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Year : 2018  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 116-120

Li shizhen and the spirit of investigation of things and the extension of knowledge

Research Office of Chinese Materia Medica Literature, Institute of Chinese Materia Medica, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing, China

Date of Web Publication8-Jan-2019

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Ruixian Zhang
Institute of Chinese Materia Medica, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_41_18

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Li Shizhen was a Ming Dynasty physician and was greatly influenced by the New-Confucian beliefs of the time. Although Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》Compendium of Materia Medica) is a monograph on medicine, its purpose is “to investigate things.” The best way to get to know historical figures is to restore facts.

Keywords: Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》Compendium of Materia Medica), Li Shizhen, neo-Confucianism

How to cite this article:
Zhang R. Li shizhen and the spirit of investigation of things and the extension of knowledge. Chin Med Cult 2018;1:116-20

How to cite this URL:
Zhang R. Li shizhen and the spirit of investigation of things and the extension of knowledge. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2018 [cited 2020 Jun 4];1:116-20. Available from: http://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2018/1/3/116/249586

  Introduction Top

When studying Li Shizhen and Ben Cao Gang Mu, many scholars neglected the fact that Li Shizhen is actually a confucian scholar, and Ben Cao Gang Mu is a work of investigation of things and extension of knowlegde.

  A Medical Work Of Investigating the Things Top

Investigation of Things and Extension of Knowlegde comes from Da Xue (《大学》The Great Learning). There are many changes in the understanding of the saying in history and the explanation of Zhu Xi (朱熹) [Figure 1], a representative of neo-Confucianism, has the greatest impact on it.
Figure 1: Zhu Xi statue from Kao Ting Academy in Jianyang (Supplied by Liu Hui)

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Zhu Xi believed that we should investigate the things and extend to the utmost knowledge.[1] Although the reason why Zhu Xi stressed this idea is to explain the rationality and inevitability of human ethics, the process of investigating contains certain epistemological factors of investigating the law of the world. Later, more attention is given to the process and less for the original moral purpose.

In the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) when neo-Confucianism was dominant, Li Shizhen [Figure 2] and [Figure 3] was inevitably influenced by the idea of “investigation of things and extension of knowledge.”
Figure 2: Li Shizhen statue in Qichun County, Hubei Province

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Figure 3: Li Shizhen statue

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Although Ben Cao Gang Mu is a monograph on medicine, it is essentially a work of investigating things.

Li Shizhen once clearly pointed out that Ben Cao Gang Mu, a medical book, followed the neo-Confucianism principle of investigating things.[2] Li Shizhen explored the principles of medicine with Confucian ideas and worked with a strong desire to perfect Confucian classics. This is the starting point for Li Shizhen's writing of Ben Cao Gang Mu. The spirit of investigaton of things and extension of knowledge is throughout the whole book. After its publication, many scholars competed to buy the book and regarded it as both a medical book and a work of Confucianism.

In the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1636–1912 AD), education was well developed in the urban and rural areas of Qizhou (蕲州). There were three famous academies of classic learning – Fenglu Academy (凤麓书院) built in the Fenghuang Mountain (凤凰山), Yangming Academy (阳明书院) located in the Xionghua hill (熊化岭), and Chongzheng Academy. (崇正书院). Gu Wen (顾问) and Gu Jue (顾阙), two renowned experts at neo-Confucianism at that time, once gave lectures at Yangming Academy and Chongzheng Academy. Li Shizhen also worked as an advisor at Yangming Academy. According to some records, Li Shizhen had a very close relationship with Gu Wen at that time. Gu Wen is an expert at neo-Confucianism. Therefore, it was inevitable for them to exchange ideas of neo-Confucianism.

Some people think that Li Shizhen was inspired by the name of Tong Jian Gang Mu (《通鉴纲目》Compendium as a Mirror) to come up with the name of Ben Cao Gang Mu for his own book. According to the situation at that time, the name is not an occasional thought but actually the symbol of the author's respect for neo-Confucianism. It is Li Shizhen, who advocated the thought of neo-Confucianism, that deliberately “linked” his work with it. Zhu Xi summed up three guidelines and eight requirements from Da Xue (The Great Learning). Three guidelines include manifesting one's bright virtue, loving the people, and stopping in perfect goodness. Eight requirements are investigating things, obtaining knowledge, a sincere will, a correct mind, a cultivated oneself, a harmonized family, a well-governed country, and a peaceful world. The three guidelines and eight requirements are the way and purpose of investigation of things and extension of knowledge.

When knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere. When the will is sincere, the mind is correct. When the mind is correct, the self is cultivated. When the self is cultivated, the clan is harmonized. When the clan is harmonized, the country is well governed. When the country is well governed, there will be peace throughout the land.

