Li Shih Chen

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Li Shih Chen


Chinese Pharmacologist and Physician

Li Shih Chen was born in the Hupeh province in northeast China, into a family whose male ancestors were educated in medicine and practiced pharmacy. His father was a medical officer who wrote five treatises, one of them on smallpox. Li Shih Chen's major work is called the Pen Ts'ao or Pen Ts'ao kang mu.

Like European Renaissance notables, great thinkers in China were compiling knowledge of the past and creating encyclopedic works and collections. Li Shih Chen was born during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a time known for its brilliance and prosperity. Yung Lo, the third emperor, built grand temples and palaces in Peking, architectural wonders that awed the rest of the world.

Li's father encouraged him to become a civil servant like himself, but Li was unable to progress. His interests lay in medicine, and his father permitted him to assist in observing and examining patients and learning what existed in Chinese materia medica (books on pharmacy).

Unfortunately, there is little information available about Li Sheh Chen's mother or female relatives because Chinese culture was patriarchal and elevated and rewarded the importance of males while subordinating women. This system went back to the philosophy of Confucius (551-479 b.c.) and his philosophy of filial piety and its hierarchical nature. Chinese people paid homage and obedience to the emperor, sons obeyed their fathers, and women obeyed and were subordinate to men.

The Chinese philosophy of health and healing is very different to that of European cultures. Humans were only a part of the great scheme of nature and all living things. Although the word "ecology" is new to Western culture, the link between agriculture, environment, and health was the essence of Chinese medicine. In contrast to the concept of "cure," prevention and health maintenance were the ideals in the time of Li Shih Chen and the medical tradition before him.

Chinese philosophy depends on the concept of two principles, yang and yin (male and female, principles of night and day), and five basic elements, five planets, five directions, five seasons, five colors, five sounds, and five organs of the human body. Disease was believed to be a disharmony between the five fundamental organs. And the restoration of the balance between yin and yang was viewed as the cure for any disease. Since the human being was inseparable from the universe and environment, all these factors had to be taken into account when treating a patient. In the medical world of Li Shih Chen, cosmic relationships with the 29 healing Buddhas were necessary. Hence pharmacy was a benevolent art.

Since Chinese medicine also depended on regional treatments and differences, the compendium that Li composed was detailed to a degree never before seen in China. As he gained skill as a physician and recognition for his abilities, he was able to read and research. He depended on prior versions of herbals from over 40 previous Pen Ts'ao and incorporated medical works into his writings. He made it his mission in life to write about, illustrate, and give directions to find the environment where the particular drug grows, enumerate its pharmacological qualities, state what it is used for, tell about its advantages and disadvantages, give directions for extracting the active ingredient, and determine the dosage for each medicine. There is no book in contemporary culture that approximates this work.

In 1578 the Pen T'shao Kung Mu was completed, a description of 1,892 drugs and 10,000 prescriptions. Pen T'shao means teaching based on an understanding of drugs. The Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu (Great Herbal) consisted of 52 volumes and took Li Shih Chen 27 years to complete.