Traditional Chinese Medicine uses a great number of herbs and other natural products with medicinal properties. Identification of these, how they should be used and what diseases they could be used to treat began several thousand years ago. Over time, many books were written on them, but a truly encyclopedic catalogue was needed to put this pharmacopoeia onto a firm basis. Doing this was the lifework of Li Shi-zhen. He started working on it at the age of 31 and completed the task 27 years later in 1578.
The encyclopedia thus produced is called the Ben Cao Gang Mu. It identified 1,892 medicinal drugs and gave 11,096 prescriptions using them. For each drug a full description of its use with observation notes as to its effects is given, and misconceptions as to the drug given by earlier authors are amended. An initial two volumes offer an overview of medical theory. The Ben Cao Gang Mu has been, ever since its first publication, an essential text for all traditional Chinese medical practitioners, and similarly for those in Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
This medical encyclopedia was the first of its kind in the world. It represents a critically important stage in the scientific exploration of medical drugs and its author, Li Shi-zhen, is a figure of immense importance as an early scientist. The work is still regularly printed today. The oldest surviving copy of Ben Cao Gang Mu comprises 54 woodblock printed volumes, including two volumes of 1,109 illustrations, was printed in 1593.