Chinese Herbal Medicine

A Brief Historical Perspective:

Herbal Medicine is one of the oldest and most comprehensive forms of health care and is one of the main branches of Chinese Medicine. It is an ancient system of medicine that has undergone continual development over the centuries as the causes of illness that afflict mankind have evolved. In its many Asian countries, Chinese Herbal Medicine is not an alternative form of therapy, but is used in the state hospitals alongside modern medicine.

The first herbalist in the Chinese tradition was Shennong, a legendary ruler of China, also known as the Emperor of the Five Grains, 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 Ma Wang Dui tomb, and sealed in 168 B.C.E.

Succeeding generations augmented on this work, as in the Yaoxing Lun (“Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs”), a 7th century Tang Dynasty Chinese treatise on herbal medicine. Perhaps 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.

So there is nothing new about the use of herbs to promote recovery, health and wellbeing. Every culture through the world has at some point used healing plants as the basis for its medicine and has a basic healing flora from which remedies were selected. The range of plants varied from area to area depending on the local ecosystem, but the human health problems they dealt were the same.

The therapeutic philosophy for plant use also varies, but for thousands of years plants have demonstrated their efficiency as agents of healing. Besides Chinese Medicine, we find them in the Tibetan, Ayurveda, Greek, Roman, Persian, and Arab medicine. Indeed the majority of modern drugs have their origin in plant material.

The use of Herbs in Practice

The essence of Chinese Herbal medicine is in the art of adapting a formula to a particular patient’s condition. The harmonization of herbs within a formula is similar to the process of balancing of acupuncture points within an individual patients treatment. However, balancing the herbs within a prescription is all the more intricate as careful account should be taken a=of the tastes of the herbs.

After diagnosing the patients disharmony / disease and deciding on a treatment strategy with an appropriate formula, adapting it must take into account many different factors such as the patients constitution, the state of his/her digestive system, the mental-emotional state, the combination of tastes and energies within the formula and the harmonization of the herbs with different vectors/movements, for example, ascending or descending and floating or sinking. Taking all these factors into account, to adapt the selected formula to the unique patient’s disharmony is a very delicate and intricate task.

So in essence each herbal prescription is a cocktail of many herbs tailored to meet the needs of the individual patient. The Herbalist usually designs a remedy using a number of main ingredients that target the patient’s illness. Then additional herbs are added to adjust the remedy to the patient’s unique physical, mental and emotional situation, herbs may be added to modulate the effects of the main herbs; additional herbs may be added as catalysts. Some herbs may be added to neutralize the toxicity of side effects of the main herbs. Unlike western drugs, the balance and interaction of all the herbs in a formula are considered more important than the effects of individual ingredients. The key to success is to recognize the unique way an individual reacts to an illness. 

Is Chinese herbal Medicine Safe?

Chinese Medicine has been used as front line medicine by the majority of the world’s population since before recorded history, and is still the most widely utilized medical system in the world today. Adverse reactions to Chinese herbs are extremely rare and are negligible when compared to those commonly produced by pharmaceutical drugs.

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