The Story of Li Shizhen
[Editor's note: Li Shizhen is one of the famous Chinese medicine doctors mentioned in Zhuan Falun.]
According to his biography in The Unauthorized
History of the Ming Dynasty, Li Shizhen was born in Qizhou (today Qichun
County in Hubei Province). His style name was Dongbi. Li lived from 1518 AD to
1593 AD in the Ming dynasty.
Li's grandfather and father were also physicians. His father hoped Shizhen would take the Civil Service Exam in order to be a government official.
When Li Shizhen was born, a white deer entered the room and gave birth to a baby deer. Since his childhood, therefore, he thought it had been decreed by fate that he would study something related to immortality.
When Li Shizhen was fourteen, he started to attend the Civil Service Exam but "He was behind other students and failed three times in the county exams."
Li Shenzhen loved to read books and was very knowledgeable since he read all kind of books. Though he read books for ten years, he did not leave his home. In his heart, he did not have the desire to be an official. In his reading, Li liked medical books the best and was very good at medicine, so he regarded himself as a physician.
The king of the Chu kingdom learned that Li was very learned in medicine and offered him a position in charge of civilian physicians. Later on, the son of the King had a sudden potentially fatal disease and Li cured him straightaway. The king recommended him to the emperor, who gave him a post in the Imperial Medical Institute. However, after one year at the post, Li quit and went back to his hometown.
As of Shennong in ancient China, there were only 365 herbs recorded in the
previous herbal books. In the Liang Dynasty, Tao Hongjing compiled a summary of
herbs but did not add any. Up to the Tang Dynasty, Su Gong added 114 herbs. Liu
Han added another 120 in the Song Dynasty. There were a total of 1558 herbs
after the additions made by Zhang Yuxi and Tang Shenwei, which was considered to
be comprehensive at the time.
However, Li Shizhen thought the categories were too complicated, the names were not properly assigned, since sometimes one herb was classified as two types or two herbs were mixed up with one, and he did not think the herbs were properly documented. So Li Shizhen devoted thirty-years of effort and finished the Bencao Gangmu (The Great Compendium of Herbs) after three revisions and consultation with more than 800 books.
Three hundred seventy-four more herbs were added in the Bencao Gangmu, which consists of 16 volumes and 52 chapters. The principle classification level was the Gang (Class) and then the Mu (Order) in order to expand and rectify the previous descriptions of herbs. Secondly, he also summarized explanations and corrected previous mistakes, as well as providing detailed descriptions of the origins and appearances of herbs, their scents, and their major functions.
Li Shenzhen wrote in the original introduction that reading classics is like chewing sugar cane "the more one chews, the sweeter it gets." With such enjoyment, he succeeded in finishing his Bencao Gangmu.
When the the Bencao Gangmu was nearly finished and dedicated to the emperor, Li Shizhen was already 76 years old and could see that he was going to die, which did happen shortly.
Before he died, Li Shizhen wrote a memorandum to the throne and left it to his son Jianyuan to give to the emperor.
In the period of Wanli of Emperor Sheng, the emperor wanted to compile the history and demanded books from all over the country. Jianyan contributed his father's message to the throne and the Bencao Gangmu book. The emperor was very pleased and ordered the cultural department to publish it. Since then, every scholar has had a copy of this book at home, which also advanced the success of herbal medicine.
In his message to the throne, Li Shizhen said: "Since the information has been collected over a long time, some herbs are the same but have different names. Some of them have the same name but they are different. Some of them are very difficult to distinguish. Some of them were classified incorrectly. Some of the toxic herbs are very similar to the non-toxic ones. All of these factors have contributed to the difficulties in collecting the proper herbs, resulting in unsatisfactory results from treatments. Also, many new herbs have been discovered recently that have not been documented. More than 1500 herbs were recorded in the previous books; another 374 were added in the Bencao Gangmu. This book consists of 16 volumes and 52 chapters. The official names of the herbs were recorded as their Gang and the details were recorded under Mu, in addition to descriptions, corrections, origins, scent, and functions. A wide range of references were consulted. Although it is a medical book, it explains the principles of the universe and medicine. I do hope the emperor can arrange for scholars to review the book and have it published. Then it will become an essential reference book for all physicians.
Li Shizhen named himself as a Recluse Near a Lake in his later years. His other works included Poems of Suo Guan, Medical Cases, The Key to the Internal Energy Passages, A Discussion of Five Organs, The Difficulty of Sanjiaoke, A Research of Mingmen, and A Discussion of Poems.
Since his son Jianzhon was an official, Li Shizhen was honored as Wenlin Lang.
Li Shizhen was not only a well-known physician and herbalist. He was also a person who practiced magic things. He medicated himself every night and regarded himself as a spirit. This was also recorded in the Biography of Li Shizhen by Gu Jingxing: "When I was young I heard some stories of Li Shizhen. He read according to the time of sunrise and sunset and medicates at nights. He thinks of himself as a spirit, isn't that a coincidence?"
In his An Examination of The Internal Energy Passages of Binhu (Near a Lake), Li Shizhen commented on the principle of the eight passages through which vital energy circulates by Zhang Zhiyang: "The passages in Zhiyang's study are different from others; however, it is not wrong for people to see the inner routines in a reversed way." This shows that the eight passages observed by people who were seeking immortality were different from the observations of physicians, who viewed them in a reverse way.
Though Li Shizhen was proficient in medicine and the practice of seeking immortality, he also paid great attention to the Eight Internal Energy Passages. He pointed out in his A Study of Eight Internal Passages that physicians and immortality seekers ought to know the eight passages. Furthermore, he said that they would know the real world of their profession if they understood the eight internal energy passages."
First published in English at PureInsight.org: http://www.pureinsight.org/pi/index.php?news=4539