  A Doctor Adhering To Confucianism Top

It is wrong to believe that Li Shizhen abandoned Confucianism to practice medicine after his failure in the imperial examination. Strictly speaking, although Li Shizhen was disappointed at the failure, he did not give up Confucianism.

Li Shizhen [Figure 4] accepted Confucian education from an early age. According to Li Shizhen Zhuan (《李时珍传》Biography of Li Shizhen) written by Gu Jingxing (顾景星), after failing to pass the imperial examination, he devoted himself to obtaining knowledge of many fields like history and agriculture. Li Shizhen learned from Gu Wen who was an outstanding expert in Qizhou and used to be an senior official in Fujian Province (福建). Gu Wen excelled at neo-Confucianism. After returning to his hometown, he took the responsibility of teaching neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi and had a number of students. After becoming the student of Gu Wen, Li Shizhen was influenced by neo-Confucianism a lot. Gu Wen praised him as “a great scholar of Confucianism with the knowledge of medicine” [Figure 5].
Figure 4: Medicine-practicing statue of Li Shizhen

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Figure 5: Tomb of Li Shizhen

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Scholars of neo-Confucianism in the Song Dynasty regarded “investigation of things and extension of knowledge” as an important concept. In the early stage of the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 A. D.), Cheng Hao (程颢) and Cheng Yi (程颐) put forward that even grass and wood contain the principle worth investigating. Besides, Zhu Xi, a great master of neo-Confucianism, more clearly claimed that there was a must to investigate the natural world such as the heaven, the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, and any other things.

Zhu Xi believes that “to investigate things,” we should achieve the goal of understanding an item from all aspects. Fossils of shellfish in the mountain that should had been in the water inspired Zhu Xi to think of the change of the earth's crust. He started from this to ponder on the philosophical principles of shifting from the weak to the strong, from the low to the high. Zhu Xi also attached great importance to medicine. He incorporated medicine research into “investigation of things and extension of knowledge.” The purpose is to “extend knowledge” and understand “Tao (道)” and “natural principle.”

Once the concept of “investigation of things and extension of knowledge” was put forward, it was quickly accepted by experts on medicine. Liu Wansu (刘完素) and Zhu Zhenheng (朱震亨), two of the four great doctors in the Jin (1115–1234 AD) and Yuan Dynasties (1271–1368 AD), used the idea of “studying the nature of things to obtain knowledge” to name their own works.[3] Li Shizhen proposed that studying herbs was to explore the nature of things and he named his own work with “three guidelines and eight requirements.” In the medical works of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, many of them were entitled “investigation and extension”.

Li Shizhen believed that he had already done his best to practice three guidelines and eight requirements. Ben Cao Gang Mu is the result of practicing the principle of “investigation of things and extension of knowledge.” The process of investigating herbal properties and usage conforms to the idea of exploring the nature of things. Li Shizhen once put forward that it was necessary to study the properties of herbs and scrutinize the principle of medicine, and it is important for doctors to examine the nature of things. Although Ben Cao Gang Mu is a medical book, it is the product to practice investigating the nature of things to obtain knowledge.

Qizhou Zhi (《蕲州志》Records of Qizhou) listed Li Shizhen as a doctor of Confucianism, indicating that at that time Li Shizhen was accepted as a doctor of Confucianism who brought benefits to the world.

  Examples Of Investigating Things Top

The connotation of investigating things is very extensive, involving reading, communicating, and investigating natural things.

All the herbs that have been personally examined by Li Shizhen are recorded in great detail. This is his practice of “investigating things” [Figure 6].
Figure 6: Li Shizhen statue of picking up herbs

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Bai Hua She (白花蛇Agkistrodon-acutus) lives in Qizhou, Hubei Province (湖北), which can be made into medicine. In order to identify its variety, he watched the process of catching snakes and making them into a drug in the mountain. Li Shizhen explored the nature of Bai Hua She in detail and had a good command of its external features. He also learned about the method of catching Agkistrodon-acutus.

He not only went to the field to investigate the growing conditions of herbs, but also planted some at home to facilitate the observation. For example, Huang Jing(黄精, Rhizoma Polygonati) and Gou Wen (钩吻 Gelsemium elegans) are two different herbs. Huang Jing is beneficial for health, while Gou Wen is poisonous. However, the records of the two herbs in books of various dynasties are not very clear. Li Shizhen took the seedlings of both herbs back from the mountain and planted them at home. After planting, he found that the leaves of Huang Jing were like bamboo. For Gou Wen, its leaves were round and shinning. The differences between the two can be clearly seen.

