Translating Ancient Chinese Wisdom into Medicine for Today

Q&A Forum

Q&A Forum for Imperial Mentorship members

Digital editions of Chinese source texts

Question (Nov. 19, 2018)

by Tom Ehrman (abbreviated here for readers’ convenience, related to the Bencao Gangmu 本草綱目): “…I do see some very exciting possibilities with BCGM, particularly if I can turn it into a text/data mining exercise, to interactively explore the many facets of this work…. If you have any information on what you consider a good Chinese edition of the whole work, I'd be grateful if you could let me know (preferably something digital if at all possible). I have come across this site before ( which is not machine-readable, and you first have to take screen shots, put them all together and do OCR, to get a final pdf or Word document.”

Sabine’s Answer:

“I am not good with technology but do use digital texts all the time for quick searches and references. But if I do a more formal translation of a quotation from the BCGM, such as for a book footnote or blog, I have a high quality printed edition by Renmin weisheng. The online editions are great for easy checks but can be full of typos and similar errors.

For digital versions of historical Chinese medical texts, I start here:

While this is a great database and goldmine of information, the quality of the texts varies greatly so you have to be a bit cautious. For individual entries, you might actually be better off googling a medicinal in Chinese and reading a page like this (this should take you to the entry on 地黃)

This site will give you the key classical citations for individual herbs.

General Note to Blog Readers:

For more information on the Bencao Gangmu, see my three blog entries at Happy Goat Productions here, here, and here.

I chose to copy my response to Tom here to share with other members because I get asked a lot about finding decent digital versions of Chinese source texts. You can find pretty much anything on line these days, especially Chinese traditionally have no concept like copyright protection, and the classics obviously are not copyright protected anyway. But please be careful with typos and punctuation errors. Also, many websites are either in simplified characters or have been converted by machine from simplified to traditional characters, which means that there are numerous errors like 雲 (cloud) for 云 (indicating a quotation, which is the simplified character for both). So for serious research, you always need to proofread your digital text against a solid critical published edition. And finding one of those is not so easy either unless you have good connections to a medical historian in China who can send you those books. For the general classics, like the Daodejing 道德經, is a wonderful resource. Their English translations (where they exist) are way outdated and generally quite worthless but the digitized Chinese text is extremely useful.

Also, to answer a question from my colleague Z’ev Rosenberg, they do have a very nice edition of the Nanjing 難經 and a few other major medical classics! So that is the one I would recommend if you are looking for a text that you can copy and paste into Pleco or Wenlin or an English WORD document.

Sabine WilmsComment