8th-century medical text lost for centuries has been rediscovered

Jianshangren’s Secret Prescription, a text of Chinese Traditional Medicine that was brought to Japan in the 8th century, has long been believed to be lost. However, the text has now been published after being passed down through a family for 52 generations.

After five failed attempts to sail to Japan, the Chinese Buddhist monk Jianzhen (also known as Ganjin) arrived at Kagoshima on December 20, 753. Until his death ten years later, Jianzhen was a key figure in the promotion of Buddhism in Japan. He also imparted his pharmacological and medical knowledge, including a book known as Jianshangren (Holy Priest Jianzhen)’s Secret Prescription. This work contained information on 36 kinds of herbal medicines, each with different pharmacological effects and recipes for different combinations to treat a variety of diseases.

Tōshōdai-ji in Nara, Japan. It was founded in 759 by Jianzhen and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – photo by Xiquinho Silva / Flickr

Only a few portions of Jianshangren’s Secret Prescription were preserved in other Japanese texts, but a team of Japanese and Chinese researchers wanted to see the influence this text has had on current-day herbal treatments. During their work they discovered that the text has recently been published in China. The resulting research has been published in the journal Compounds.

Before Jianzhen went to Japan, he passed the same prescriptions to his disciple, a monk named Lingyou. This knowledge was then passed down through Lingyou’s descendants. Fifty-two generations later, a man named Lei Yutian decided to organize all the prescriptions into a book and make it public under the title Three Treasures Be Published.


While some of the knowledge from Jianshangren’s Secret Prescription has been lost, this new publication contains 766 of the original 1200 prescriptions from the 8th-century text. They include recipes to make soups, pills, powders, ointments, and rice wine.

The researchers write:

From this book, we know that when choosing herbal medicines, it is necessary to choose high-quality medicinal materials that feel and taste good, not to use alternative medicinal materials, and to choose the right origin and seasonal herbal medicines. Each medicine should be carefully identified by eyes, nose, tongue licking, hand touch, and other methods to ensure that good medicinal materials are used. For pharmaceutical preparation, after the selection of herbal medicines, the medicine is prescribed and dosed according to the prescription. It is recommended to soak the herbal medicine in water for 1 to 2 hours and then to boil it for half an hour, and to take the medicine twice a day in the morning and evening by drinking half a bowl each time.

When Jianzhen came to Japan he brought with him various traditional ingredients from China, including musk, agarwood, snail, rosin, dipterocarp, fragrant gall, benzoin, incense, dutchman’s pipe root, Pistacia lentiscus, Piper longum, Terminalia chebula/haritaki, asafetida, sugar, sucrose, 10 bushels of honey, and 80 bunches of sugar cane. These and others formed the basis of the 36 herbal medicines, which form the basis of herbal medicinal practice in Japan, popular under the name of Kampo. The herbal medicinal practice is very much integrated into the fabric of Japan’s current healthcare system. Kampo medicines are prescribed alongside Western medicine and modern drugs and are covered by the country’s national health insurance.

Kampo can trace its origins to an 8th-century Chinese monk, Jianzhen, who brought to Japan wisdom on Buddhism as well as Traditional Chinese Medicine. Image by Toshihiko Matsuo from Okayama University

Moreover, these traditional medicines are being explored by researchers in creating new drugs. For example, a Nobel laureate, Youyou Tu, discovered the anti-malarial drug, artemisinin, in the repertory of traditional Chinese medicines. The rediscovery of this text may be helpful in future research.


The authors add:

before the book Jianshangren’s Secret Prescription was found, everyone thought it had disappeared in the world. Fortunately, we found it before it disappeared completely. It has not yet been included in the intangible cultural heritage. As we all know, intangible cultural heritage itself is very fragile. Everything has a process of generation, growth, continuation, and extinction, and the remains of intangible cultural heritage are also in such a dynamic process. We hope to draw more people’s attention to protect many intangible cultures that are about to disappear, including Jianshangren’s Secret Prescription.

The article, “Traditional Chinese Medicines and Prescriptions Brought from China to Japan by a Monk (Jianzhen, Japanese: Ganjin): A Historical Review,” by Shihui Liu, Toshihiko Matsuo, Chie Matsuo and Takumi Abe, appears in the journal Compounds. Click here to read it.

Top Image: Details of a 15th-century portrait of Jianzhen made in Japan. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art