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Li Shizhen

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the work of the Chinese doctor who investigated natural remedies, under the Ming, and compiled the greatest collection of treatments of his time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and ideas of Li Shizhen (1518-1593) whose compendium of natural medicines is celebrated in China as the most complete survey of natural remedies of its time. He trained as a doctor and worked at the Ming court before spending almost 30 years travelling in China, inspecting local plants and animals for their properties, trying them out on himself and then describing his findings in his Compendium of Materia Medica or Bencao Gangmu, in 53 volumes. He's been called the uncrowned king of Chinese naturalists, and became a scientific hero in the 20th century after the revolution.


Craig Clunas
Professor Emeritus in the History of Art at the University of Oxford

Anne Gerritsen
Professor in History at the University of Warwick


Roel Sterckx
Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History at the University of Cambridge

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Available now

52 minutes

Last on

Thu 28 Nov 2019 21:30


Craig Clunas at the University of Oxford

Anne Gerritsen at the University of Warwick

Roel Sterckx at the University of Cambridge

Li Shizhen – Science Museum

First edition of Bencao Gangmu – Wellcome Collection

Example of illustrations in the Bencao Gangmu – Wellcome Collection

Bencao Gangmu - An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Li Shizhen - Wikipedia



Craig Clunas, Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Cultures of Ming China, 1368-1644 (Reaktion Books, 2007)

T. J. Hinrichs and Linda L. Barnes, Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013)

Elizabeth Hsu (ed.), Innovation in Chinese Medicine (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Liu Yanchi, Kathleen Vian, and Peter Eckman, The Essential Book of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Columbia University Press, 1998)

Vivienne Lo and Penelope Barrett (eds.), Imagining Chinese Medicine (Brill, 2018), especially ‘The Limits of Illustration: Animalia and Pharmacopeia from Guo Pu to Bencao Gangmu’ by Roel Sterckx

Georges Métailié, Science and Civilisation in China, VI: 4 Biology and Biological Technology (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Carla Nappi, The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and its Transformations in Early Modern China (Harvard University Press, 2009)

Dagmar Schäfer, The Crafting of the Ten-Thousand Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China (University of Chicago Press, 2011)

Li Shizhen (trans. Xiwen Luo), Compendium of Materia Medica: Bencao Gangmu (Foreign Languages Press, 2003)

Roel Sterckx, Chinese Thought: From Confucius to Cook Ding (Penguin, 2019), especially chapter 6

Paul U. Unschuld, Traditional Chinese Medicine: Heritage and Adaptation (Columbia University Press, 2017)

Paul U. Unschuld, Medicine in China: A History of Ideas (University of California Press, 2010)

Paul U. Unschuld and Zhang Zhibin (eds.), Dictionary of the Ben Cao Gang Mu, 3 vols. (University of California Press, 2014-18)


  • Thu 28 Nov 2019 09:00
  • Thu 28 Nov 2019 21:30

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