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A Lifelong Pursuit of Truth
 Before the Sung dynasty, Chinese physicians were mostly bell-ringing quacks, always on the road. After the Sung dynasty, the so-called scholar-physicians arose and increased in number. They usually came from the rank and file of officialdom. Their social position was not much higher than that of the bell-ringers, but they nevertheless looked down on their less educated colleagues. Only Tang Shen-wei, who was very well-known and held a high position among the scholar-physicians, was not like that. When he was summoned from his native town in Szechuan to Kaifeng, the capital of the Sung dynasty, he halted whenever he met a tramping healer. He would respectfully invite the man to eat and drink with him, and then humbly ask his advice. In this way he was able to get copies of many antique prescriptions which had been lost to scholars for generations. In his medical practice, Tang Shen-wei would often refuse a monetary fee, if the patient could instead give him a couple of old formulas, no matter how commonplace they might be. He used to say that any commonplace formula, which had been tested and proved effective among the people, was worth more than a hundred tael of gold.
 Li Shih-chen was deeply impressed by this story about Tang Shen-wei. When he grew up he also became an enthusiastic collector of old prescriptions. When he cared for the sick and wounded in his native town, he often gave his services free of charge, asking only that his patients bring him secret formulas in lieu of payment. Thus he learned that a certain grass, when burned, gave off a smoke that could cure boils, that a certain herb beaten into a paste was good for insect bite, and that eating the ashes of a certain bean could cure hiccups. He always had his brush-pen ready to jot down these bits of information from his patients.
 Now on Li Shih-chen’s desk was a copy of the 59-volumeTung Chien Kang Mu(An Outline History of China) by Chu Hsi of the Sung dynasty, which had attracted his attention. Shih-chen was greatly inspired by its editing principles, which emphasized “the grouping of topics under general headings,” and “explaining of the contents of each topic by first clearly defining the scope of each heading.” So, he had not only a concrete example for the style to follow in his own book, but also an idea of what title to give it. When for the first time he wrote down the four characters,Pen Tsao Kang Mu(Compendium of Materia Medica) on the cover of his draft copy, he felt that the world before him became much wider, for the amount of work that lay in store for him was indeed like venturing into the deepest parts of the open seas.
 After years of hard labour, theCompendium of Materia Medicawas at last completed. The time was 1578 in the sixth year of the reign of the Emperor Wan Li. From the day Li Shih-chen first began compiling information and writing draft copies and up to the time he finished, a total of 27 years elapsed. Li Shih-chen was now an elderly man of 61. During these 27 years, he had read nearly 1,000 manuscripts by different writers, and had travelled extensively in mountains, along river banks, through wildernesses, always listening as he went to people from different walks of life.
 To make his book more complete and substantial, he had revised it thoroughly three times. Each revision was almost a complete re-writing of the previous draft. Notes and draft-copies lay on his writing-desk in piles several feet high. Part of this material he had paraphrased from old manuscripts, and part he had taken from records or narrations by other people. There was also a third part consisting of the record of his own studies, the results of his own critical judgment after years of research in the numerous, confused writings of old masters. Through repeated study, scrupulous discrimination and checking, he had finally succeeded in digesting and organizing material and notes that ran to nearly 10 million words and had compressed them into a masterpiece of well over a million words.
 TheCompendium of Materia Medicahas 52 volumes in all. Li Shih-chen classified a total of more than 1,800 different kinds of medicines he had seen and known of into 16 categories: Water, Fire, Earth, Metals and Rocks, Herbs, Grains, Vegetables, Fruits, Wood, Clothing and Instruments, Insects, Fishes, Shells, Birds, Animals, and Material from the Human Body. Each category was subdivided into several general headings. Under “Herbs” we find “Mountain Herbs,” “Aromatic Herbs,” “Swamp Herbs” and others, making a total of nine different kinds. “Wood” was subdivided into “Trees,” “Bushes,” “Aromatic Trees” and three other kinds. “Vegetables” fell into different classes according to their respective properties such as “Smelly and Peppery,” “Soft and Clammy.”
 The most outstanding merit of theCompendium of Materia Medicais that it applies the scientific, demonstrative method in correcting the many mistakes and ambiguous records of earlier medical writers. It represents a great step forward in the classification and description of medical data in a more specialized and accurate way. Many medicinal items were re-grouped and reclassified into their proper places by Li Shih-chen. Repetitious and doubtful ones were eliminated. He added over 300 medicines which had not been included in older medical books.
 He also possessed another treasure, the many actual specimens he had collected over a lifetime. Among them there were botanical samples, minerals, and smaller animals. His study was decorated with numerous aromatic flowers, pretty herbs, strange beasts, and rare birds. Upon his desks and tables lay crystals presented to him by his friends in the south. There lay the star quartz he had brought back from Taiho Mountain, a piece of asbestos given to him by people in Shantung Province, etc. All of these things seemed to be bric-a-brac for adornment, but every single item had been the object of his medical research.
 As a matter of fact, the work of compiling, or rather, improving theCompendium of Materia Medicadid not end in 1578. In the many years that followed, he continued ceaselessly to revise his great work, enriching the contents of its 52 volumes all the time. The total length of time he spent in compiling and writing it was not limited to 27 years, as historians claim. The time might be 30 years, 35 years, or perhaps even longer. We may say without exaggeration that only after he stopped breathing and thinking did his work of compiling and improving his masterpiece come to an end.(Excerpted from Chang Hui-chien’sLi Shih-chen—A Great Pharmacologist of Ancient China)