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Chinese herbology

Drugs & Medication

Chinese herbology

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Herbology is the Chinese art of combining medicinal herbs.

Herbology is traditionally one of the more important modalities utilized in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Each herbal medicine prescription is a cocktail of many herbs tailored to the individual patient. One batch of herbs is typically decocted twice over the course of one hour. The practitioner usually designs a remedy using one or two main ingredients that target the illness. Then the practitioner adds many other ingredients to adjust the formula to the patient's yin/yang conditions. Sometimes, ingredients are needed to cancel out toxicity or side-effects of the main ingredients. Some herbs require the use of other ingredients as catalyst or else the brew is ineffective. The latter steps require great experience and knowledge, and make the difference between a good Chinese herbal doctor and an amateur. Unlike western medications, the balance and interaction of all the ingredients are considered more important than the effect of individual ingredients. A key to success in TCM is the treatment of each patient as an individual.

Chinese herbology often incorporates ingredients from all parts of plants, the leaf, stem, flower, root, and also ingredients from animals and minerals. The use of parts of endangered species (such as seahorses, rhinoceros horns, and tiger bones) has created controversy and resulted in a black market of poachers who hunt restricted animals. Many herbal manufacturers have discontinued the use of any parts from endangered animals.


History of Chinese herbology

Chinese herbs have been used for centuries. The first herbalist in Chinese tradition is Shennong, a mythical personage, who is said to have tasted hundreds of herbs and imparted his knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants to the agricultural people. The first Chinese manual on pharmacology, the Shennong Bencao Jing (Shennong Emperor's Classic of Materia Medica), lists some 365 medicines of which 252 of them are herbs, and dates back somewhere in the 1st century C.E. Han dynasty. Earlier literature included lists of prescriptions for specific ailments, exemplified by a manuscript "Recipes for 52 Ailments", found in the MaWangDui tomb, sealed in 168 B.C.E.

Succeeding generations augmented on this work, as in the Yaoxing Lun (药性论; also spelled Yao Xing Lun; literally "Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs"), a 7th century Tang Dynasty Chinese treatise on herbal medicine.

Arguably the most important of these was the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu) compiled during the Ming dynasty by Li Shizhen, which is still used today for consultation and reference.

The history of this literature is presented in Paul U. Unschuld's "Medicine in China: a History of Pharmaceutics"; Univ. of Calif. Press, 1986.

Categorizing Chinese herbs

Chinese physicians used several different methods to classify traditional Chinese herbs:

  • The Four Natures (四气 or 四性)
  • The Five Tastes (五味)
  • The Meridians (归经)

The earlier (Han through Tang eras) Ben Cao (Materia Medicae) began with a three-level categorization:

Low level -- drastic acting, toxic substances Middle level -- medicinal physiological effects High level -- health and spirit enhancement

During the neo-Confucian Song-Jin-Yuan era (10th to 12th Centuries), the theoratical framework from acupuncture theory (which was rooted in Confucian Han theory) was formally applied to herbal categorization (which was earlier more the domain of Daoist natural science). In particular, alignment with the Five Phases (Tastes) and the 12 channels (Meridians theory) came to be used after this period.

The Four Natures

This pertains to the degree of yin and yang, ranging from cold (extreme yin), cool, neutral to warm and hot (extreme yang). The patient's internal balance of yin and yang is taken into account when the herbs are selected. For example, medicinal herbs of "hot", yang nature are used when the person is suffering from internal cold that requires to be purged, or when the patient has a general cold constituency. Sometimes an ingredient is added to offset the extreme effect of one herb.

The Five Tastes

The five tastes are pungent, sweet, sour, bitter and salty, each of which their functions and characteristics. For example, pungent herbs are used to generate sweat and to direct and vitalize qi and the blood. Sweet-tasting herbs often tonify or harmonize bodily systems. Some sweet-tasting herbs also exhibit a bland taste, which helps drain dampness through diuresis. Sour taste most often is astringent or consolidates, while bitter taste dispels heat, purges the bowels and get rid of dampness by drying them out. Salty tastes soften hard masses as well as purge and open the bowels.

