The writings of Bernard E. Read on Chinese materia medica were the first in any Western languages to introduce the full range of resources in a form assimilable to modern medical research. Reissue of these books–along with Read’s main source on drug plants, the pioneering treatise of F. Porter Smith–is timely.
Among the rare books on traditional Chinese herbal medicine, Bernard Read’s works on the early Chinese Materia Medica, including Animal Drugs, Snake and Dragon Drugs, and Famine Foods, provide a fascinating look into some of the largely forgotten thoughts and practices of Classical Chinese Medicine. These books are rare–the few copies on the market usually have an asking price well over $100 (I’ve chosen to make this available as a PDF download at the end of this post). Originally published in 1931 while Read was teaching at the Department of Pharmacology at the Beijing Union Medical College, this Pharmacopoeia is mostly a translation of the 1597 AD Ben Cao Gang Mu (Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu) by famous Chinese doctor Li Shi Zhen (Li Shi-Chen). The original Chinese Herbal Materia Medica was called the Ben Cao (or Shen Nung Ben Cao after the mythological Divine Farmer Shen Nung), which literally means “Roots and Grasses.” Li Shi Zhen’s Ming Dynasty work, often referred to as the Gang Mu, is “regarded as the most complete and comprehensive medical book ever written in the history of traditional Chinese medicine” according to the WikiOracle. This massive 53 volume work has 1892 individual herbs and 11,096 formulas. The work is valued for its historical importance not just to medicine, but for its references to geography, geology, Chinese history, and astronomy.
While there are many substances in the Ben Cao Gang Mu still used today, many are fortunately more historical curiosities of a mythological and superstitious nature (the fourth section is devoted to “Monkeys and Supernatural Beings” as medicines). As I recently wrote regarding the Classical Chinese Medical belief that pregnant women looking at rabbits risked having a baby with harelip, I don’t use the term superstitious lightly. The current trend to “restore Classical Chinese Medicine” as a “science in its own right” by people with a stated “distrust for laboratory science” combines with the low educational level I’ve observed among licensed acupuncturists to cause a need for this discussion. Additionally, the continued poaching of endangered species for traditional Chinese medicines shows the continued belief in the theories recorded in the Ben Cao Gang Mu.
One could hope that in 2012 there would be a widespread recognition of the historical roles of sympathetic magic theories, placebo effects, and superstitions in the history of Chinese Medicine. However, it would be misplaced hope, as there are millions of dollars spent on placebo remedies, endangered species parts, and exaggerated claims based on magical thinking every year.
Sympathetic magic isn’t about sharing someone’s feelings, it’s based on what Sir James Frazer called the “Law of Similarity” in his masterpiece _The Golden Bough_. This principle was found all over the world from the earliest time, and is found regularly in early medicine as “The Doctrine of Signatures” where a kidney bean is good for kidney diseases because of it’s similar shape, etc. Classical Chinese Medicine has a strong system of “correlative cosmology,” largely built around the Five Elements. This places a large importance on color, thus meat from a yellow dog is good for the stomach (attributed to the Earth element which is yellow) while meat from a black dog is better for the kidneys (Water and Black/Blue in TCM theory). Also important is direction, so we will see in the Ben Cao Gang Mu how products from animals walking south (the Fire element) are better for heart disorders, etc..
One of the most common approaches is that eating an organ from an animal will help the same organ in a human. This idea is apparent in the popular line of Standard Process Whole Food Supplements. In some cases, such as thyroid deficiency, it makes sense and has led to proven treatments. However, taken to an extreme it would suggest that those who eat a lot of hot dogs would have very little disease of any organs.
My position is that scientific research is an amazing and appropriate tool for deciding what substances are suitable for medical use. This applies equally to Western Medicines and Chinese Medicines, and one can only hope that corporate greed will be controlled by good science as we continue to move into the 21st century. I’m well aware of the corruption with governmental collusion of Western pharmaceutical companies, and am also aware that mainstream medicine maims and kills far more people than herbal medicine. Before claiming the high ground, however, practitioners of Chinese medicine need to vastly increase their educational level with regards to medical ethics, historical facts, and the scientific method. The scientific method is nothing to be scared of if your claims are truthful, and it’s often not even cost or time-prohibitive to use, as my post on muscle testing demonstrates.
