Solving Scientific and Medical Problems

in General Research on China


Nathan Sivin
Draft 5

Science and Medicine, General *

Number and Measure   *

Astronomy and Astrology         *

The Human Body, Health and Illness     *

Plants, Animals, Minerals          *

Elixirs and other Accoutrements of Immortality  *

Topography      *

Technology, Agriculture            *

This is a first draft of a guide to what might be called science for poets. Chinese poets and other authors grew up in a culture that gave cosmology a central place in the understanding of the state and of the body. Literati could expect of their readers a knowledge of the natural world in all its aspects, and (from the Sung on) acquaintance with the main medical classics. To understand what they wrote, it is essential to have access to their knowledge of the physical world. Although scientific illiteracy was for a large part of the 20th century a mark of pride among Sinologists, it has led to any number of misunderstandings, not only of particular texts but of fundamental ideas. The key to comprehending ancient Chinese culture is a lifelong willingness to learn whatever one needs.

The purpose of this document is to outline basic sources in European and Asian languages for dealing with common problems that come up when reading literary and historical documents. Each section begins with an orientation that suggests how to get started in dealing with that class of problems. It then provides an annotated list of some important reference sources.

If you want your command of these tools to be active rather than passive, it is a good idea to spend a couple of hours examining the most important resources listed here, so that, when you need them, you will know what they contain and what they are good for.


Science and Medicine, General


The most comprehensive overview of Chinese science is

Needham, Joseph, et al. 1954- . Science and Civilisation in China. 25 vols. to date. Cambridge University Press. The volumes on technology are the strongest, and those on mathematics and astronomy the weakest. The bibliographies in each volume tend to be extremely detailed, and are often the best on a topic. From the 1970’s on, other scholars wrote volumes of this series on various topics. The earliest fascicles are half a century old and, partly because of the inspiration that Needham provided for further studies, mostly out of date. It is therefore essential to use more recent publications.

The series Zhongguo kexue jishu shi 中国科学技术史 will eventually fill 30 volumes, and are generally written by teams of outstanding scholars of China. More than half the series is out. If you are interested in a given topic, you will do well to check on whether the pertinent volume is available. For a single-volume overview, attentive to science, technology, medicine, and philosophy of nature, see

Du Shiran 杜石然; Jin Qiupeng 金秋鹏. 2003. Zhongguo kexue jishu shi. Tongshi juan中国科学技术史。 通史卷 (History of Chinese science and technology. General history). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe.

Many of the new results in the field are written up in the journal East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, which before 1999 was called Chinese Science.

Most of the older dictionaries of classical Chinese did not survey scientific and medical writings. They therefore tend not to be very useful. In this as in many other respects.

Luo Zhufeng 羅竹風, ed. 1987-1994. Hanyu dacidian 漢語大詞典 (Unabridged dictionary of Chinese). 12 vols., indexes. B: Hanyu Dacidian Chubanshe.

sets a new standard.

For a comparison of how and why strong scientific and medical traditions emerged in different forms in East and West, see

Lloyd, G. E. R., and Nathan Sivin. 2002. The Way and the Word. Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press.

If you are interested in comparative studies, consider its innovative methodology.



The Bibliography of Asian Studies includes science and medicine, but is far from exhaustive.

For a carefully selected, annotated bibliography of important scholarship in Western languages, kept up to date, see my web site

under "reference materials."

For Japanese studies, use

Tōyōgaku bunken ruimoku 東洋学文献類目 (Classified bibliography of documents in Oriental studies; Kyoto, 1934-), an annual volume, attentive to technical subjects. It is exhaustive for Japanese publications, and includes a number of Chinese and some Western publications.

There is no annual bibliography in Chinese, but a good single-volume guide is

Jiang Lirong 姜丽蓉, editor. 2002. Zhongguo kexue jishu shi. Lunzhu suoyin juan 中国科学技术史论著索引卷 (History of Chinese science and technology. Index of writings). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe. Topical bibliography of Chinese and Japanese articles and books from 1900 to 1997, with author index.

Wilkinson, Endymion. 2013. Chinese History: A New Manual. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series, 84. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

is unsurpassed for Western, Chinese, and Japanese reference materials, primary and secondary, especially recent ones, that bear on history.



A good place to look for the most distinguished historical figures in science and medicine is

Jin Qiupeng 金秋鹏. 1998. Zhongguo kexue jishu shi, Renwu juan 中国科学技术史人物卷 (History of Chinese science and technology. Personages). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe. Includes 77 biographical sketches , from Mozi to Xu Shou, of ca. 7 pp. each, by experts.

