Generally speaking, the standardized applications of Chinese herbs began since the publishing of Shang Han Lun and Jin Gui Yao Lue, The Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders and Miscellaneous Illnesses, collated by Zhang Zhongjing, who is deemed as the founding father of Classic Formulas. This book can date back to the end of the Han dynasty, almost two thousands years ago. The accuracy and completeness this medical work shows may make it hardly believe that it came out of an ancient person, which in turn infers that the beginning of Traditional Chinese medicine was way earlier than that. Now more and more evidence found from Mawangdui tombs and other archaeological sources is supportive to this verdict although the exact date of Shennong’s Materia Medica (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing), known as the oldest literature on Chinese healing herbs, is still in the air. Whereas, Shennong is more like a God than a herbalist around 2800 BC in many modern people’s minds.
How Chinese herbs’ healing power was discovered?
Unlike western medicine is developed around a basic theory, the method of pattern diagnosis is way much different. Without the help of modern machines, it is virtually impossible for ancients to know the true nature of pathological changes. What they could lay hand on was the visible and touchable symptoms and signs, which more often than not would lead them to the false belief that these superficial phenomena is the pathogenesis of the diseases. But now we already know that they are not.
Trial and error
Since this method is so rough, does it really work? That is the most frequently asked question in terms of herbal healing. Apparently it must to be answered well before obtaining the confidence.
Picture the harsh condition in the primitive times. Lacking of crops cultivation techniques, they could do nothing but hunting animals or gathering plants to survive. This is such a long-term process of trial and error that can barely imagine by person who is living a modern city life. It was learned the hard way, even costs a lot of deaths to trade for some revelation. There would be a long and flat learning curve, and they might make terrible mistakes to tell which wild fruits, seeds and tuber were edible and curative. However, that wisdom is not born with but acquired.
Unluckily, some dangerous and poisonous plants would be consumed mistakenly by a hungry person who was not picky and choosy once in while. The direct lessons were accumulated this way through pains, vomiting, diarrhea, coma, or even death. For instance, Da Huang (rhubarb) are found associated with diarrhea this way, and so does to Gua Di and vomiting and others. Meanwhile some valuable experience like Sheng Jiang (fresh ginger) alleviating vomiting were also found, which no doubt is another unusual outcome. It seems to take forever to master how to identify and apply them for ailments as this is such a long journey to get there.
Sages or average people?
Thankfully, some surviving documents might reveal some hidden facts to us. “The inception of Chinese herbs is from Shen Nong tasting different species of them,” Shi Ji Gang Yao (Chronicle Outline) said. Likewise, Huai Nan Zi-Xiu Wu Xun stated that, “To protect his family and other members of his tribe, Shen Nong tried all the species he can lay hand on. At that time, he almost encountered 70 poisonous species each day.” On top of that, xin Yu Juan Shang-Dao Ji Di Yi by Jia Lu in Xihan dynasty and Ji Xun Ji by Ren Fang also mentioned about the legend and proverb about Shen Nong. It is absurd with our easy attribution of so much discoveries to Shen Nong only, and so does other god-like figures like Qi Bo, Huang Di and Yi Yun, to name but a few. The knowledge of Chinese herbs grew slowly but steadily over time, even backwards sometimes during wars.
All the mentioned names are just the front profile, behind which there were a lot of endeavor from enormous persons who get little attention. After all, by no means it is so wrong to owe it to sages who were born wise or learned. This is a hard-earned experience from tough struggle with sickness, which lasts about thousands of years till now. Simply put, the knowledge of healing herbs is learned through a long period of trial and error.
How medicinal herbs were categorized?
The learning process might be hard to many, but it is easy once you get the hang of them. Mastering the properties of medicinal herbs is the name of the game. The properties mainly cover Four Natures, Five Flavors, ascending-descending-sinking-floating and meridians tropism.
The Four Natures refers to cold, hot, warm, and cool; The Five Flavors are acrid, sweet, sour, bitter and salty; The ascending-descending-sinking-floating is self-explanatory here; Meridians tropism is a little bit complicated, which means different ones apply only one of a few of specific realms and meridians are the channels to that specific realm.
As mentioned earlier, the insight are accumulated by generations of TCM practitioners. For example, the natures like cold, hot, reinforcing, reducing, ascending, descending, sinking and floating are induced based on the counterparts from illness and the zang-organ. Likewise, the theory of meridians tropism is the conclusion based on the therapeutic action to pathological changes from different the meridian-associated zang-organ. By the way, Chinese herbology is guided by a few different theories, though conflicting to each other sometimes, like Yinyang, Zang-fu and Jing luo and the like. It is because the typical consuming form is decoction, which combine a few of them together according to the law. The prescription is similar to cocktail therapy now we call and in most of cases it is only tailored to the individual condition. So not surprisingly, the same disease can be cured by different formulas and vice verse.
