History of Chinese Herbal Medicine


The prehistoric era is an era without farming civilization. Human ancestors needed to survive by collecting wild fruits and vegetables.

Due to hunger and lack of knowledge of food, they will inevitably eat some fruits and vegetables that may cause poisoning, which will lead to vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea or coma, and even death. During the same period, primitive people with certain illnesses had their symptoms relieved after eating some fruits and vegetables.

Through repeated attempts and continuous accumulation of experience, primitive humans can distinguish which fruits and vegetables are edible and which ones cannot be eaten. This is the discovery history of early botanicals.

With the advent of clan society, human ancestors began hunting and fishing. When they ate animal meat, they also discovered that some animals have the effect of curing diseases.

In the later period of the clan society, the ancestors of humans had already begun to grow plants and domesticate animals. With the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, humans began to discover more drugs and food. Early medical theories were also formed during this period.

According to <Shi Ji> (Records of the Grand Historian), Shennong ate hundreds of plants to create medicines. Although this incident is a legend, it objectively reflects the discovery, development, and application of medicines.

During the Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties (about 2,070 BC-221 BC)

The invention and application of wine promoted the development of Chinese pharmacology. Wine may be the earliest stimulant and anesthetic.

There are stories about the use of wine and medicinal liquor to treat diseases in the Oracle literature. The use of wine can help improve the curative effect of drugs. Until now, wine is still a commonly used auxiliary material for processing Chinese herbal medicine.

With the development of the handicraft industry, various kinds of pottery are widely used in human daily life. Humans have a new understanding of food processing. they created soup during this period.

According to legend, soups appeared in the Shang Dynasty. The appearance of soup promoted the application of Chinese herbal medicine. Humans began to use a variety of Chinese herbal medicines to make decoctions. Compared with directly taking Chinese herbal medicines, taking decoctions has also been proven to be more effective and has fewer side effects.

The official written records of Chinese herbal medicine can be traced back to the Western Zhou Dynasty(about 1,066 BC-771 BC).

<Shi jing> (Classic of Poetry) is a literary work in the Western Zhou Dynasty, which is the earliest surviving book that records Chinese herbal medicines. According to statistics, more than 100 Chinese herbal medicines such as Cang Er Zi (Fructus Xanthii), Bai Shao (White Peony Root), and Gou Qi Zi (Fructus Lycii) are recorded in the book.

<Shan Hai Jing> (Classic of Mountains and Seas) is an encyclopedia of ancient society. It was written during the Warring States Period to the early Han Dynasty. According to statistics, the book records 67 animal medicines, 52 plant medicines, and 3 mineral medicines. In addition, it has records of treating diseases. Although these two books are not monographs on medicine, they also reflect the understanding and use of Chinese herbal medicine by humans at that time.

Due to social changes and the development of productivity, the development of medicine during the Spring and Warring States period reached a higher level than before. During this period, medical scientists used various theories such as <Yin and Yang Theory> and <Five Elements Theory> as their guiding ideologies to create <Huangdi Neijing> (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic).

During the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC-220 AD)

Archaeology confirmed that the <Wushi’er Bingfang> (Recipes for Fifty-Two Ailments) unearthed from the Mawangdui Han Tomb is the oldest medical book discovered so far. According to statistics, the book records more than 280 prescriptions and more than 240 Chinese herbal medicines. Among them, the diseases that can be treated involve internal medicine, surgery, gynecology, and ENT.

Around 139 BC, Zhang Qian went to the Western Regions as an envoy to open up the Silk Road. Following the Silk Road, plants such as Xi Hong Hua (Stigma Croci), grapes, and He Tao Ren (Juglandis Semen) were gradually brought to the Central Plains. Xi Jiao (Rhinoceros Horn), Hu Po (Amber), She Xiang (Moschus), and other medicines of nomads were also used by Central Plains medical scientists.

<Shennong Bencao Jing> is the earliest extant monograph on Materia Medica. Generally, archaeology believes that the book was written approximately in the late Western Han Dynasty to the early Eastern Han Dynasty(about 100 BC-100 AD).

According to statistics, the book records 365 kinds of medicines. Among them, there are 252 kinds of botanical medicines, 67 kinds of animal medicines, and 46 kinds of mineral medicines.

