Materia Medica for the Relief of Famines


Jiu huang ben cao (Materia medica for the relief of famines) was compiled by Zhu Su (1361‒1425), whose given name was Zhou Wang or Zhou Ding Wang, the fifth son of Ming Taizu, the first Ming emperor (reigned 1368‒98). The work is an album with illustrations of local plants and an introduction to the classifications of Chinese plants that were of economic significance. This is also the earliest work on agriculture and botany in China to focus on the relief of famines. While still young, Zhu Su became keenly interested in medicine and held the view that medicine could save lives, cure diseases, and prolong life. The work was first printed in Kaifeng in the fourth year (1406) of the Yongle reign. Officially it has two juan, with two parts in each juan, so actually it is in four juan. The work records 414 plants, with 138 plants from earlier medical works, and an additional 276 new plants. They are grouped in the categories of grass (245 plants), trees (80), grains (20), fruits (23), and vegetables (46). The Chinese characters of the names are arranged by stroke order. The work has refined woodblock illustrations of these various plants, with descriptions of their shapes, growing environments, and pharmaceutical compounding processes. The work thus served as a reference about resources. Where it differs from other works of materia medica is that it focuses only on plants. It records a number of poisonous plants that become edible after elimination of their poison – useful knowledge during famines. About ten medical works on the relief of famines later were produced, and most of them borrowed from the contents of this work. Walter Tennyson Swingle (1871–1952), the American agricultural botanist who brought the book back from China for the Library of Congress, believed it was from the original edition. However, the lack of prefaces, postscripts, or printer’s labels means that its origin has not been confirmed. In his evaluation of this work, Wang Zhongmin, in Meiguo guo hui tu shu guan cang Zhongguo shan ben shu lu (A descriptive catalog of rare Chinese books in the Library of Congress), took the view that it was a reprint by Lu Jian done during the Jiajing period (1522‒66), possibly in the 34th year (1555) of the Jiajing reign. Lu Jian, style name Daohan, a native of Kaifeng, was a magistrate of Nanchang and Weixian, a judicial reviewer in Dali, a magistrate of Yuncheng, and eventually was promoted as prefect in Dujun Fu, Diannan. He was also an avid book collector. There were few Ming editions of this work.

Date Created

Subject Date

Publication Information

Lu Jian


Title in Original Language

救荒本草 : 二卷

Type of Item

Physical Description

2 juan, 8 volumes

Last updated: January 16, 2018