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Compendium of Materia Medica and its hard path to publishing

Author  :  CUI KAI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-05-18


Li Shizhen and his great work the Compendium of Materia Medica Photo: China Culture Daily

The great medical work the Compendium of Materia Medica recorded many effective methods for preventing epidemics and avoiding disasters. However, most people are unaware of the difficulties this book faced on its way to being published. 

Sadly, the author of the book Li Shizhen failed to see his work, which had cost most of his lifetime, published. Nor did he realize that he was to be crowned with such titles as “medical sage” and “the great natural scientist.”

Li was born in a well-off family in Qizhou (today’s Qichun County, Hubei Province) in 1518. His father Li Yanwen was a doctor. 

In the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the imperial examination was the only way for common people to ascend to the upper class. Most intellectuals pursued a political career and hoped to become government officials. Li, who had loved reading books since childhood, was no exception.

In 1534, he participated in the local-level examination but failed. He then failed two more times in 1537 and 1540. A consecutive third failure made him decide to quit the exam and become a doctor instead. He then started to read medical books and delve into medicine. 

Up until the Ming Dynasty, there had been as many as 41 pharmacopoeias written in China. However, they mostly had inconsistent stylistic features and outdated content.

After dedicating himself to medicine, Li felt that these pharmacopoeias full of mistakes were too misleading. He then came up with the bold idea to amend the pharmacopoeias. To say this was “bold” was because the amending and compilation of pharmacopoeias had been mainly organized and undertaken by the government since the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It was almost impossible for an individual to sort out, revise and perfect a pharmacopoeia in a systematic way without huge human, financial and material resources. 

Among doctors nationwide, there were many who were more senior and famed than Li, and many who enjoyed higher status. However, in addition to his solid medical skills, he had some immediate advantages: a grand ideal, persistence and patience.

In 1552, he embarked on amending and compiling pharmacopoeias, which he continued for almost 30 years. 

In 1578, the Compendium of Materia Medica was finished. Containing 52 volumes, the book covers a total of 1,892 medicines and drugs, with 11,096 prescriptions and 1,109 illustrations. However, the completion of the manuscript was only the beginning of his difficulties.

The biggest question in front of Li was who would fund the publishing. With no funding and obscure market prospects, even today the publishing of a non-mainstream book is not possible, only if the printing is paid for the author. 

How much was needed? Calculated by the total word count of the book, stencil printing (the main printing method at that time) would have cost almost 30,000 grams of silver. In addition to the expense of wooden board, paper, ink and other materials as well as the cost of printing and bookbinding, altogether 50,000 grams of silver were needed. Considering Li’s annual income, even ten years were far from enough to earn so much silver. Obviously, self-paid publishing was not an option.

The other way was to seek help from others. At first, Li sought funds in Huangzhou, Wuchang and other places near home or entreated booksellers for help. But he got no results for almost a year. In 1579, the 63-year-old Li then decided to go to Nanjing, the center of book printing, to take a chance. However, there was still no bookseller willing to print his book. 

The opinions of booksellers were consistent: everyone loved popular books such as those about opera, novels, or practical exercise books for the imperial examination. Li’s dictionary of medicines had neither market prospects nor a famous author. Even if it were printed, no one would buy it. In the process of “running to market,” someone suggested to Li that the only feasible way was to invite a celebrity to write a foreword and recommend it, so that booksellers might be willing to print.

The most popular celebrity at that time was the great litterateur Wang Shizhen, the leader of the later seven-talent group of the Ming Dynasty. A great many people asked him to write forewords. 

In 1580, Li came to Wang’s home to plead for his words. At that time, Wang was obsessed with the ascension to immortality (a Taoist activity that typically included sitting in a meditative position, absorbing qi from the natural world and refining it inside the body, such that one’s body would become immortal with everlasting consciousness). When Li arrived, he was busy helping his young female teacher with the ascension to immortality ceremony.

The busy Wang, after polite greetings, wrote a poem and presented it to Li. With many allusions and cultural stories, the poem was a satirical rejection. The general meaning of it was as follows: “When my teacher was ascending to immortality, Li came. He asked me to write a foreword for his book Compendium of Materia Medica. Years ago, when Tao Hongjing (a physician in the Northern and Southern dynasties) was close to achieving immortality, he was delayed for ten years by his engagements in note making for medical classics. I think things like foreword writing can be done by your son. For me, the ascension to immortality is more important.” 

Li returned home with nothing gained …

Ten years later in 1590, Li was 73 years old. At that time, his health was deteriorating more and more with both old and new illnesses. If he had quit then, there may have been little chance for him to see his own work published within his lifetime. Determined, he resorted to Wang Shizhen the second time. Perhaps moved by Li’s determination, Wang finally agreed to write the foreword. In it, he described the scene of their meeting: “With relish, a slim old man introduced his book Compendium of Materia Medica…” Wang’s attitude differed much from that of ten years ago, and gave high acclaim to the book, considering it was not merely a medical work but an encyclopedic masterpiece that illustrates the laws of all living things. He also spoke highly of Li: “Li’s such benign intention is really for the good of others and the benefit of all.” In the same year that he finished writing the foreword, Wang passed away. 

With Wang’s foreword, the bookseller Hu Chenglong in Nanjing decided to take the risk. He judged that a few sales would not be a problem, but he was not certain about the sales volume. Hu never dreamed that among all the books he printed, what would mark his place in history was this Compendium of Materia Medica.

The stenciling and printing required a long process. With profit as his first priority, Hu would not allow the craftsmen to invest much time and energy in a book with no optimistic sales revenue.

In 1593, the book was still in the process of stencil printing. Li, who stayed in Nanjing away from his home, waiting for the books’ publishing, passed away. In his last days, Li had still failed to see his own work published.

Three years after Li died, the printing was finally finished and the book was published. The whole process from stenciling to printing took as long as six years. 

In 1596, Li’s second son presented 58 sets of the multivolume book to the court. The court conferred a six-grade nominal official position on Li posthumously. In his youth, Li never realized an official career of fame and fortune through the imperial examination; but in his death, he obtained the official title through his work.

Many scrambled to reprint Compendium of Materia Medica and Li’s name became widely known both home and abroad and everlasting in history—an achievement Li never could have imagined in his lifetime. 


This article was edited and translated from China Culture Daily.



(Edited and translated by BAI LE)

Editor: Yu Hui

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