[In Our Time] Li Shizhen

Li Shizhen

28/11/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: https://podplayer.net/?id=88332444
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p07wb269.mp3

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

Listen Date: 2020-02-01


  • So… this was very new and interesting. But so unconnected to anything else that I know about that I’ve hardly retained anything.
  • Tidbits I do remember: rat poop is among the list of remedies, there is no distinction drawn between food and drugs, and this may have been one of the contributing factors to why the Chinese are ready to eat anything that moves.
  • Also: Maoist propaganda turned him into a heroic man of the people.
  • Another tidbit: although he never left China, he corresponded or talked to enough people who did – and this was a time when the Ming empire was not isolationist – that he could describe things that came from Persia (almonds) or India (pepper) in amazing detail.
  • Another tidbit: that the logical culmination of every substance having medical effects is that human beings do, too; but he drew the line at human flesh – but human nail clippings and hair still make it into the compendium.
  • Which reminds me of the story about hair being added to bread to make it more stretchy (it actually fortifies it with Vit B12 along the way); Jewish priests arguing over whether it’s kosher or not (it is); and the worry about how hair sourced from Tirupati for this purpose is not kosher (sacrificed to a false god).


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