Theories behind herbal remedies and formulas
TCM believes that the course of illness, in fact, is the reflection of the waning-waxing of yin and yang in the body. The deficiency-excess inclination of illness does occur at the heel of the dysfunction of zang-fu and meridians. The basic concept of medicinal herb is to eliminate pathogenesis in order to restore and adjust the normal Zang-fu function, thus correct the pathological changes caused by unbalance between Yin and Yang. So to speak, natural herbs’ own partial nature is the very weapon to make the body right again. Every Chinese herb owns its unique properties, different nature, flavor and meridians tropism, or other combinations like same nature but different flavor, or same nature and flavor but different meridian. In other word, two with exactly same properties can barely be found in nature. To use Chinese medical herbs effectively and properly, the first and foremost task is to know them well, especially the exact corresponding patterns they are targeting. However, it would be utterly inadequate for a professional TCM practitioner to know only herbs. It is more than that and TCM theories is another field needed to be dig into, which is the bridge leading to herbal formulas.
Which comes first: experience or theories?
Personally the essence of herbal healing is about distinguishing group symptoms (patterns) and then summing up the rules, which refers to regular patterns from the TCM point of view. For example, The Six Channels and The Eight Principles are the two famous classifications, which are still frequently used for differentiation of syndromes, especially in some diseases with complicated clinical manifestations.
Ancient people was so smart to find a way to cure based on common and regular reaction of illness. After hundreds and thousands of consistent efforts, plenty of conclusions were made on general rules about the occurrence and development of disease. And then they tried very means to figure out the remedies based on those general rules, namely proven theories and herbal formulas. Of course, admittedly, to draw reliable conclusions, many experimental treatments and clinical trials must be gone through before finding the useful guiding theories such as Yinyang and the Five Phases. Given that the limitation then, there was no way to find a better treatment than that. And the peak is the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu) by Li Shizhen during the Ming Dynasty, in which there are all-time high 1,892 herbs, animal parts and minerals, plus 11,096 herbal medicine prescriptions available. The point here is that experience is before the conclusions of herbal formulas and theories, which is the most precious thing in TCM. It does not feed on thin air but on facts.
Is TCM science or an art?
For many from Western culture background, snake oil might be their first stereotyped image they might think of about Chinese herbs. Technically, TCM is not so much a science as it is an art. For the sake of better understanding about this ancient therapy, it seems that some cleanup must be made now, in a more scientific way.
Put it this way, if the mechanism of Chinese herbal remedies and acupuncture therapy is a black box, the visible input part is the symptom and sign; the output is the results after taking it. The middle process can not be watched and analyzed due to lack of modern machines, around which in turn comes a lot of speculations and guesswork. Some of them survived and form the popular theories because of their higher success rate. Another popular myth about how herbs and acupuncture effect in body is associated with being immortal in Daoism. Some Taoists with outstanding in Taoism studies and Qigong can supervise their bodies like endoscope, which is the way many believe how meridians was found. This kind of supernatural ability is mysterious in the thinking of most modern people, so take it with a grain of salt.
Possible side effects
Now Chinese medicine is widely used for many diseases, like weight loss, fertility, depression, menopause, erectile dysfunction, and hair loss, etc. And there is a popular belief floating around that they have no or little side effects. Obviously, this is an absurd idea. If they are safe to consume, why Shen Nong risked his life to distinguish them?
TCM wise, toxic is equal to the inclined nature, which is the exact arsenal a herb relies on to fight against the illness. In other words, the toxic is the way to go when confronting the right opposite pathogen, otherwise side effects thus occur when used the wrong way. In addition, unlike chemical drugs containing only a single ingredient, a herb may carry a few different toxic. In order to remove the unwanted while remaining the desired, the correct compatibility is needed. A good formula should take all elements into consideration to bring out the best while offsetting the unnecessary.
Besides, the increasing incidence of side effects, like Aristolochic acid nephropathy (AAN), is also related to the over westernization. Individualized therapy has long been one of the prominent features in this old oriental therapy. Unfortunately, a single-minded pursuit of standardization, to a certain extent, has discarded the most valuable weapon – treatment based on syndrome differentiation.
Actually many of them are poisonous, such as Ma Qian Zi (Nux-Vomica Seeds), Fu Zi (Aconite Root), Chan Su (Toad Venom), and Ban Mao (Cantharides), etc. The key is to avoid them or used them under guidance of TCM physician.
It is really challenging to gather and sort out so much information of so many Chinese herbs, let alone offering some fresh food for thought in terms of Chinese patent medicine and supplements. Anyway, at least commonly used species will be added to this herbal list constantly, such as Ren Sheng (Ginseng), Dang Gui (Dong Quai), Gan Cao (Licorice), Huang Qi (Astragalus), Ma Huang (Ephedra), Chai Hu (Bupleurum), Di Huang (Rehmannia), Sheng Jiang (Ginger), and Gou Qi Zi (Chinese Wolfberry), etc. Our future planning is to pack as much detail as possible for each herb and formula, covering such as source, features, indications, clinical applications, usage and dosage, cautions, historical documents, and references, etc. Finally, it would be highly appreciated if you can take some time off and feedback us, if any.
Finally, if you are willing to get a whole picture of this oldest alternative remedy, please refer to Chinese herbology.