Bencao jing jizhu 本草經集注
by Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456–536)

Tagged for drug terms, place names, diseases, material practices and more, this richly encoded edition of a major landmark in Chinese medical history allows for multi-dimensional analysis of this primary source.

Fully Tagged and GIS-encoded Critical Edition

The Source Text

Three Layers of Historical Knowledge on Materia Medica

Tao Hongjing was not only a Daoist master of the Shangqing tradition, he was also a third-generation pharmacist. He was also a meticulous scholar, and took detailed analytical notes in his work. His collected annotations on the materia medica (bencao 本草) literature of his period offers many points of entry for study.

First, it contains three layers of text: the earliest Shennong bencao jing 神農本草經, which dates to roughly 200 CE. An intermediate layer, known as the Mingyi bielu 名醫別錄, contains commentaries from three major pharmacologists after that date. The final layer is Tao’s own commentary, which dates to roughly 498 CE. Thus, through its pages, we can see in the text the layered transformation of drug knowledge over time.

Secondly, it is a highly structured and regularised work, with regular use of repeated categories of analysis, such as drug names, alternate names, diseases terms, processing methods, and geographical locations.

Thirdly, the text describes the geographical distribution of roughly half of the products. This allows us a purview of the changing scope of Chinese drug knowledge – where the sourced there drugs from, and which regions constituted important centres of drug production. This geographical distribution can be used to uncover multiple dimensions of early medical history.


Richly Marked Text

Tagged for drug terms, place names, diseases, material practices and more, this richly encoded edition of a major landmark in Chinese medical history allows for multi-dimensional analysis of this primary source. The work of close reading, careful analysis of contents their categorisation, as well as new forms of presentation and publication, constitute a new form of critical edition. The full source text contains 74,497 characters and 18,608 individual tags in 19 categories, as follows:

  • Taboo
  • DrugEcology
  • relatedPlace
  • DrugAltName
  • fullName
  • Actors
  • SideEffect
  • MainDrugName
  • DrugProperty
  • DrugActions
  • DrugPreparation
  • placeName
  • Harvesting
  • DrugInteraction
  • RecipeName
  • MaterialPart
  • officialTitle
  • RelatedDrug
  • DrugName

The data of these markups, as well as their division into three time layers, and all the GIS encodings are available for download at

Exploring the Text Through the Markup

Once we have richly marked-up the text, we can analyse it within a framework called DocuSky. This allows readers to query the text in multiple ways according to the tags in the text. In this example I call out two different kinds of medical actors who are mentioned in the text, Daoist and Recipe Masters, and explore what are the most predominant uses of drugs which are associated with them. By using the traces of social contours in the text we can get a sense for the communities of practice that only appear peripherally, and would be painstaking to uncover manually. 19 different categories are used to mark the text, and these can be used in combination to explore many more potential analyses.

To explore this text yourself, please go to

Mapping Early Chinese Drugs

The three layers of text contain rich geographical data about the source location for materia medica, which have never been mapped out completely. These are displayed in an interactive map that allows researchers to parse the three layers of the text, to show changes in distribution over time. These can be interactively toggled, and different locations and specific drugs can be highlighted, and downloaded.

Explore this map here.

The clip below reveals a new finding that could not be seen without this map view. There is a concentration of regional drug sources around the Yellow River, and particularly around Taishan 太山, indicating that these locations played outsized roles in the early drug trade – a period about which little is written. With this map we can now make new arguments about the circulation of materia medica in early imperial China, including the importance of river trade to the spread of medicine.

Why not watch the video, and follow along using the map?

Further arguments can be made, for example, Im’ currently writing a paper which argues that an early text excavated in Chengdu consists primarily of drugs from the Northeast of China.

The geographic data for where the drugs were sourced has been tagged according to historical geography dictionaries, using historical placename authority databases such as Harvard’s CHGIS and Dharma Drum’s Buddhist Place Name Authority Database.

Stanley-Baker, Michael 徐源, Xu Duoduo 許多多, Chen Shi-pei 陳詩沛, Zhang Duan 張端, and Tu Hsieh-chang 杜拹昌. 2020. Collected Annotations to the Materia Medcia Bencao jing jizhu 本草經集注. edited by Hung Joey 洪振洲 and Hung I-mei 洪一梅. Ver 2. Taipei. National Taiwan University Press. DOI: 10.6681/NTURCDH.DB_DocuSkyBencaojing/Text

Stanley-Baker, Michael, 2020, “Digital Tools for Studying Early Chinese Medicine: Bencao jing jizhu 本草經集注,” paper presented at The 3rd International Conference on Dongui Bogam, Sancheong, Korea.

Thanks for watching!

Tao Hongjing, CCBY
L0039439 Ming herbal (painting): Lyonia ovalifolia Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images