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History of Chinese Herbology

Chinese herbs have been used for centuries. Among the earliest literature are lists of prescriptions for specific ailments, exemplified by the manuscript "Recipes for 52 Ailments", found in the Mawangdui tombs which were sealed in 168 BC.

The first traditionally recognized herbalist is Shénnóng (神农, lit. "Divine Farmer"), a mythical god-like figure, who is said to have lived around 2800 BC. He allegedly tasted hundreds of herbs and imparted his knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants to farmers. His Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng (神农本草经, Shennong's Materia Medica) is considered as the oldest book on Chinese herbal medicine. It classifies 365 species of roots, grass, woods, furs, animals and stones into three categories of herbal medicine:

The "superior" category, which includes herbs effective for multiple diseases and are mostly responsible for maintaining and restoring the body balance. They have almost no unfavorable side-effects.

A category comprising tonics and boosters, whose consumption must not be prolonged.

A category of substances which must usually be taken in small doses, and for the treatment of specific diseases only.

The original text of Shennong's Materia Medica has been lost; however, there are extant translations. The true date of origin is believed to fall into the late Western Han dynasty (i.e., the first century BC).

The Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders and Miscellaneous Illnesses was collated by Zhang Zhongjing, also sometime at the end of the Han dynasty, between 196 and 220 CE. Focusing on drug prescriptions, it was the first medical work to combine Yinyang and the Five Phases with drug therapy. This formulary was also the earliest Chinese medical text to group symptoms into clinically useful "patterns" (zheng 證) that could serve as targets for therapy. Having gone through numerous changes over time, it now circulates as two distinct books: the Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders and the Essential Prescriptions of the Golden Casket, which were edited separately in the eleventh century, under the Song dynasty.

Succeeding generations augmented these works, as in the Yaoxing Lun (simplified Chinese: 药性论; traditional Chinese: 藥性論; literally "Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs"), a 7th century Tang Dynasty Chinese treatise on herbal medicine.

Arguably the most important of these later works is the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu) compiled during the Ming dynasty by Li Shizhen, which is still used today for consultation and reference.


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