In addition, the book also records the various properties of medicines, whether they are toxic and how to use them.
Most of the medicines recorded in the book have been verified. For example, Chang Shan (Radix Dichroae) can be used to treat malaria, E Jiao (Colla Corii Asini) can be used to stop bleeding, and Ma Huang (Ephedra) can be used to relieve asthma.

<Shennong Bencao Jing> is the first big summary of pharmacy knowledge and experience before the Han Dynasty.
It laid the foundation for the compilation of other herbal books. The original work of the revised book was lost in the early Tang Dynasty, but its content is still retained in the herbal books of the past dynasties. Its existing editions were compiled by scholars in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

During the Jin Dynasty and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (265 AD-581 AD)

With trade and cultural exchanges, frankincense and Suhexiang from the Western Regions and Agarwood from the South China Sea also flowed into the Central Plains. The types of Chinese herbal medicines have gradually increased, and medical scientists have gained a new understanding of their curative effects.

During this period, Tao Hongjing compiled <Bencao Jing Jizhu> (a collection of commentaries on the classic of materia medica) based on <Shennong Bencao Jing> and <Mingyi Bie Lu>.

According to statistics, the book records 730 kinds of medicines. In addition, the book also records the dosage of the medicines and the preparation methods of the medicines into decoctions, pills, and medicinal liquors. The book was lost in the early Northern Song Dynasty, but its main content was recorded in <Zheng Lei Ben Cao> (Classified Materia Medica) and <Ben Cao Gang Mu> (Compendium of Materia Medica).

<Lei Gong Pao Zhi Lun> (Master Lei’s Discourse on Processing of Chinese Materia Medica) is the first monograph on Chinese herbal medicine processing. It systematically introduces the processing methods of more than 300 Chinese herbal medicines.
The book proposes that the processing of medicines can improve efficacy and reduce toxicity. It has a great influence on the processing of Chinese herbal medicine. Some of the processing methods remembered in the book are still used today.

During the Sui Dynasty and Tang Dynasty (581 AD-907 AD)

With the increase in trade, the number of medicines entering the Central Plains is increasing. Some medicines that are not recorded in <Bencao Jing Jizhu> have also been put into use.

In 659 AD, the Tang government gathered many medical experts to compile <Xin Xiu Ben Cao> (also known as Tang Ben Cao).
According to statistics, the book records 844 kinds of medicines. Among them, 114 new medicines were added. The book adds pictures to describe the medicines based on the text description of the medicines. This method of combining pictures and texts has created a precedent in pharmacy in the world.

The book adds foreign medicines such as Xue Jie (Sanguis Draconis), Hu Jiao (Fructus Piperis), Bing Pian (Borneol), and An Xi Xiang (Benzoinum). At the same time, it is also added with common folk medicines, such as Shan Zha (Hawthorn Fruit) and Shui Liao (Polygonum Hydropiper).

In 731 AD, <Xin Xiu Ben Cao> was introduced to Japan. It is the earliest pharmacopeia publicly promulgated in the world, and it predates the Nuremberg Pharmacopoeia by more than 800 years.

In 713-741 AD, Chen Zangqi combined <Xin Xiu Ben Cao> to collect medicines that were not recorded in <Xin Xiu Ben Cao>, and compiled <Ben Cao Shi Yi> (Supplements to Newly Revised Materia Medica).

<Ben Cao Shi Yi> expands the scope of traditional Chinese medicine. Among them, only mineral medicines have increased by 110 kinds.

In 935-960 AD, Han Baosheng and others compiled <Shu Ben Cao> (Materia Medica of Sichuan) based on <Xin Xiu Ben Cao>.

During the Song, Jin, and Yuan Dynasties (960 AD-1,368 AD)

The advancement of clinical medicine has also promoted the development of pharmacology. The types of Chinese herbal medicines are constantly increasing.

In 973 AD, Liu Han and others compiled <Kaibao Bencao> (Materia Medica of the Kaibao Period) on the basis of <Xin Xiu Ben Cao> and <Shu Ben Cao>.

<Kaibao Bencao> is the first official pharmacy book of the Song Dynasty. According to statistics, there are 983 kinds of medicines in <Kaibao Bencao>. Compared with <Xin Xiu Ben Cao>, it adds 133 kinds of medicines.

