Specialized secondary metabolites serve not only to protect plants against abiotic and biotic challenges, but have also been used extensively by humans to combat diseases. Due to the great importance of medicinal plants for health, we need to find new and sustainable ways to improve the production of the specialized metabolites. In addition to direct extraction, recent progress in metabolic engineering of plants offers an alternative supply option. We argue that metabolic engineering for producing the secondary metabolites in plants may have distinct advantages over microbial production platforms, and thus propose new approaches of plant metabolic engineering, which are inspired by an ancient Chinese irrigation system. Metabolic engineering strategies work at three levels: introducing biosynthetic genes, using transcription factors, and improving metabolic flux including increasing the supply of precursors, energy, and reducing power. In addition, recent progress in biotechnology contributes markedly to better engineering, such as the use of specific promoters and the deletion of competing branch pathways. We propose that next-generation plant metabolic engineering will improve current engineering strategies, for the purpose of producing valuable metabolites in plants on industrial scales.