For less eminent figures, see

Du Shiran 杜石然, editor. 1992-1993. Zhongguo gudai kexuejia zhuanji 中国古代科学家传记 (Biographies of ancient Chinese scientists). 2 vols. B: Kexue Chubanshe. Shorter accounts of 235 Chinese and 14 missionaries.

He Shixi 何时希. 1991. Zhongguo lidai yijia zhuan lu 中国历代医家传录 (Biographies of physicians in China through the ages). 3 vols. B: Renmin weisheng Chubanshe. Copies biographical notices on 22,000+ people from a wide range of sources, incl. gazetteers, with occasional notes. Usually but not always listed by ming; dates rarely given; almost everyone listed under a "specialty"; many excerpts in each article on most famous doctors. Separate stroke-order contents list in each vol. Appendices: (1) medical teaching lineages; (2) recorded medical books; (3) alternate names; (4) books cited.


Number and Measure


For classical writings on mathematics, see

Ding Fubao 丁福保 and Zhou Yunqing 周雲青, editors. Sibu zong lu suanfa bian 四部總錄算法編 (General catalogue of the four divisions: volume on mathematics). Shanghai: Shangwu Chubanshe, 1957. Largely modeled on the Si ku quan shu zong mu tiyao四庫全書總目提要, with notes on rare as well as important works.

Histories of Chinese mathematics tend to be chronological summaries of primary texts, emphasizing who did what first. The prominent exception is

Martzloff, Jean-Claude. 1997. A History of Chinese Mathematics, tr. Stephen L. Wilson. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. Tr. of Martzloff, Histoire des mathématiques chinoises (Paris: Masson, 1988).



For detailed studies of every aspect, see

Wu Wenjun 吴文俊, editor. 1998-2000. Zhongguo shuxueshi da xi 中國數學史大系 (Unabridged systematic history of Chinese mathematics). 8 vols. B: Beijing shifan dazue Chubanshe.

Every Sinologist knows that weights and measures changed regularly, and before very recent times were never standardized over the whole empire. For a quick overview of changes over history, see Appendix C of

Sung Ying-hsing. 1637/1966. T'ien-kung K'ai-wu. Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century, tr. E-tu Zen Sun & Shiou-chuan Sun. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press. Excellent annotated translation of a remarkable, comprehensive encyclopedia, which gives a good view of traditional technologies.

For details, see the definitive monograph on historical weights and measures,

Qiu Guangming 邱光明. 2001. Zhongguo kexue jishu shi. Duliangheng juan 中国科学技术史. 度量衡卷 (History of Chinese science and technology. Metrology). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe. Unlike earlier studies, this is based on thorough study of excavated artifacts as well as of texts.


Astronomy and Astrology


Wang Li王力. 1956. Gudai Hanyu 古代漢語 (Ancient Chinese). 4 vols. B: Zhonghua Shuju. 2d ed., idem, 1981-82

is an exceptional classical Chinese textbook. Among its many virtues are several chapters called "Zhonguo wenhua changshi 中國文化常識 (common knowledge about Chinese culture)." These cover a broad range of ancient usages. The chapter on astronomy and astrology, written in clear, simple Chinese, introduces basic terminology and explains how classical time reckoning, calendars, etc., worked. See also

Sivin, Nathan. 2009. Granting the Seasons: The Chinese Astronomical Reform of 1280, With a Study of its Many Dimensions and a Translation of its Records 授時暦叢. Sources and Studies in the History of Mathematics and Physical Sciences. Secaucus, NJ: Springer.

Chapter 2 (pp. 35-132) is an orientation on mathematical astronomy up to the late 13th century.

To go from Chinese star and constellation names to Western equivalents and vice versa, and locating them on clear star maps, use the excellent

Yi Shitong 伊世同. 1981. Zhongxi duizhao hengxing tu biao 1950.0 中西对照恒星图表 (Maps and tables with Chinese and Western fixed stars juxtaposed, epoch 1950.0). 2 vols. B: Kexue Chubanshe.

On the fundamental topic of Han cosmology, see the lucid explanations in

Cullen, Christopher. 1996. Astronomy and Mathematics in Ancient China: the Zhou bi suan jing. Needham Research Institute Studies, 1. Cambridge University Press.

