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Table of Contents
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 159-161

Comments on Ben Cao Gang Mu Cai Se Yao Tu (《本草纲目彩色药图》 Colored Illustrations of Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica)

Center for Formulae-Pattern and Information Research of TCM, Shanghai University of TCM, Shanghai, China

Date of Submission09-Nov-2019
Date of Acceptance09-Nov-2019
Date of Web Publication24-Dec-2019

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Bangxian Zhu
Center for Formulae-Pattern and Information Research of TCM, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_44_19

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This article gives a brief introduction of Ben Cao Gang Mu Cai Se Yao Tu (《本草纲目彩色药图》 Colored Herb Illustrations of Compendium of Materia Medica) and explains the history of herb illustrations in each dynasty, the illustration of Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica) and the value and the significance of Ben Cao Gang Mu Cai Se Yao Tu in detail.

Keywords: Ben Cao Gang Mu Cai Se Yao Tu (《本草纲目彩色药图》 Colored Herb Illustrations of Compendium of Materia Medica), Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica), herb illustration, Li Shizhen (李时珍)

How to cite this article:
Zhu B. Comments on Ben Cao Gang Mu Cai Se Yao Tu (《本草纲目彩色药图》 Colored Illustrations of Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica). Chin Med Cult 2019;2:159-61

How to cite this URL:
Zhu B. Comments on Ben Cao Gang Mu Cai Se Yao Tu (《本草纲目彩色药图》 Colored Illustrations of Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica). Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2019 [cited 2020 Dec 5];2:159-61. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2019/2/4/159/273898

  Introduction Top

A new book called Ben Cao Gang Mu Cai Se Yao Tu (《本草纲目彩色药图》 Colored Herb Illustrations of Compendium of Materia Medica) [Figure 1] (abbreviated as Colored Herb Illustrations) was recently added to my book collections. Four hundreds of years have passed since the birth of Ben Cao Gang Mu (《本草纲目》 Compendium of Materia Medica) [Figure 2]. To make it more brilliant and more convenient for the study and research, 29 Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) experts including Qiu Dewen (邱德文) were meticulous in textual research to confirm the origin, producing area, function, usage, and main chemical components of 1225 herbs; 29 photographers including Xia Tongyan (夏同珩) went out to various places to take ≥4000 colored pictures. After going through the hardships of textual research, the book was eventually completed and published at the end of the 20th century. The photographs illustrated in the book are so exquisite that I can hardly tear myself away from it.
Figure 1: Colored Illustrations of Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica

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Figure 2: Compendium of Materia Medica

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  The History of Herb Illustrations in Each Dynasty Top

Colored Herb Illustration is a book with visual explanations. With scientific textual research of natural herbs, authors need to confirm the name, fruits, and morphological characteristics and then illustrate it accurately to ensure the standards, the safety, and effects of materia medica. Therefore, importance has been attached to the compilation of herb illustrations in each dynasty.

According to the history records,[1] herb illustration emerged about 2000 years ago. Ling Xiu Ben Cao Tu (《灵秀本草图》 Lingxiu Herb Illustration) with six volumes, written by Yuan Pingzhong (原平仲), is the one that deserves to be recommended first. The book was recorded both in Sui Shu · Jing Ji Zhi (《隋书·经籍志》 The Book of Sui Dynasty: Book Records) and Jiu Tang Shu · Jing Ji Zhi (《旧唐书·经籍志》 Old Book of Tang Dynasty: Book Records). No information about the author was found in records. We can only assume that he lived in the Sui dynasty or the time before Sui.

In 659, Su Jin (苏敬) and other 20 experts compiled Xin Xiu Ben Cao (《新修本草》 Newly Revised Material Medica) under the guidance of the government. Apart from the 20 chapters of textual introduction, there were seven volumes of illustrated classic and 25 volumes of colored drawings of herbs. The book played an important role in identifying herbs and promoting the standardization. However, the book was lost 300 years later in the period of Kai Bao (开宝 968–979) in the Song dynasty. The colored drawings were lost earlier than the textual part. Xin Xiu Ben Cao may be the earliest colored illustration of herbs in China.

Since Xin Xiu Ben Cao's illustration part was lost, the Song government decided to recompile the pharmacopeia in 1057. With nationwide herb investigation, each local government was required to draw their locally grown herb samples and report them to the central government. In 1061, 20 volumes of Tu Jing Ben Cao (《图经本草》 Illustrated Classic of Materia Medica) were completed. More than 900 paintings were included in the book, and most of them were drawn on the basis of the actual sketching. However, the original book was also lost, and the extant illustrations were scattered in the Da Guan version (大观本), Zheng He version (政和本), and Shao Xing version (绍兴本) of Zheng Lei Ben Cao (《证类本草》 Classified Material Medica).

The extant colored illustrations mainly are Lv Chan Yan Ben Cao (《履巉岩本草》 Book of Material Medical Written in Lv Chan Yan) and Ben Cao Pin Hui Jing Yao (《本草品汇精要》 Essentials of Chinese Materia Medica). Lv Chan Yan Ben Cao, three volumes in total, was drawn by Wang Jie (王介) in the Southern Song dynasty. With four pictures absent, there are 202 paintings extant. Wang Jie, the supreme government official in charge of military affairs, excelled in landscape painting and figure painting. According to the preface, Wang Jie found it hard to identify the true herbs from the fake ones, so he went to Ciyun Mountain to sketch the herbs growing there. There were numerous herbs in the mountain, but only 200 or so can be identified and named with known usages. As an illustrating book for regional herbs, it gives a vivid capture of the figure of the herbs, and we can find the origin of the herb according to the drawings.

