Li Shizhen

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.

Listen on BBC Sounds website


  • Craig Clunas 5 episodes
    Professor Emeritus in the History of Art at the University of Oxford
  • Anne Gerritsen 2 episodes
    Professor in History at the University of Warwick
  • Roel Sterckx 4 episodes
    Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History at the University of Cambridge

Reading list

  • Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Cultures of Ming China, 1368-1644
    Craig Clunas (Reaktion Books, 2007) Google Books →
  • Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History
    T. J. Hinrichs and Linda L. Barnes (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013) Google Books →
  • Innovation in Chinese Medicine
    Elizabeth Hsu (ed.) (Cambridge University Press, 2011) Google Books →
  • The Essential Book of Traditional Chinese Medicine
    Liu Yanchi, Kathleen Vian, and Peter Eckman (Columbia University Press, 1998)
  • Imagining Chinese Medicine
    Vivienne Lo and Penelope Barrett (eds.) (Brill, 2018) Google Books →
  • Science and Civilisation in China, VI: 4 Biology and Biological Technology
    Georges Metailie (Cambridge University Press, 2015)
  • The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and its Transformations in Early Modern China
    Carla Nappi (Harvard University Press, 2009) Google Books →
  • The Crafting of the Ten-Thousand Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China
    Dagmar Schafer (University of Chicago Press, 2011)
  • Compendium of Materia Medica: Bencao Gangmu
    Li Shizhen (trans. Xiwen Luo) (Foreign Languages Press, 2003)
  • Chinese Thought: From Confucius to Cook Ding
    Roel Sterckx (Penguin, 2019) Google Books →
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine: Heritage and Adaptation
    Paul U. Unschuld (Columbia University Press, 2017) Google Books →
  • Medicine in China: A History of Ideas
    Paul U. Unschuld (University of California Press, 2010) Google Books →
  • Dictionary of the Ben Cao Gang Mu
    Paul U. Unschuld and Zhang Zhibin (eds.) (University of California Press, 2014-18) Google Books →

Related episodes

Programme ID: m000bp3g

Episode page:

Auto-category: 615.321 (Chinese traditional medicine)

Hello (First sentence from this episode) Hello. In China, the name of Li Shizhen, 1518 to 1593, is as famous as Isaac Newton's name is here.