神农本草经 The Holy Husbandman’s Classic on Roots and Herbs


The Shen Nong bencaojing 神农本草经 “The Holy Husbandman’s classic on roots and herbs”, shortly called Shen Nong bencao 神农本草, Bencaojing 本草经, or Benjing 本经, is an old text on medical herbs and other materia media. It is first mentioned in the catalogue Qilu 七录 by the Liang period 梁 (502-557) scholar Ruan Xiaoxu 阮孝绪. The book went lost during the Tang period 唐 (618-907), but considerable parts were reconstructed from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) on. Fragments of this text were compiled by the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Sun Xingyan 孙星衍 and his nephew Sun Fengyi 孙冯翼. The real author of the book is not known, yet authorship was attributed to the mythical emperor Shen Nong 神农, who was seen as the inventor of herbal medicine. The book is rarely attributed to other persons, like Zi Yi 子仪, Yi Yin 伊尹, Zhang Zhongjing 张仲景, or Hua Tuo 华佗. The book must have been compiled during the Han period 汉 (206 BCE-220 CE), or probably already during the late Warring States period 战国 (5th cent.-221 BCE). It is the oldest, partially, surviving Chinese pharmacopoeia. The original text was often quoted in medical texts like the Zhenglei bencao 证类本草 or the Bencao gangmu 本草纲目 and in encyclopedias like the Taiping yulan 太平御览, so that a considerable part of it has survived. The oldest collection of fragments has been made by the Ming period scholar Lu Fu 卢复. Other reconstructions were undertaken by the Japanese Mori Tachiyuki 森立之, and by Gu Guanggao 顾观光.

There are different versions of the Shen Nong bencao transmitted, in which the number of recorded herbs and objects is not the same. Tao Hongjing’s 陶弘景 revision of the book, the Bencaojing jizhu 本草经集注 includes 365 objects directly derived from the Shen Nong bencao jing, but most versions in circulation include 367 objects.

The book begins with a theoretical introduction (Xulie 序例 or Xulu 序录) into the classification of material medica and the rules of application. The main part of the book included short descriptions of 365 medical objects, among which are 252 plants, 67 animal parts, and 46 anorganic matters. Each object is classified according to its efficiency, into three grades (pin 品), each of them included in one of three juan “scrolls”. 120 objects are rated as of superior quality, 120 as of mediocre effects, and 125 as of a inferior usefulness. The title bencao “roots and herbs” refers to those drugs that play the greatest role in medical treatment, although anorganic matters, as well as parts of animals are included among the materia medica, too. The superior material is called the “lord” (jun 君), used to care for life. Such drugs are non-poisonous (wu du 无毒) and can be consumed in great doses over a long period of time. They are applied to nourish vitality that corresponds to Heaven. Good material is called the “ministers” (chen 臣), and used to nourish the physical character of a person. Such drugs must be applied with care. Medicine of a mediocre efficiency is called “assistants and runners” (zuoshi 佐使), and is used to cure everyday illnesses that correspond to the influence of the earth. The “runners” include a lot of “poison” (duo du 多毒; probably “adjacent matters” diminishing the effect of the active component) and must only be applied for a short time and in small doses. All kinds of pharmaceuticals are described as to their character, their effectiveness, and for which kind of illness or disease they are to be used. The methods of preparation are also described, as well as the places of origin and the season and method of collection. The book mentions more than 170 types of illness that can be cured. These “lords”, “ministers”, “assistants” and “runners” can be applied in combination, with each drug having its own effects. The preface also explains that it is possible to combine Yin and Yang drugs, which can be called “child and mother”, “older and younger brother”, “root and stalk”, “blossom and fruit” or “bone and flesh”. Some medicine must be used alone, while others need combined application. It is also stressed that the harvesting conditions are extremely important for the quality of a drug, and that materia medica might be applied in different form, like pills, powder, or paste.

The rearrangement of the Liang period scholar Tao Hongjing resulted in the modern sequence of pharmaceuticals, geared to the physical nature. Anorganic objects and grasses and herbs are included in the second juan, and animals, fuits, vegetables and grain in the third juan of the book. The particular articles have also been polished by Tao Hongjing. They begin with a description of the character and taste of the pharmaceutical, and then describe its medical use and effectiveness. The articles end with alternative names of the individual drug.

