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Han Chinese Polymath

By Tim Hazell

Li Shizhen, (1518–1593), was a Han Chinese medical doctor, scientist, pharmacologist, herbalist, and acupuncturist of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), whose major contribution to clinical medicine was his 27-year work, the Compendium of Materia Medica. He is considered to be China’s greatest scientific naturalist.

The Compendium is a medical text of 1,892 entries, with details about more than 1,800 Chinese medicinal drugs, 1,100 illustrations, and 11,000 prescriptions. It also describes type, form, flavor, nature, and application in disease treatments of 1,094 herbs, has been translated into many languages, and remains as the premier reference work for herbal medicine. The treatise includes various related subjects such as botany, zoology, mineralogy, and metallurgy.

Shizhen wrote eleven other books, including Pin-hu Mai-hsueh, or A Study of the Pulse. His father, a traditional physician, scholar and author of several influential publications, encouraged his son to seek a government position. After failing the national civil service exam three times, Shizhen turned to medicine under the tutelage of his father. At 38, as a practicing physician, he cured the son of the Prince of Chu and was invited to be an official there. Shizhen received a prestigious government post as Assistant President at the Imperial Medical Institute in Beijing several years later.

The physician avidly read many rare medical texts, noting the disorder, mistakes, and conflicting information that created serious problems in most publications of the time. His Compendium of Materia Medica was intended to provide correct information within a logical system of organization. During the research process, he traveled extensively, gained first-hand experience with many herbs and local remedies, and consulted virtually every medical book then in print. His Compendium bibliography lists over 900 other published manuscripts.

Li Shizhen was one of the first to recognize gallstones and use ice to bring down a fever and fumigants to prevent the spread of infection. He also emphasized preventative medicine, stating, “To cure disease is like waiting until one is thirsty before digging a well…”

The innovative naturalist popularized Chinese cabbage by bringing attention to its medicinal qualities. Chinese cabbage can refer to two groups of leaf vegetables often used in Chinese cuisine: the Pekinensis Group (Napa cabbage) and the Chinensis Group (bok choy). These vegetables are both subspecies of the turnip and belong to the same genus as cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower.


In this simple-to-prepare recipe, Chinese cabbage is blanched and then deliciously sizzled in garlic-infused oil.


Chinese Garlic-Oil Cabbage


1 head Chinese Napa cabbage

2 tbsp. light soy sauce (tamari for gluten free)

1/2 teaspoon brown sugar

4 cloves garlic, minced

4 tbsp. oil



Separate cabbage leaves. Blanch in boiling water. Drain and then set aside. Heat the oil in a small pan, then sauté the garlic until golden brown. Add the sugar and light soy sauce. Turn off the heat. Place the cabbage on a serving platter. Pour hot oil and garlic mixture on top to sizzle. Serve at once.



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