For the stars as T’ang authors imagined them, see a Sinological classic,

Schafer, Edward H. 1977. Pacing the Void. T’ang Approaches to the Stars. University of California Press. Like most of Schafer’s other writings, based on mastery of the entire corpus of T’ang poetry. Excellent non-technical discussions of lunar lodges (ershiba xiu 二十八宿), field allocation (fenye 分野), etc.

There are many handbooks for converting old Chinese dates to modern ones, but

Zhang Peiyu . 1997. Sanqianwubainian liri tianxiang 三千五百年曆日天象 (Calendrical days and celestial phenomena for 3500 years). 2d ed. Zhengzhou: Da Xiang Chubanshe. Orig. publ., Zhengzhou: Henan Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 1970.

has superseded all the others. Its scope of information and the accuracy of its astronomical data make it far superior to its predecessors. In addition to using excavated almanacs, etc., it provides unprecedented data, e.g., dates and times of new as well as full moons and the 8 main divisions of the solar year (bajhie 八節), and the maximal phases and magnitudes of eclipses as seen from 8 ancient capitals. It is also exceptionally easy to use.

N. B.: The comments on astronomical phenomena in James Legge’s translations of the Chinese classics and Homer H. Dubs’s translation of the History of the Former Han Dynasty, etc., are based on obsolete methods, and can be dangerously misleading. Instead, use the sources cited above.

If you are interested in the iconography of astronomy from the viewpoint of art history or some other field, a rich survey is

Feng Shi 冯时. 2001. Zhongguo tianwen kaoguxue 中国天文考古学 ("Archeoastronomy in China"). Zhongguo Shehuikexue Yuan qingnian xuezhe wenku 中国社会科学院青年学者文库. B: Shehuikexue Wenxian Chubanshe.

An excellent book of somewhat narrower scope is

Tseng, Lillian Lan-ying. 2011. Picturing Heaven in Early China. Harvard East Asian Monographs, 336. Harvard University Press.


The most detailed and up-to-date history is

Chen Meidong 陈美东, editor. 2003. Zhongguo kexue jishu shi. Tianwenxue juan 中国科学技术史。 天文学卷 (History of Chinese science and technology. Astronomy). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe. Chronological, much of it arranged by author. Covers to 1911. Indices of authors and writings.

An excellent survey of technical topics, almost entirely based on research in the 1980’s, is

Chen Meidong 陈美东. 1995. Gu li xin tan 古历新探 (New investigations of ancient astronomy). Shenyang: Liaoning jiaoyu Chubanshe.

Although the official histories are the main repositories of observational data and computational methods, they list only a fraction of the phenomena.

Zhuang Weifeng 庄威凤 & Wang Lixing 王力兴, editors. 1988. Zhongguo gudai tianxiang jilu zong ji 中国古代天象记录总集 (Ancient Chinese records of celestial phenomena: general). Nanjing: Jiangsu Kexue Jishu Chubanshe. Has greatly expanded the accessible record by screening almost the whole of ancient literature, including all local gazetteers extant in China, and tabulating the actual descriptions chronologically.

Another offshoot of the same project is

Wang Lixing 王力兴, Zhuang Weifeng 庄威凤, & Feng Nan 冯楠, editors. 1989. Zhongguo tianwen shiliao hui bian 中国天文史料汇编 (Collected historical materials for Chinese astronomy). Vol. 1. Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe. Excellent for biographical data on astronomers (its sole topic), many of them obscure; less useful for major figures, since it often abridges long notices.

For comparing Chinese eclipse records with those of other cultures, the most comprehensive study is

Stephenson, F. Richard. 1997. Historical Eclipses and the Earths Rotation. Cambridge University Press. Detailed theoretical and empirical study of historic records.

For the visual side of astronomy, see

Chen Meidong 陈美东. 1996. hongguo gu xing tu 中国古星图 ("Star charts in ancient China"). Shenyang: Liaoning Jiaoyu Chubanshe. Includes some previously unpublished, w/18 color plates & 111 b&w ills.


The Human Body, Health and Illness


Some excellent textbooks of medical classical Chinese (yi guwen 醫古文) are used in Chinese medical schools. If you want to learn to read medical texts, their generous selections from many kinds of medical writing, with detailed notes and sometimes vernacular translations, vastly ease the process. The best is

Duan Yishan 段逸山. 2001. Yi guwen 医古文 (Medical classical Chinese). B: Renmin Weisheng Chubanshe. Revised and expanded version of a classic textbook.

