China is renowned for its traditional herbal medicine that date back thousands of years. Legend has it that Emperor Shennong, the founder of Chinese herbal medicine, composed the Shennong pen Ts’ao ching or Great Herbal in about 2700 BCE as the forerunner of all later Chinese herbals. It survives as a copy made c. 500 CE and describes about 365 herbs.
High quality herbals and monographs on particular plants were produced in the period to 1250 CE including: the Chen Lei Pen Ts’ao written by T’Ang Shenwei in 1108, which passed through twelve editions until 1600; a monograph on the lychee by Ts’ai Hsiang in 1059 and one on the oranges of Wen-Chou by Han Yen-Chih in 1178. In 1406 Chou Wang Hsiao published the herbal Chiu Huang Pen Ts'ao. It contained high quality woodcuts and descriptions of 414 species of plants of which 276 were described for the first time, the book pre-dating the first European printed book by 69 years. It was reprinted many times. Other herbals include Pen Ts'ao Fa Hui in 1450 by Hsu Yung and Pen Ts'ao Kangmu of Li Shi Chen in 1590.