Li Shizhen completed the first draft of the text in 1578, after conducting readings of 800 other medical reference books and carrying out 30 years of field study. For this and many other achievements Li Shizhen is being compared to the Shennong, a mythological God in Chinese myth who taught them about agriculture and herbal medicine.
The Compendium of Materia Medica has 53 volumes in total:
1. At the very beginning is the table of contents, containing a list of entries included and 1,160 hand drawn diagrams to serve as illustration.
2. Volume 1 to 4 — an 'index' (序例) and a comprehensive list of herbs that would treat the most common sickness (百病主治藥).
3. Volume 5 to 53 — the main content of the text, containing 1,892 distinct herbs, of which 374 was added by Li himself. There are some 11,096 side prescriptions to treat common illness (8,160 of which is compiled or collected by Li).
The text is written in almost 2 million Chinese characters, classified into 16 divisions and 60 orders. For every herb there are entries on names, detailed description of appearance and odor, nature, medical function, effects and side recipes etc.
Luo Xiwen, tr. Bencao Gangmu: Compendium of Materia Medica. 6 vols. Foreign Languages Press. 2003. ISBN 7-119-03260-7. (Review, Edward B. Jelks)
Unschuld, Paul U. Medicine in China: A History of Pharmaceutics. University of California Press. 1986. ISBN 0-520-05025-8