Apart from observing the nature, the idea of “investigation of things and extension of knowledge” can also be applied to examine the experience of predecessors. Ben Cao Gang Mu critically inherits some content from Zheng Lei Ben Cao (《证类本草》Materia Medica Arranged According to Pattern). It is not difficult to find that the former is more suitable for clinical application after comparison. Li Shizhen kept the herbs proved to be effective in clinical practice and delete ineffective ones.

The idea of investigation of things and extension of knowledge encourages people to doubt the knowledge of the predecessors bravely. Zhu Xi advocated that it was important to raise questions when reading books so as to make progress and scholars were supposed to innovate and critically draw lessons from the knowledge of predecessors. Li Shizhen just practiced as what Zhu Xi had said to be skeptical about predecessors' writings and brave to correct mistakes.

Ge Hong (葛洪), a famous Taoist and a medical doctor in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420 AD), thought that a man could become a god by taking mercury for a long time. Li Shizhen found out mercury was poisonous and he directly pointed out the danger of taking mercury. However, the medicinal value of mercury was not completely denied. He said that it could be used to treat diseases though it was not edible.

Ling Zhi(灵芝Ganoderma) is a drug that has been deified by alchemists. It is said that a man can become a god after eating ganoderma. After analyzing the category of ganoderma and examining the growing environment, Li Shizhen refuted the deception of treating Ganoderma immortal. Li Shizhen described Ganoderma as a tumor, which served as a warning for superstitious people. This is also a lesson for people who blindly pursue health today [Figure 7].
Figure 7: Li Shizhen statue of picking up herbs

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Books and literature are also the object of studying the nature of things to obtain knowledge. Zhu Xi is keen on reading in his whole life and most of his works talk about reading. Later generations have established reading procedures based on his unique reading methods. For Zhu Xi, the nature of thing is what he wants to find out from reading.

Influenced by Zhu Xi's thoughts, Li Shizhen found that there were many mistakes in herbal works in the past through his study and practice. Medical books are directly related to the health of people and effects of medical practice, so Li Shizhen was determined to compile a book with correct and abundant content. Li Shizhen read a large number of books. In addition to medical works of the past, he also read books about philosophy, history, geography, agriculture, mythology and so on.

Li Shizhen was good at finding out problems in reading and could correct them immediately. He began to write Ben Cao Gang Mu at the age of 34. After 27 years of unremitting efforts, he accumulated a wealth of first-hand materials. After serious and thorough revisions, he completed the first draft at the age of 61, and then revised it for more than 10 years. It was finalized at the age of 73. The reason why it took several decades is that Li Shizhen verified the efficacy of herbs one by one in medical practice, and compared, analyzed, and synthesized his data to determine the properties, functions, and clinical utility of herbs. This is the manifestation of “studying the nature of things,” one of the important achievements to practice neo-Confucianism in the Ming Dynasty. Ben Cao Gang Mu has a wide range of content and contributes a lot to other disciplines of the natural sciences such as medicine, physiology, nutrition, botany, zoology, mineralogy, and chemistry. Darwin called it the ancient Chinese encyclopedia. Li Shizhen has been respected by the people of China and the world [Figure 8] and [Figure 9].
Figure 8: Rainy lake (near to the former residence of Li Shizhen)

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Figure 9: Rainy lake

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The idea of “investigation of things and extension of knowledge” is similar to science, but it cannot be equated with science. The purpose of it is to obtain moral knowledge not only scientific knowledge.

In terms of methods, investigating things is also different from science.

The research of ancient Chinese scientists does not often start from problems, but takes reading as the starting point, and then uses empirical knowledge to verify the theories and viewpoints of the predecessors and makes appropriate interpretation and generalization. Therefore, the first thing of studying the nature of things to obtain knowledge is to read a wide range of books. So did Li Shizhen. The extensive coverage of Ben Cao Gang Mu will still be admired by future generations of doctors. Influenced by Confucianism, the ancients' research on the natural sciences was carried out around the works of predecessors, with the tradition to respect the classics. In addition, it is necessary to respect the classics in one's own field of science. Li Shizhen followed this principle and became a famous “scientist” in ancient times [Figure 10].
Figure 10: Sprouting

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

Translator: Rui Wang

  References Top

Zhu X. Commentary on the Four Books. Changsha: Yuelu Publisher; 1995. p. 4.  Back to cited text no. 1
Li SZ, Hengru L, Yongshan L, Shuhua Y. The Compendium of Materia Medica. New Proofread Edition. Beijing: Huaxia Publisher; 2008. p. 224.  Back to cited text no. 2
Zhu ZH. Further Treatises on the Properties of Things·Preface. Nanjing: Jiangsu Publisher of Science and Technology; 1985. p. 4-5.  Back to cited text no. 3


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6], [Figure 7], [Figure 8], [Figure 9], [Figure 10]


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