Essentials of Chinese Materia Medica, 42 volumes in total, were completed in 18th reigning year of Emperor Hongzhi in the Ming Dynasty (1505). There were 1358 pictures drawn by eight artists like Wang Shichang (王世昌). The original version and the recompiled one in the Qing Dynasty were all collected in the Rome National Central Library and Hong Kong University Library, respectively. The extant aberrant copies of the Ming and Qing dynasties only include 246 paintings and 520 ones, respectively. Excluding the repeated ones, there are 728 pictures altogether.[2] The pictures in the copies were imitated from those in Classified Materia Medica and Yin Shan Zheng Yao (《饮膳正要》 Essentials of Dietary Decoctions) or sketched newly.

  The Illustrations of Ben Cao Gang Mu Top

There is always a dispute on whether Li Shizhen (李时珍) drew illustrations in Ben Cao Gang Mu. According to the signs of illustration scrolls in the Jin Ling (金陵) version, these pictures were painted by Li's decedents such as Li Jianzhong (李建中), Li Jianyuan (李建元), and Li Jianmu (李建木). Besides, the illustrations varied in different versions. For instance, both Jin Ling version and Jiang Xi version have two volumes of illustrations. Although these 1109 pictures were not exquisitely painted, they can still roughly reflect the features of their origins. However, the Qian Weiqi (钱蔚起) version has three volumes of 1110 illustrations. Among them, 800 were repainted by Lu Zhe (陆喆) based on the Jiang Xi version. Although the repainted pictures were more beautiful and more exquisite than those of Jin Ling version, 76.55% of them were distorted,[3] therefore 84 of them can hardly be identified. In. In Zhang Shaotang (张绍棠) version of Ben Cao Gang Mu, about 400 pictures were imitated from the Qian version, and some illustrations were introduced from Zhi Wu Ming Shi Tu Kao (《植物名实图考》 Research on Plants with Illustrations). These illustrations are much different from those in Jin Ling version.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, researchers in the field of botany and pharmacognosy have done a lot in publishing monographs on herbs. The herbs included in these books are different, for example, Zhong Yao Da Ci Dian (《中药大辞典》 The Dictionary of Material Medica) records 5767 Chinese medicines. Most monographs have illustrations for medicinal plants, animals, and minerals, but these pictures are mainly drawn by inked or colored lines. There are seldom black-and-white or colored photographs. For most TCM practitioners, it is pretty hard to identify the family and genus or distinguish the true from the fake based on the simple pictures and textual introduction. Therefore, the editors of Colored Illustrations of Compendium of Chinese Materia Medica selected 1225 herbs from 1892 herbs, based on a careful textual research and took ≥4000 colored pictures of the origins and medicinal materials. In the new book, all the medicinal materials were listed in the same order as the one in Ben Cao Gang Mu. Every herb is described in the aspect of the name, genus, illustration, function, usage, appendix, and main chemical components. Besides, it provides the origin, current producing area, the comparison of the ancient, and the present usage and functions. The textual description can be more vivid with the illustration, and with the textual description, the illustration can be better expressed. This is the new development based on the inheritance, which indicates the new thought and the new level of ancient literature research.

  The Value and the Significance of Ben Cao Gang Mu Cai Se Yao Tu Top

Ben Cao Gang Mu Cai Se Yao Tu in the 20th century not only represents the research on academic value of the original book in the past 400 years or the continuity of herbal research but also surpasses the textual research on the changes of herbal names and types. In my perspective, what matters more is that this colored herb illustration has made a satisfying step toward standardization research on the herb origins.

As we all know, with the fierce competition on herbs worldwide, the herb origin and its standardization research have become an intellectual property issue which arouses worldwide concerns. It is said FDA has conceived of normalizing the use and distribution of herbs. Besides, many Western and South Asian countries and regions also entrust relevant institutions with the research on standardization of herb origins while discussing the issues of legislation. With development of herbs in the long history, the species of herbs have also altered, and there are differences between the commonly used herb types. For those who engage in TCM clinics and scientific research, the confusion made by ambiguous origins of herbs has caused great trouble. To standardize the herbal market, to ensure the safety of administration, and to obviate the waste of health resources and damage of natural herbal resources, it is extremely urgent to establish our national standards on herb origins and seize the TCM intellectual property rights. The publishing of colored herb illustrations provides material evidence for the study on herb origin changes and also makes preparation for establishing our national herb origin standards.

Currently, the herbs commonly used by clinical TCM doctors are <100 types and those prepared by drug stores are about 700. Only hundreds of herbs are systematically studied by modern pharmacological methods. Therefore, there is a great potential for researching and developing herbs. The illustration did a detailed textual research on the origins of 1225 herbs and the changes of their names and compared the functions and features of these herbs, which provides a golden key to further exploiting herb resources and broadening the vision in clinical practice and scientific research. With the publication of this book, more astonishing and outstanding herbs like artemisinin are expected in the garden of TCM.

Translator: Lei Lan(兰蕾)

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Zheng JS. Figures for materia medica before the tang materia medica. Chin J Med Hist 1980;18:82.  Back to cited text no. 1
Shang ZJ, Lin QL, Zheng JS. Essence of Previous Materia Medica Literature. Beijing: Science and Technology Document Press; 1989. p. 275-91.  Back to cited text no. 2
Zheng JS. Search and Utilization of Major Materia Medica Literature·Literature Study of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Fuzhou: Fujian Science and Technology Publishing House; 1985. p. 57.  Back to cited text no. 3


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]


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