In 1,057-1,060 AD, Zhang Yuxi and others compiled <Jia You Ben Cao> (materia medica of Jia you reign) based on <Kaibao Bencao>. According to statistics, it has a total of 1,082 kinds of medicines. Among them, there are 99 new medicines.

In 1,061 AD, Su Song combined medicine pictures and medicine descriptions to compile <Tu Jing Ben Cao>(Illustrated Classic of Materia Medica).

In 1,082 AD, Tang Shenwei compiled <Jing Shi Zheng Lei Bei Ji Ben Cao>(Classic Classified Materia Medica for Emergencies) based on <Jia You Ben Cao> and <Tu Jing Ben Cao>. It is a representative work of the Song Dynasty Materia Medica. According to statistics, it has a total of 1,558 kinds of medicines. Among them, there are 476 new medicines. It was used until the publication of <Ben Cao Gang Mu> in the Ming Dynasty.

In the Ming Dynasty (1,368 AD-1,644 AD)

In 1,551 AD, the medical scientist Li Shizhen compiled <Ben Cao Gang Mu> (Compendium of Materia Medica) based on the <Jing Shi Zheng Lei Bei Ji Ben Cao> with reference to more than 800 medical works and spent 27 years.

According to statistics, there are a total of 1892 kinds of medicines in <Ben Cao Gang Mu>. Among them, there are 374 new medicines, such as Ban Bian Lian (Chinese Lobelia), Zi Hua Di Ding (Viola Yedoensis), Xi Hong Hua (Stigma Croci), and Man Tuo Luo(Datura Stramonium). The book comprehensively summarizes the content of the theory of medicinal properties and makes corrections and new generalizations of the effects of certain medicines.

<Ben Cao Gang Mu> not only summarizes the knowledge of pharmacology, but it also extensively introduces knowledge of botany, zoology, mineralogy, and metallurgy. Its influence is far beyond the scope of Materia Medica. In the 17th century, it was translated into multiple editions and spread overseas.

In the Qing Dynasty (1,644 AD-1,911 AD)

Under the influence of <Ben Cao Gang Mu>, the number of scholars studying Materia Medica has also increased.
In 1,765 AD, Zhao Xuemin compiled <Ben Cao Gang Mu Shi Yi> (a supplement to the compendium of materia medica).

According to statistics, there are a total of 921 medicines in the <Ben Cao Gang Mu Shi Yi>. Among them, 716 kinds of medicines are not recorded in <Ben Cao Gang Mu>. The book adds Chinese herbal medicines such as Tai Zi Shen (Radix Pseudostellariae), Xi Yang Shen (Panacis Quinquefolii Radix), Yin Chai Hu (Radix Stellariae), Ma Wei Lian (Thalictrum), Jin Qian Cao (Herba Lysimachiae), Ya Dan Zi (Fructus Bruceae), etc.

During this period, medical scientists also compiled many pharmacy books, such as <Ben Cao Cong Xin> and <Ben Jing Feng Yuan>.

During the Republic of China (1,911 AD-1,949 AD)

With the rapid spread and development of modern medicine, chemistry, biology, physics, and other modern sciences in China, Chinese pharmacy has also undergone certain changes.

It is divided into subjects such as medicinal zoology, medicinal botany, pharmacognosy, identification of traditional Chinese medicine, and traditional Chinese medicine pharmacology.

After 1949 AD

Because of the attention of the Chinese government, Chinese herbal medicine has also made unprecedented achievements.

From 1953 to 2020, the Chinese Pharmacopoeia has been revised more than ten times. According to statistics, there are 5,911 kinds of drugs in the 2020 Chinese Pharmacopoeia. Among them, there are 2,711 kinds of Chinese herbal medicines.

With the investment in modern science, medical scientists have also discovered many Chinese herbal medicines that can fight cancer, parasites, or viruses.Some Chinese herbal medicines are also widely used in dietary fiber supplements, food, cosmetics, and other fields. Some Chinese herbal medicine extracts are also made into medicines. Even some Chinese herbal medicines are used to treat and prevent the new coronavirus.

Chinese herbal medicine has made certain achievements in the treatment and prevention of diseases. Its development is inseparable from the experiments and experience accumulation of Chinese medicine scientists. The history of Chinese herbal medicine will last.