Because of the enormous but uncritical demand by acupuncturists and their patients for writings on Chinese medicine, the quality of publications in European languages is generally abysmal. You are likely to be grossly misled if you do not approach books and web sites on the topic critically. If you are just beginning research in this area, it is a good idea, until you are ready to evaluate sources yourself, to restrict yourself to those listed in the carefully selected bibliography on my web site (see p. * above).

For a general orientation to the relations of medicine with every aspect of Chinese culture, see

Li Liangsong 李良松 & Guo Hongtao 郭洪涛. 1990. Zhongguo chuantong wenhua yu yixue 中国传统文化与医学 (Chinese traditional culture and medicine). Xiamen: Xiamen Daxue Chubanshe. Medicine in every aspect of culture over the centuries, in the classics, miscellaneous masters, histories, literary collections, encyclopedias, poetry, drama, fiction, major early 20C figures, etc. Chronological chart, no index.

Nor is there any highly reliable translation of any early Chinese medical classic. The best strategy is to consult one of the better modern annotated editions. For the Inner Canon, probably the best from the viewpoint of scholarship also translates the two most commonly used recensions into modern Chinese:

Guo Aichun 郭霭春. 1981. Huangdi neijing Su wen jiaozhu yuyi 黄帝内竞素问校注语译 (Critical edition of the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor, Basic Questions, with vernacular translation). Tianjin: Tianjin Kexue Jishu Chubanshe.

Guo Aichun 郭霭春. 1982. Ling shu jing jiao shi 灵枢经校释 (The Divine Pivot: Critical annotated edition). B: Renmin Weisheng Chubanshe.

Another useful reference work for exploring the Inner Canon is

Guo Aichun 郭霭春. 1991. Huangdi neijing cidian 黄帝内经词典 (Dictionary of the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor). Tianjin: Tianjin Kexue Jishu Chubanshe. Indexes by stroke-order and romanization, survey of writings on Inner Canon before 1911, and bibliography of modern studies.

There is no comprehensive and reliable history of medicine in any Western language. The books of Paul Ulrich Unschuld before 2000 are frequently careless in interpretation and translation, and can be seriously misleading if not used with his Chinese and Japanese sources in hand. The more recent ones are excellent. The medical volume of Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China (vol. 6, part 6, 2000) comprises only a few topical essays, positivistic in approach, although the editor’s introduction surveys the recent literature and outlines present and future directions of research.

The best history of medicine in Chinese, informed to some extent by modern historiography, is

Ma Boying 马伯英. 1994. Zhongguo yixue wenhua shi 中国医学文化史 (A history of medicine in Chinese culture). S: Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe.

A parallel volume on cultural transmission is

Ma Boying 马伯英; Gao Xi高晞; Hong Zhongli 洪中立. 1993. Zhongwai yixue wenhua jiaoliu shi—Zhongwai yixue kuawenhua chuantong 中外医学文化交流史中外医学跨文化传统 (Cultural contacts between Chinese and foreign medicine. Transcultural traditions involving Chinese and foreign medicine). S: Wenhui Chubanshe.

The two were combined in a revised version:

Ma Boying 馬伯英. 2010. Zhongguo yixue wenhua shi 中国医学文化史 (A history of medicine in Chinese culture). 2 vols. S: Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe.

A more traditional but more comprehensive history, particularly for recent times, is

Li Jingwei 李经纬, editor. 2000. Zhongguo yixue tongshi 中国医学通史 (A general history of Chinese medicine ). 4 vols. I. Ancient. II. Modern. III. Contemporary. IV. Artifacts and pictures. B: Renmin Weisheng Chubanshe. Large format, lavishly produced. Vol. IV contains roughly 800 ills., mostly in color, with English and Japanese translations of captions.

Sivin, Nathan. 1987. Traditional Medicine in Contemporary China. A Partial Translation of Revised Outline of Chinese Medicine (1972) with an Introductory Study on Change in Present-day and Early Medicine. Science, Medicine and Technology in East Asia, 2. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies. Half is a translation of a modern textbook that explains concepts of the body, illness, health, diagnosis and therapy; half is a topical study of changing concepts and methods from the earliest medicine to the present. Gives a clear account of such matters as qi and other body contents, and pathological concepts. Its index is designed for use when translating medical concepts.