The Meridians

The Meridians refer to which organs the herb acts upon. For example, menthol is pungent, cool and is linked with the lungs and the liver. Since the lungs is the organ which protects the body from invasion from cold and influenza, menthol can help purge coldness in the lungs and invading heat toxins caused by hot "wind".

50 fundamental herbs

In Chinese herbology, there are 50 "fundamental herbs."[1] These include:

  • Agastache rugosa - huxiāng (藿香)
    Alangium chinense - bā jiǎo fēng (八角枫)
    Anemone or Pulsatilla chinensis - bi tu weng (白头翁)
    Anisodus tanguticus - shān lang dng (山莨菪)
    Ardisia japonica - zǐjīn ni (紫金牛)
    Aster tataricus - zǐwǎn (紫菀)
    Astragalus membranaceus - hungq (黄芪) or běiq (北芪)
    Camellia sinensis - ch sh (茶树) or ch y (茶叶)
    Cannabis sativa - d m (大麻)
    Carthamus tinctorius - hng huā (红花)
    Cinnamomum cassia - ru gi (肉桂)
    Cissampelos pareira - x shēng tng (锡生藤) or (亞乎奴)
    Coptis chinensis - duǎn hunglin (短萼黄连)
    Corydalis ambigua - yn h suǒ (延胡索)
    Croton tiglium - bā du (巴豆)
    Daphne genkwa - yunhuā (芫花)
    Datura metel - yng jīn huā (洋金花)
    Datura tatula - zǐ huā mn tu lu (紫花曼陀萝)
    Dendrobium nobile - sh h (石斛) or sh h ln (石斛兰)
    Dichroa febrifuga - chngshān (常山)
    Ephedra sinica - cǎo m hung (草麻黄)
    Eucommia ulmoides - dzhng (杜仲)
    Euphorbia pekinensis - djǐ (大戟)
    Flueggea suffruticosa (formerly Securinega suffruticosa) - yī y qiū (一叶秋)
    Forsythia suspensa - linqio (连翘)
    Gentiana loureiroi - d dīng (地丁)
    Gleditsia sinensis - zo ji (皂荚)
    Glycyrrhiza uralensis - gāncǎo (甘草)
    Hydnocarpus anthelmintica (syn. H. anthelminthicus) - d fēng zǐ (大风子)
    Ilex purpurea - dōngqīng (冬青)
    Leonurus japonicus - ymǔcǎo (益母草)
    Ligusticum wallichii - chuānxiōng (川芎)
    Lobelia chinensis - bn biān lin (半边莲)
    Phellodendron amurense - hung bǎi (黄柏)
    Platycladus orientalis (formerly Thuja orientalis) - cbǎi (侧柏)
    Pseudolarix amabilis - jīn qin sōng (金钱松)
    Psilopeganum sinense - shān m hung (山麻黄)
    Pueraria lobata - g gēn (葛根)
    Rauwolfia serpentina - (從蛇根木) or (印度蛇木)
    Rehmannia glutinosa - dhung (地黄) or gān dhung (干地黄)
    Rheum officinale - yo yng d hung (药用大黄)
    Rhododendron tsinghaiense - Qīnghǎi djuān (青海杜鹃)
    Saussurea costus - yn m xiāng (云木香)
    Schisandra chinensis - wǔ wi zi (五味子)
    Scutellaria baicalensis - hungqn (黄芩)
    Stemona tuberosa - bǎi b (百部)
    Stephania tetrandra - fng jǐ (防己)
    Styphnolobium japonicum (formerly Sophora japonica) - hui (槐), hui sh (槐树), or hui huā (槐花)
    Trichosanthes kirilowii - guālu (栝楼)
    Wikstroemia indica - liǎo gē wng (了哥王)


  • Wong, Ming (1976). La Mdecine chinoise par les plantes. Le Corps a Vivre series. ditions Tchou.

See also

  • Herbalism, for the use of medicinal herbs in other traditions.

External links

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