. Oldest available colored illustrations of materia medica written at this time, though never published because the technology did not widely exist to print.

Li Shizhen completed his Ben Cao Gang Mu in 1578, and in 1596 his son presented the BCGM to the emperor, three years after it was first published. Li Shizhen should be remembered for a number of reasons. Previous authors published their opinion, Li Shizhen tried to gather different explanations and then judge which was correct. He was open to an array of theoretic underpinnings; advocated flexibility, explicitly stated one must be adaptable. Discussed multiple views and then gave his approval or criticism. BCGM includes case histories and Li Shizhen included qi mechanics and thought processes behind the given diagnosis and treatment, thereby providing today’s clinicians a valuable glimpse into his rationale and clinical perspective.

Like stated earlier, BCGM is a huge grab-bag but what may appear to be meaningless or absurd today may change in the future. Li Shizhen shied away from censoring and gathered all sorts of knowledge, even that with which he may have disagreed. Group relationship theory, for example, which is not necessarily based in yinyang or wuxing theories, also magical correspondence and exorcistic and demonological therapies. Chose from and disclosed all types of sources, including low class sources, Daoists and Buddhist monks, observations of nature. Yu and flood cosmology are still cited as therapeutic mechanisms of action in the BCGM in the 16th century, some 2000 years after the Chu manuscript first mentioned his story. BCGM contains a most impressive variety of therapeutic and pharmaceutical products.

Paul’s team includes professors Zheng Jinsheng, Zhang Zhibin, and Hua Linfu. Funded by Volkswagon Foundation since 2010. Goal is to open the BCGM to the world. Based on serious philological and historiographic methods, to present the information as close as possible to the original thinkers in antiquity. Enables the reader “to immerse themselves in the world of thought and experience of the two thousand years of pharmacological history and medical tradition.”

This is the wuwei, the way of non-preferential transmission.

Thank you to TCM Academy for hosting the lecture, shared with permission.

Support Paul Unschuld work by purchasing one of the books in the series.

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Ben Cao Gang Mu, Volume II: Waters, Fires, Soils, Metals, Jades, Stones, Minerals, Salts


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Ben Cao Gang Mu, Volume VIII: Clothes, Utensils, Worms, Insects, Amphibians, Animals with Scales, Animals with Shells


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Ben Cao Gang Mu, Volume IX Fowls, Domestic and Wild Animals, Human Substances


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