For a diverse collection of recent research by young scholars, see

Hsu, Elisabeth, editor. 2001. Innovation in Chinese Medicine. Needham Research Institute Studies, 3. Cambridge University Press. Unlike most conference volumes, this book’s essays consistently address its topic.

What is now called "Traditional Chinese Medicine" is, due to the influence of biomedicine, far from traditional, and continues to change quickly. It is impossible to ignore the question of whether it can survive. On that topic, the best study, an innovative and passionate interpretation informed by the author’s clinical as well as scholarly experience, is

Scheid, Volker. 2002. Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China: Plurality and Synthesis. Durham: Duke University Press.

 For a fresh and important new approach to medical history, see also

Scheid, Volker. 2007. Currents of Tradition in Chinese Medicine. 1626–2006. Seattle: Eastland Press.


The best large word and phrase dictionary that pays attention to classical usages is

Zhongguo Zhongyi Yanjiuyuan 中国中医研究院; Guangzhou Zhongyixueyuan 广州中医学院. 1995. Zhongyi dacidian 中医大辞典 (Unabridged dictionary of Chinese medicine). B: Renmin Weisheng Chubanshe. Over 36,000 items.

For special medical meanings of single characters, the best of several reference works is

Fang Wenhui 方文辉. 1982. Zhongyi guji tongjiezi gujinzi li shi 中医古籍通借字古今字例释 (Explications, with examples, of loan characters and historical variants in the early literature of Chinese medicine). Guangzhou: Kexue Puji Chubanshe.

Chinese-English medical dictionaries are on the whole compiled for non-Chinese acupuncturists by Americans who do not understand classical medicine or Chinese who do not understand English terminology. The only one not to avoid is

Yuan Yixiang 原一祥 et al. 1997. Han Ying shuang jie Zhongyi dacidian (A Chinese-English Dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine). B: Huaxia Chubanshe. Also functions as an all-Chinese dictionary. 8760 entries on every aspect of medicine in stroke-count order. Character and pinyin indexes, both in pinyin order.

For the terminology of acupuncture, use

Shi Xuemin 石学敏; Zhang Mengchen 张孟辰. 1998. Han Ying shuang jie zhenjiu dacidian 汉英双解针灸大辞典 ("A Chinese-English Dictionary of Acupuncture and Moxibustion"). B: Huaxia Chubanshe. Over 4000 entries, mainly on loci, disorders, acupuncturists, books, miscellaneous technical terms, with detailed definitions. Pinyin order, with transcription and tones. Appendices: list of 258 East Asian acupuncturists from legendary to modern times; index of loci; index of English terms. Lists first mention of each locus.

By far the most comprehensive reference source for medical books is

Qiu Peiran 裘沛然. 2002. Zhongguo yiji dacidian 中国医籍大辞典 (Unabridged dictionary of Chinese Medical Books). 2 vols. Shanghai Kexue Jishu Chubanshe. Lists over 17,600 extant and "openly published" works from antiquity to ca. 1990, and 4700 lost ones, with substantial articles for important surviving works. Plain stroke-order indices of titles and authors, the latter including variant names.


For sources in Western languages, consult my web site,

For a large collection of medical classics in searchable form see

Anonymous. 2002. Zhonghua yi dian 中华医典 ("Encyclopedia of Traditional Chinese Medicine"). Third ed. Changsha: Hu-nan Tien-tzu Yin-hsiang Ch'u-pan-she 湖南电子音像出版社.
One CD-ROM. Large collection on of complete pre-modern texts in simplified characters. To read, requires either Chinese Windows or a separate input program such as TwinBridge.

The only bibliography devoted to the topic is

Zhongguo Zhongyi Yanjiuyuan, Zhongguo Yishi Wenxian Yanjiusuo. 中国中医研究院 中国医史文献研究所. 1989. Yishi wenxian lunwen ziliao suoyin 医史文献论文资料索引1979-1986. Dier ji 第二辑. (Index to essays and materials on the history of medicine and medical literature). B: Zhongguo Shudian. Sequel to an unofficially published (and therefore unavailable) compendium of 1980, which covered from 1907 to 1978.

For a remarkable introduction to the philological study of medical texts, see

Ma Jixng 马继兴. 1990. Zhongyi wenxianxue 中医文献学 (The study of Chinese medical literature). S: Shanghai Kexue Jishu Chubanshe. No index. Ma's command of the literature is unexcelled, so he clears up many confusions.