All material medica has one of “seven affects” (qi qing 七情) towards others. Medicine has to be applied alone, together with another medicine, supportive, in avoidance of certain others, antagonizing others, “hating” others, or “killing” others. Each medicine has one of five flavours (sour, salty, sweet, bitter, or spicy). Each medicine arouses one of four “energies” (qi 气), namely heat, warmness, coolness, or coldness. The book explains the names of the medicine, character and taste, and efficiency towards certain diseases. A lot of herbs have in fact a great efficiency for the bedridden, like medicine enriching the energy (buqi 补气) like ginseng (renshen 人参) or Radix astragali (huangqi 黄芪; milk vetch root), medicine enriching the blood like the roots of Chinese angelica (danggui 当归) and glutinous rehmannia (dihuang 地黄), medicine inducing sweat like the leaves of Chinese ephedra (mahuang 麻黄) and cassia twigs (guizhi 桂枝), or to cure diarrhoe like Glauber’s salt (puxiao 朴硝) and the roots and rhizomes of rhubarb (dahuang 大黄). Quicksilver (shuiyin 水银) is able to cure scabies, and seaweed or sargassum (haizao海藻) appeases the goitre.

Excavated fragements, and quotations in the Song period 宋 (960-1279) encyclopedia Taiping yulan include information about the places where specific plants grow. These have been added in later reconstructions. The best edition of fragments is that by Sun Xingyan because he was a scholar trained in textual critique. The Bencaojing is therefore included in his own collected writings of the Wenjing Hall 问经堂. In 1955 the Commercial Press 商务印书馆 published a modern edition of his publication.

A lot of ancient scholars undertook reasearch into the statements of the Shen Nong bencao jing. Their results were to be found in books like the Wu Pu bencao 吴普本草 (also called Wushi bencao 吴氏本草) from the Wei period 曹魏 (220-265), Li Dangzhi yaolu 李当之药录 from the Jin period 晋 (265-420), Tao Hongjing’s rearrangement of the text, the Bencaojing jizhu, Chen Cangqi’s 陈藏器 Bencao shiyi 本草拾遗, both from the Liang period, but also the book Shen Nong bencaojing shu 神农本草经疏 by Miao Xiyong 缪希庸 from the Ming period, and the books Bencao songyuan 本草崇原 by Zhang Zhicong 张志聪, Shen Nong bencaojing baizhong lu 神农本草经百种录 by Xu Dachun 徐大椿, and the Benjing shuzheng 本经疏证 by Zou Shu 邹澍 from the Qing period.

There were at least 16 collections of fragments from the Bencaojing, the most important of which were Wang Jie’s 王介 Bencao zhengjing 本草正经 from the Southern Song period (today lost), Lu Fu’s Shen Nong benjing 神农本经 from the late Ming period (index from the Bencao gangmu, text from the Zhenglei bencao), Guo Mengqi’s 过孟起 Bencaojing from 1687 (preserved in fragments), Sun Xingyan’s collection Shen Nong bencao jing from 1799 (includes the fragments of the textsWushi bencao and Mingyi bielu 名医别录 “Alternative records of famous physicians”, as well as other additional material), Gu Guanguang’s text Shen Nong bencao jingfrom 1844 (also with text-critical material), Wang Hong’s 汪宏 Shen Nong bencao jingfrom 1885 (said to be based on a Song period original from the Jiayou reign 嘉佑), Wang Kaiyun’s 王闿运 Shen Nong bencao jing from 1885 (also allegedly based on a Song time original). In 1942 Liu Fu 刘复 published a text-critical version that compared the important editions of Sun and Gu. There is also a collection by Jiang Guoyi 姜国伊 from the late 19th century. The modern scholar Shang Zhijun 尚志钧 published the Shen Nong bencao jing jiaodian 神农本草经校点 in 1983 that is based on the most important collections. In 1987 Cao Yuanyu 曹元宇 published the bookBencaojing, in 1988 Wang Yunmo 王筠默 threw his version of the Shen Nong bencao jing on the market. Another modern, annotated edition, the Shen Nong bencao jing jizhu 神农本草经辑注, has been published by Ma Jixing. Mori Tachiyuki’s reconstruction is enriched by a preface and a text-critical apparatus. It counts among the best editions of the Bencaojing. The Bencaojing is to be found in the collectanea Congshu jicheng 丛书集成, Wenjingtang congshu 问经堂丛书, Sibu beiyao 四部备要, Wuling shanren yishu 武陵山人遗书, Shouzhongzhengzhai congshu 守中正斋丛书, Hanxuetang congshu 汉学堂丛书 and Zishi gouchen 子史钩沉.

Previous articleExemplarious translation of Shujing 书经 Book of Documents
Next articleShiji 史记 Records of the Grand Scribe


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here