While eating pig thyroid for hypothyroidism and walnuts to help your brain were are supported by chemical research (but originated on sympathetic magical principles), part of what I will share are the substances nobody today would prescribe as useful medicines. It is common to cherry-pick useful examples to promote traditional herbal medicine, and plenty of other people are doing that in their effort to sell products and seminars.
Bernard Read’s book on Animal Drugs is divided into five sections:
- Domestic Animals
- Wild Animals
- Monkeys and Supernatural Beings
- Man as Medicine
Over time I’ll do a more thorough review of this work. For today, I’ll bait you into following this series with one example from each section.
From Domestic Animals, we have:
The Meat of Animals Killed by Thunder
From the cow, horse, sheep, chicken, dog or pig.
Ordinarily people are warned not to eat such meat, otherwise it will cause the “big wind” diseases, madness, leprosy, edema etc.
It is given cooked to children frightened by the dark, and for adults who, as a result of fright, are supersensitive.
I wonder if there was a premium on such meat, or if farmers with kids scared of the dark would leave a sheep on the top of a hill during a thunderstorm hoping to be able to use this remedy.
From Wild Animals:
Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!
Most of the entries in this section detail multiple parts from an animal, such as bones, flesh, skin, tail, brain, and feces, all with specific indications. The wolf will be our example today:
Wolf. Canis Lupus…
The name is said to come from its fine intelligence. It can divine the path of its victims… It is as large as a dark colored dog. When it howls, all its body orifices especially the anus reverberates.
It is universal in China. In the north people like to eat it. It has a pointed head with a sharp nose. White cheeks, ribs joined together, tall in front and broad behind and short. It eats chickens, ducks, rats etc. It is variegated yellow black, also some are dark grey. It can regulate its voice, by imitating the cry of a child it can fool people. The people in wild hamlets fear its howl in winter. The bowels are straight, so that when it howls the anus expels gas. Its dung was used on the beacon fires, because its smoke rises straight up and can be seen from a distance. It constantly looks behind. It is very greedy and destructive. When old its neck droops and the tail lags and it finds it hard to travel either backwards or forwards. Its fortune follows the planet Venus.
An animal called the Pei (probably the jeroba) is said to be a short solf with a canny knowledge of the whereabouts of food, so the big wolf carries it on his back. Hence the term “fellows in crime.”…
Tendons of the wolf.
Unusually large. Used as protection against robbers. When burnt the fumes cause cramp in the feet (i.e. the robbers are then easily caught).
Flesh of the wolf.
Saline, heating, nonpoisonous. Stronger flavour than dog or fox meat.
A tonic to the viscera, thickening the wall of the bowels and stomach, stimulating the bone marrow, relieving cold in the abdomen, etc.
According to the “Chou Li”, the wolf was sacrificed in winter, the fat being first removed. Hence the prescriptions ordered for use, fat that had been obtained in the twelfth moon, purified and stored. Strengthening and vitalizing. Emollient to the skin, healing to all kinds of purulent ulcers.
Teeth of the wolf.
Worn as a talisman. Powdered it is given with water for dog bide. Ashed it is given for beef poisoning.
Epiglottis of the wolf.
Sundried and powdered. Half a drachm mixed in food will cure hiccough.
Worn as a talisman.
Tied on a horse’s chest it keeps the animal from fright.
Ashed and applied with oil to swollen glands. The ash is given with water to remove bones stuck in the throat.
Bones in feces of the wolf.
The ash in water will cure a baby’s crying in the night. As a cure for alcoholism. Roasted it is given with mulberry flowers and cicada skin for tetanus. If the patient’s mouth be dry this remedy will not cure.
As you can see, there are some sensible but unadvisable uses, such as wolf fat for dry skin, and some clearly magical ideas, such as using tendons to protect against robbers (throughout the early Taoist alchemical and medical literature, there are references to talismans for protecting against robbers and wild animals). Many times when bones are used, they are ashed first. This type of mineral ash would certainly have some effects (neutralizing acids, supplementing calcium, etc), though it is unlikely that there is a major difference between wolf and dog, tiger and cat, etc. Still, tiger bones are sought after today in preference to cat bones. Fortunately, cow or cat bones and genitals are often sold as tiger parts.