Ding Anwei 丁安伟. 2003. Zhongyao wenxianxue 中药文献学(The study of Chinese drug literature). 21 shih-chi kao-teng i-yao yuan hsiao chiao-ts’ai 21 世纪高等医药院校教材. B: Kexue Chubanshe. Textbook. First 100 pages on ancient sources, remainder on modern and foreign materials, including online. Lists of important primary sources, reference works, etc.

Given the paramount importance of the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi neijing 黃帝内經) throughout medical history, it is fortunate that a quasi-concordance with an excellent text exists:

Ren Yingqiu 任應秋, editor. 1986. Huangdi neijing zhangju suoyin 黃帝内經章句索引 (Phrase index to the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor). B: Ren-min Wei-sheng Ch'u-pan-she. Excellent text; indexes over 44,000 phrases, including all technical terms, with a summary of each section.

Keep in mind as well that this is one of the few indubitable surviving Han Huang-Lao texts, all of which are medical.

For basic descriptions of important medical books, a good source is

Sun Jifen 孙继芬 et al., editors. 1984-88. Zhongguo yi ji ti yao 中国医籍提要 (Abstracts of Chinese medical books). Changchun: Jilin Renmin Chubanshe. Abstracts of a page or more, covering 900+ books, some evaluation, indexes of books and authors.

A remarkable collection of information about all medical books to the end of the Sung period, extant or lost, is

Okanishi Tameto 岡西. 1958. Song yiqian yi ji kao 宋以前醫籍考 (Studies of medical books of the Sung and earlier). B: Renmin Weisheng Chubanshe. (Note that yiqian often, as in this instance, is inclusive and therefore cannot be translated "before.")

A similar recent compilation includes later dynasties. It includes little but copies of prefaces, but they can be extremely useful, particularly as a source of data on social relations.

Yan Shiyun 严世芸. 1990-1994. Zhongguo yi ji tongkao 中国医籍通考 (General compendium on traditional Chinese medical books). 4 vols., 1 vol. index. S: Shanghai Zhongyi Xueyuan Chubanshe. Not general; reproduces prefaces to ca. 9000 books, extant and lost, with occasional notes on authors.

For a complete collection of the important medical texts excavated at Mawangdui, Hunan, ca. 1973, annotated and provided with many aids to scholarship, see

Ma Chi-hsing 马继兴. 1992. Ma-wang-tui ku i chi k’ao shih 马王堆古医籍考释 (Ancient medical books from Ma-wang-tui, with critical annotations). Changsha: Hu-nan K’o-hsueh Chi-shu Ch'u-pan-she. By a leading expert on medical texts,

and a similar compilation for Dunhuang medical fragments,

Ma Jixing 馬繼興 et al., editors. 1998. Dunhuang yiyao wenxian ji jiao 敦煌醫藥文獻輯校 ("Collected collations of the medical texts from Dunhuang"). Dunhuang wenxian fenlei lu jiao congkan. N: Jiangsu Gu ji Chubanshe. Handwritten critically edited transcriptions into modern fanti script of the 80+ Tunhuang medical MSS that survive anywhere in the world. Some sources on history. Introduction to each book estimates dates of composition and writing. Substantial foreword on the study of these documents. No index.

In identifying acupuncture loci, there are a good many discrepancies between different reference works. Some sources blithely translate the names of loci, neglecting the formidable scholarship necessary to determine what they mean. The least untrustworthy source is

Institute of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 1990. State Standard of the People's Republic of China. The Location of Acupoints. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press. Profusely illustrated. Includes substantial material from early sources with discussions to resolve contradictions, and data on related anatomical, incl. nerve, structures.

For methods of identifying ancient Chinese medical disorders, see Appendix H of

Sivin, Nathan. 1968. Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies. Harvard Monographs in the History of Science, 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

and the index of Sivin 1987 (see p. 7 above).

A great many important medical documents are not in medical writings. Three useful anthologies, each gathered from different kinds of literature, are

Chen Bangxian 陈邦贤. 1982. Ershliu shi yixue shiliao huibian 二十六史医学史料汇编 (Collection of materials for the history of medicine from the 26 Standard Histories). B: Zhongyi Yanjiuyuan, Zhongguo Yishi Wenxian Yanjiusuo. Transcriptions arranged topically under each history, including the Draft History of the Qing era; gives text and standard commentaries, cited by juan number. Completed 1964.

