The oldest medical book that mentions herbs is the Huang Di Nei Jing - The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Differing opinions date the book between 800 BC and 200 BC. It’s a compendium of medical theory and practice attributed to the Yellow Emperor who is thought to have lived c.4700 BC or to be a mythical character whose age and royal status would provide credence to a contemporary work.
The period during which the Nei Jing appeared was one of great creativity and change. By 265 BC (when some scholars believe the Nei Jing was published) the transition from a shamanistic medicine to one based on theory and an accumulated body of knowledge was almost complete. Although the Nei Jing was supposed to have been written 2500 years prior it almost exclusively discusses the medicine of theory and accumulated knowledge. So the 28 substances and 12 prescriptions listed in the Nei Jing are the first mention of the Chinese herbal medicine which continues to be practiced now.
By 220 AD national and provincial government medical services were established. Professional specialties included prescribing physicians, senior physicians, junior physicians, apprentices and pharmacists. During the Chin Dynasty (265 AD - 420 AD) the Imperial University was established and medicine was part of the curriculum.
About 500 AD The Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica was published. This text contained the first references to “properties” of herbs and the first classification system for herbs other than the Five Element tastes. There were three major categories.
-Superior herbs - those which nourish life
-Middle Herbs - those which correct constitution
-Inferior herbs - those which expel disease
The Divine Husbandman’s Classic also sorted herbs by taste and temperature and it warned of toxic herbs. The catalog of substances contained plants, animals and minerals.
In 659 AD The Newly Revised Materia Medica, the first illustrated text of herbs, containing 844 entries, was published. 1108 AD saw the appearance of the Materia Medica Arranged According to Pattern which had 1558 entries. 1596 AD brought The Grand Materia Medica with 1892 entries. By 1977 5,767 entries were listed in the Encyclopedia of Traditional Chinese Medicinal Substances.
The period from 659 to the 1700’s saw the birth and evolution of several important components of herbal medicine theory. These components have continued in use to this day and are presented in the section Theory of Herbal Medicine.