Rodentia are, from what I observed in China, not close to endangered. The large rats I had in my guestroom and observed all around the kitchen where I stayed in Dali, China (in the rural Yun Nan province) could have each fed a family of four. and left plenty of bones to ash. Only the hedgehog was listed in the Shen Nung Ben Cao, the squirrel, rat, and mouse were added later, along with the marmot, pine marten, and mongoose. While there are some interesting tidbits such as the use of squirrel tail hair for pens, the recipe of cooking mutton with bamboo rat to tenderize the sheep meat, the warning against common mouse bites giving a fatally venomous sting (and the advice to cure overeating of mice with, of course, eating a cat), I’m going to go with the hedgehog for today’s post, as this was the earliest inclusion and one of my wife’s favorite critters.
The Hedgehog. Erinaceus dealbatus, Sw.
Shen-nung, 2nd group [this refers to Shen Nung's 3 categories--superior (safe tonic herbs), middle (useful herbs for certain conditions), and inferior (toxic herbs for short-term specific use). KO]…
The head and feet are like a rat. The use of this animal for regurgitation and various stomach troubles is the reason for construction of its name and character. In the time of the Pieh-Lu it was found in the hills and cultivated plaines of Hupeh. There was no special season for its collection. It has short legs, like a pig, and a tail a little over an inch long. It is a browny white colour. Quills like a porcupine. It can roll itself up like the Euryale ferox fruit or a burried chestnut, and it unrolls to urinate. The quills are short and have a forked top. Another species of animal is mentioned which has different quills just like jujube thornes. Kuang Yun spoke of a red tailed animal called Chi Chii. Inferior kinds have feet like a rat. Another kind with a forked tail is called Shan Chi Shu.
The skin and spines together make a good clothes brush.
It is a repulsive clumsy animal, as large as a badger, and as small as a musk melon. It so dislikes the magpie’s call that it rolls over on its back and allows the bird to peck it in order that it may close over and hold the bird fast in its clutches as tightly as a clam. Magpie dung is poisonous to the hedgehog. Tigers are said to be scared by hedgehogs. Implying a relationship with an animal quite different than a hedgehog, Li Shi-Chen thinks it must mean a kind of flying squirrel termed P’iao Shu, which resides in the branches of trees.
Hot hedgehog fat added to iron with a little mercury makes the iron as soft as pewter.
The skin of the hedgehog. (Snout, PS.) (Skin of snout of head is prepared, RB)…
Cut up and roasted black.
Bitter, bland, nonpoisonous.
For all kinds of bleeding piles [Hemorrhoids-KO] given both internally and externally mixed with moxa it is burnt, the fumes of 3 treatments will produce a lasting cure. The ash with oil is applied to worm infested piles, prolapse of the rectum. The ash is applied on cotton to a bleeding nose and to polypi. The ash is given internally for nausea and vomiting, hydrophobia, and dysentery. It is smeared on the breast to quieten a frightened baby. The ash is supposed to have unusual value as a styptic both externally and internally. Given for rupture and colic. Whole hedgehog skins have an extensive sale in the North China drug markets, price 80 cents a catty.
Sweet, bland, nonpoisonous.
Give for nausea and lack of appetite. It is good for piles.
For flatulence and bloody diarrhoea. Dropped in the ear for deafness. Applied externally for alopecia, scabies, and eczema. It is anthelmintic. As a dressing for wounds from a tiger…
Heart and liver of the hedgehog.
The ash is given for swollen glands, and for fistula.
Dropped in the eye to stop lachrymation. Applied to piles. Applied to eyes for difficulties following smallpox.
The hedghog is considered one of the five great fairies, and some people do not like them to be killed, viz. the fox, rat, polecat, snake, and hedgehog.
Thankfully for the hedgehogs, not many people have wounds from tigers or worm-infested piles today. If they do, I suspect there are other treatments even a dedicated acupuncturist would choose.
It’s almost good enough to simply have a section called Chinese Materia Medica: The Monkeys and Supernatural Beings. Choosing just one entry to showcase is difficult. A few of the choices are Organutan (“It can talk and can fortell the future.”), Wild women (“Whenever they meet men they carry them off on their backs for sexual intercourse. The stronger men kill them and cut up the bodies to obtain from the kidney a translucent seal, 1 inch square like dark jade, bearing seal characters.”), and the Gibbon, which “are all born black but the old males turn yellow, when the genitalia rot off and they become females and are pregnant.”