Qian Yuanming 钱远铭, editor. 1986. Jing shi baijia yi lu 经史百家医录 (Record of medical content in classics, histories, and other writings). Guangzhou: Guangdong Keji Chubanshe. Excerpts arranged topically, from about a thousand sources, including fiction. Sources specified in detail, but no index.

Tao Yufeng 陶御风, Zhu Bangxian 朱邦贤, & Hong Pimo 洪丕漠. 1988. Lidai biji yi shi bie lu 历代笔记医事别录 (Classified anthology of medical matters in the jotting collections of various periods). Tianjin: Tianjin Kexue Jishu Chubanshe. About 2000 jottings from the biji literature; some censorship of "superstitious" items.

An important current research theme is the role of astrology and divination in medicine (which was also important in the West before the rise of modern biomedicine). An excellent introduction is

Harper, Donald J. 1998. Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts. Sir Henry Wellcome Asian Series. London: Royal Asiatic Society. With substantial prolegomena and material from other archeological discoveries, and indexes of materia medica, physiological terms, and ailments.

A good example of the contribution that gender studies is now making to medical history is

Furth, Charlotte. 1999. A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China's Medical History, 960-1665. Berkeley: University of California Press. On medical care for women and childbirth, with a chapter on women as healers.

There have been a number of recent dissertations that aid understanding of the social circumstances of medical practice, and that situate it in local or temporal circumstances. See, for instance, the books based (with extensive revision) on two outstanding ones:

Goldschmidt, Asaf. 2009. The Evolution of Chinese Medicine. Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Needham Research Institute Series, 8. London: Routledge.

Grant, Joanna. 2003. A Chinese Physician. Wang Ji and the ‘Stone Mountain Medical Case Histories.’ Needham Research Institute Series, 2. London: RoutledgeCurzon. An informative recent study of the social settings of 16th-century medicine.

Hanson, Marta. 2011. Speaking of Epidemics in Chinese Medicine. Disease and the Geographic Imagination in Late Imperial China. Needham Research Institute Series, 9. London: Routledge.

For a sensitive and finely written comparison of the experience of the body in two ancient cultures, with no attempt to establish reasons for the differences, see

Kuriyama, Shigehisa. 1999. The Expressiveness of the body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. New York: Zone Books.

Plants, Animals, Minerals


The structure of the traditional Chinese sciences was very different from that of modern disciplines. There was no field that corresponded to biology. Knowledge about living things was very rich, but was distributed through many kinds of literature. Books on materia medica are the richest sources for Chinese knowledge; in fact Charles Darwin drew on such sources in his writings on evolution. For the practical purpose of identifying names of plants, animals, and minerals in early writings, scholarship based on drug ingredients is most productive.

For English names of medicinal plants, the standard source is

Hu Shiu-ying (Hu Xiuying). 1999. An Enumeration of Chinese Materia Medica. Rev. ed. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press. Hu lists medicinal plants by Chinese name, and in each case gives scientific and pharmaceutical identifications and English names (some of which she worked out for the first time). There is an index to this book that makes it possible to look up substances by Latin or English name on my web site (see above, p. 2) under "research materials."

Sometimes useful for gathering information about plants, which Hu does not give, is

Read, Bernard E. 1936. Chinese Medicinal Plants from the Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu . . . A.D. 1596. 3d ed. B: Peking Natural History Bulletin. List by botanical classification of ca. 900 plants, with Chinese names. Mainly references to other sources.

For plants used as food, there are very rich and reliable data in

Hu Shiu-ying. 2005. Food Plants of China. xiv, 844 pp., 67 full-page figs. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press. General information on production and uses; recipes; botanical descriptions.

For Latin names, use

Fèvre, Francine, & Georges Métailie. 2005. Dictionnaire Ricci des plantes de Chine. Chinoise-français, latin, anglais. Paris: Association Ricci. A reference work of the finest quality.

For plant and animal substances, use

Read, Bernard E.[, Li Yü-t'ien, and Yu Ching-mei]. 1931-41. Chinese Materia Medica. 6 vols. Peiping: Peking Natural History Bulletin. Summaries, numbered in a single series, of ch. 39-52 of Pen-ts’ao kang-mu. Correspondence of item numbers with volumes:

            1-101. Insect Drugs, 1941

            102-127. Dragon and Snake Drugs, 1934 128-198. Fish Drugs, 1939

            199-244. Turtle and Shellfish Drugs, 1937

            245-321. Avian Drugs, 1932

            322-444. Animal Drugs, 1931

Read, Bernard E.; C. Pak. 1934/1936. A Compendium of Minerals and Stones Used in Chinese Medicine from the Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu. Li Shih Chen. 1597 A.D. 2d ed. B: Peking Natural History Bulletin, 1936. Summaries.

