A Guide to Chinese Herbs and Herbal Medicine

chinese-herbs-3Chinese Herbs have been used as a form of treatment and tonic in China since 2000 years ago. It has a history and track record unlike any other. While society has been shaped largely by Western Medicine and dogma, there are lessons and wisdoms we can learn from this ancient Chinese practise. For example, a Western practising doctor will have nothing for you if you went to one feeling fine. However, if you were to go a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner feeling good, the physician might still prescribe you strengthening or tonic herb. This example highlights the deep difference in medical approach between the two. This blog aims to give you an objective view of the popular herbs used in TCM.

However, any discussion about Chinese Herbs must first be preceded by a discussion into Yin and Yang as well as the 5 Elements. The reason for this is because Chinese Herbal Medicine is stems from the understanding of balance and harmony. This is represented by Yin/Yang and the 5 Elements. You can find more information about them here:

  1. Yin/Yang
  2. 5 Elements

A Short History in TCM

The beginning of Chinese medicine is traditional attributed to Shennong (The Heavenly Husbandman). He was a legendary Chinese Emperor who ruled around 4000 years ago. He introduced agriculture and had personally tasted hundred of plants in order to discover their medicinal values. He is also supposed to have introduced the art of acupuncture. For many centuries, he has been regarded as the patron sage of Chinese physicians.

The most well-known work attributed to Shennong is The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic (神农本草经, shén nóng běn cǎo jīng). It was first compiled some time during the end of the Western Han Dynasty — several thousand years after Shennong might have existed. This work lists the various medicinal herbs that were discovered by Shennong and given grade and rarity ratings. It is considered to be the earliest Chinese pharmacopoeia, and includes 365 medicines derived from minerals, plants, and animals. Shennong is credited with identifying hundreds of medical (and poisonous) herbs by personally testing their properties, which was crucial to the development of Traditional Chinese medicine.

Gentleman and the Idea of Self-sufficiency

The great sages sought to master all fields of human endeavour necessary for self-sufficiency. Holding to this ideal, educated individuals in the Far East have traditionally studied Martial Arts for self-protection, medicine for self-preservation and fine arts and literature for self-expression. These skills and traits commonly make up what is thought to be a Gentleman or 君子 (junzi) back then. Coupled with the movement of Confucian teachings in filial piety, learning medicine not only benefits one self but also lends the ability to aid ageing parents in times of sickness. Because of this wide scope and integration of study, Oriental philosophy developed with a breadth and integrity that allows for its application to every one of these fields. There is always a holistic point of view taken when undertaking a new study – be it medicine, the arts or archery.