As alluring as those choices are, let’s look at the Fei Fei:
Fei Fei. The Moupin Langur. Rhinopithecus roxellanae… A baboon…
Ch’en Ts’ang-Ch’i states that the Fei-Fei comes from the southwest border tribes. the Erh Ya says it is like a man with long hair floating about as it walks. It eats men.
The Shan-Hai-Ching says the Hsiao Yang has a human like face, with long lips and black hairy body. When it sees people it grins; and when it grinds it draws its upper lip over its eyes.
Kuo-P’u says that it is found also at Chiaochow (Kwangtung) and Nan K’ang-Chun (Kiangsi). It is over ten feet high. In the Sung dynasty the Liao tribe sent a pair as a gift to the throne. The Emperor enquired from the natives and it was said that this animal had a face like a man, a reddish pink colour, like a macaque, it had a tail and could talk like a man with the sound of a bird, and had knowledge of the times of life and death, terribly strong. The feet are turned backward and it has no knees. It just leans against things when it wishes to sleep. The hunters catch them by putting thick bamboos in their sleeves. The baboons catch them, and as they grin the hunter with freed arms nails the baboon’s lip to the forehead. This eventually kills the animals. The fur is so long ti can be made up into false hair for human use. The blood is a good shoe dye and embroidery dye. If men drink the blood it will cause them to see devils.
Li Shih-Chen says that it comes from West Szechuan, and the Chekiang mountains. People like to eat the paws. The Sha-Hsien hills of Fukien are also said to have them.
They are said to be like the men of K’unlun, hairy all over. They close their eyes and open their mouths when they see people. They are great smilers. They reside in the hills and live on crabs which they get by turning up the rocks…
Man as Medicine. Oh boy, this is a touchy subject! Here is a list of the human substances in Read’s book:
- Boy’s hair.
- Fallen hair from the head.
- Human dandruff.
- Human ear wax.
- Human knee dirt.
- Human finger and toe nails.
- Human teeth.
- Human feces.
- Human meconium [first feces from a newborn].
- Human urine.
- Human urinary sediments.
- Human urea.
- Human stone in bladder.
- Human milk.
- Human menstrual blood.
- Human blood.
- Human semen.
- Human saliva.
- Human tartar.
- Human perspiration.
- Human tears.
- Human breath.
- Human anima (ghost).
- Human moustache and whiskers.
- Human pubic hair.
- Human bones.
- Human cranium (skull).
- Human placenta.
- Human old liquified placenta.
- Human umbilical cord.
- Human penis.
- Human bile.
- Human flesh.
- Human mummy confection.
- Man and Climate.
- Human monstrosities.
As tempting as it is to write about all of these (and I may in time, especially with encouraging feedback in the comments!), I think “Human Mummy Confection” is the best sounding “herb” to explore today.
Mu Nai Yi. Human Mummy Confection
According to T’ao Chiu-Ch’eng in the Ch’o Keng Lu, it says in Arabia there are men 70 to 80 years old who are willing to give their bodies to save others. The subject does not eat food, he only bathes and partakes of honey. After a month he only excretes honey (the urine and feces are entirely honey) and death follows. His fellow men place him in a stone coffin full of honey in which he macerates. The date is put upon the coffin giving the year and month. After a hundred years the seals are removed. A confection is formed which is used for the treatment of broken and wounded limbs. A small amount taken internally will immediately cure the complaint. It is scarce in Arabia where ti is called mellified man.
Mr. T’ao has recorded it in this way but Li Shih-Chen the author of this Pen Ts’ao does not know whether it is true so he is recording it for others to verify.
(The Burmese priests have the custom of preserving their chief abbots in coffins full of honey.)
You see, even Li Shi Zhen is skeptical of some of these items!
After significant contemplation, I’ve chosen to make this rare text available as a PDF file. It is out of print, and the 1982 Taiwanese reprint I made the PDF from was likely a bootleg without permission. I think this is in the public domain. If anyone “owns” this work and doesn’t want it available to students of Chinese medicine, just let me know and I’ll take it down. It took me considerable effort to turn this into a PDF, so I’m selling it as a $3 download.