I highly advise, if you are writing for publication, that you check the information from Read with an up-to-date Chinese source, namely

Jiangsu Xin Yixueyuan Ï新医学b. 1977-78. Zhongyao dacidian 中药大辞典 (Unabridged dictionary of Chinese materia medica). 3 vols. Shanghai Kexue Jishu Chubanshe. Vol. 3 contains indexes of Chinese and Latin names, chemical constituents, pharmacological functions, and references.

Old Technical Terms in Early Sources

Early primary sources often use names of diseases and raw drugs that have dropped out of modern medical literature. In many cases all one can do is look for scholarship that identifies them. There are three secondary sources that deal with a wide variety of names:

Yu Yan 余嚴 (name given as Yu Yunxiu 雲岫). 1953. Gudai jibing ming hou shu yi 古代疾病名候疏義 (Glosses on the names and symptoms of ancient diseases). B: Renmin Weisheng Chubanshe. Judicious but positivistic identifications of words for diseases in early dictionaries and classics. Many of the terms actually do not correspond to any biomedical entity.

Zhang Xiancheng 张显成. 2000. XianQin liang Han yixue yong yu yanjiuu 先秦兩漢醫學用語研究 (A Study of pre-Han and Han medical terms). Chengdu: Ba Shu Shushe. A systematic textbook. Treats common usage and medical usage as socially distinct; chiefly interested in their interaction.

There are a couple of indexed modern eds. of the enormous Systematic Materia Medica of 1596, which lists a great many names given in earlier compilations of the same kind. The best is

Chen Guiting 陈贵廷. 1992. Bencao gangmu tong shi 本草纲目通释 ("General explanation of compendium of materia medica"). 2 vols., 7+10+2323 pp. B: Xueyuan Chubanshe. Complete text with detailed commentary, modern scientific identifications, information from modern studies of clinical applications, etc. Stroke-order index of drugs and formulas, alphabetical index of Latin names. Includes illustrations from 1596 ed. Simplified chars. The index distinguishes different compounds with the same name.

A reference work that includes names of drug ingredients from a wider range of sources is

Jiangsu Xin Yixueyuan 江苏新医学院 1977-78 (see above, p. 12).

Elixirs and other Accoutrements of Immortality


The most detailed account of alchemy is in Science and Civilisation in China (see above, p. 1). Four thick tomes (vol. 5, parts 2-5) deal with its many aspects. Most is written from the viewpoint of modern science, but for the aims, conceptions, and symbolic structures of the alchemists themselves see vol. 5, part 4, pp. 210-304, "The Theoretical Foundations of Elixir Alchemy."

For reading alchemical writings, the annotated translation in Sivin 1968 (see p. 10 above), with all technical terms in the index, will be useful.

For a bibliography, see

Pregadio, Fabrizio. 1996. Chinese Alchemy. An Annotated Bibliography of Works in Western Languages. Monumenta Serica, 44: 439-473. For an updated version, with other important resources, see

A fairly recent history of practical chemistry and alchemy is

Zhao Kuanghua 赵匡华; Zhou Jiahua 周嘉华. 1998. Zhongguo kexue jishu shi, huaxue juan 中国科学技术史化学卷 (History of Chinese science and technology. Chemistry). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe.

For a variety of representative studies, see

Zhao Kuanghua 赵匡华, editor. 1985. Zhongguo gudai huaxueshi yanjiu 中国古代化学史研究 (Studies in the history of chemistry in ancient China). Beijing Daxue Chubanshe.


Technology, Agriculture

Zhong Changyong 张长永. 2001. Zhongguo yan ye lishi 中国盐业历史 (A history of the Chinese salt industry). Chengdu: Ssu-ch’uan Jen-min Ch'u-pan-she. 1/2000.

P’an Chi-hsing 潘吉星. 2002. Zhongguo gudai si da famingyuanliu, waichuan, ji shijie yingxiang 中国古代四大发明源流,外传及世界影响 ("The four great inventions of ancient China: Their origin, development, spread and influence in the world"). Hefei: Zhongguo Kexue Jishu Daxue Chubanshe. Up-to-date survey, with bibliography, English abstract (pp. 606-17), and index.

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