The ''Bencao Gangmu'' title, which Unschuld translates as "Materia Medica, Arranged according to Drug Descriptions and Technical Aspects," uses two . ''Bencao'' combines ''ben'' and ''cao'' . ''Gangmu'' combines ''gang'' and ''mu'' .
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' and a comprehensive list of herbs that would treat the most common sickness .
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 to treat common illness .
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.
With the publication of the ''Compendium of Materia Medica'', not only did it improve the classification of how traditional medicine was compiled and formatted, but it was also a great medium in improving the credibility and scientific values of biology classification of both plants and animals.
The compendium corrected many mistakes and false understandings of the nature of herbs and illness. Li also included many new herbs, added his own discovery in certain drugs, their effectiveness and function, as well as more detailed description according to experiments. It also has notes and records on general medical data and medical history.
''Compendium of Materia Medica'' is also more than a pharmaceutical text, for it contains information so vast that it covered topics in biology, chemistry, geography, mineralogy, geology, history, and even mining and astronomy, which would seem to have little to do with herbal medicine. It has been translated into more than 20 languages and spread all over the world. Even now it is still in print and used as a reference book.
''Compendium of Materia Medica'' also contains information that have since been proven to be false due to scientific and technical limitations at the time. For example, it claimed that lead is not toxic.