Chinese Herbal Medicine - The History of Chinese Herbalism

Mention Chinese medicine and plants that make them to anyone today, especially in Western countries, and visions of acupuncture are the first thing that springs to mind for most people.  The truth is, Chinese medicine is so much more. Even more true, is the fact that Chinese medicine very often surpasses and is the foundation for Western medical practices.

The Lord of Remedies - Medical Plants

The Lord of Remedies - Medical Plants

Since practically the beginning of time, if it could be said that one culture literally wrote the book on herbalism -- only the Chinese could claim the prize of having the longest unbroken belief and traditions in herbal medicine.  It has always seems odd to me that the herbal medicine practices of Asian cultures, should be considered alternative medicine,while today's science of synthetic drugs (Western medicine) should be the standard.

Chinese Medicine

Roughly three thousand years ago, it is recorded history that the Chinese knew about three hundred different plants for herbal medicine. By then, they had already recorded descriptions of the plants, how to preserve them, and how to administer them correctly, all according to Chinese medicine practices of the time.  The wondrous thing is that many of these practices are still in use today and make up the foundation of herbal medicine as we now know it.

Let's Take A Look At How Chinese Medicine in History

The Emperor Shen Nung (2698 B.C.)

The Emperor Shen Nung was a big fan or perhaps the "father" of Chinese medicine. He had the Canon of Herbs written, recording in precise detail three hundred and sixty-five plants, minerals, and animals. He further described how to preserve them for medicinal use, along with details on how to administer them.

The Canon of Herbs, is also known as the Shen-nung pen ts'ao ching (Divine Husbandman's Materia Medica), Legend has it, that he wrote it, but who actually penned his body of work is unknown.  One thing is certain, this Father of Chinese medicine is also introduced the technique of acupuncture to the common people of China.

Futhermore, He didn't just trust his theories and beliefs and the testing of them to others, he personally is said to have tasted at least one hundred of these traditional Chinese medicines.  He was quite a busy Emperor, because he additionally taught his people how to cultivate grains as food, solely for the purpose of killing less animals.

Haung Ti - The Yellow Emperor (2550 B.C.)

One hundred years after Emperor Shen Nung, Emperor Huang Ti (aka the Yellow Emperor) developed a central theory that in Chinese medicine that really understood human disease far better than any other culture during that time.

This one quote from his Nei Ching says it all:

"In treating illness, it is necessary to examine the entire context, scrutinize the symptoms, observe the emotions, and attitudes. If one insists on the presence of ghosts and spirits one cannot speak of therapeutics."
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This optimistic viewpoint in his book, shows what today we know as, holistic medicine, being a concept a few thousand years old. The book was popular, even being updated in the 6th century, and then again in the 7th century.  The works also went into introduction to the then known concepts about living matter, medical physiology, uses of plants, known anatomy, and developments in acupuncture.

Su Jing

In the 7th century, a young man named Su Jing, went to the Tang Dynasty and asked for sponsorship to revised and update Emperor Huang Ti's Nei Ching. The court was so intrigued that it provided him with twenty experts to give him input, documentation, and even illustrations of useful herbs that they knew.  Two years later, the result was A Revised Canon of Herbs being published. When you think about it, this was an amazing feat because this was over eight hundred years before the Western printing press was invented -- the Tang Dynasty, not only printed it, they distributed it throughout China.

Li Shizhen (Li Shih-chen) - 1518 to 1593

The well-known Ming Dynasty (1368 AD to 1644 AD) produced another great Chinese medicine work, written by Li Shih-chen. It was titled, Pen ts'ao kang mu (The Great Herbal). It took him twenty-seven years to write this book. It is a practical and scientific manual with over eleven thousand recipes or compounds from plants.

Here was a man who was very determined from childhood as he helped his father collect herbs and copy prescriptions.  Inside it, is pretty much the sum total of herbal medicine known at the time. It contains descriptions of over eighteen hundred plants, animal parts, minerals, and metals that made up Chinese medicine for the time. The best part of Li Shih-chen's body of work in Chinese medicine is the fact that it is so revered, that it is updated and revised still to this day.

Li Shizhen (Li Shih-chen) - 1518 to 1593

Li Shizhen (Li Shih-chen) - 1518 to 1593

Chang Chung-ching - The Physician

Another important herbalist, during the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) one practitioner of Chinese medicine, stands far above the rest -- Chang Chung-ching. He was considered the greatest physician of his era. He would forever go down in Chinese history as the Hippocrates of China.  He wrote Shang han lun (Treatise on Colds and Fevers), which profoundly affected Chinese medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine

A Few Words of Caution

There is a misguided notion among some people, that just because something is natural, like herbs made from plants -- that it is somehow safer. The truth is that plants can be very potent drugs and sometimes can even be deadly.  An equally important truth, is that synthesized drugs made from isolated plant principles are all around us in today's drugs. Two examples are:

  • Aspirin
  • Morphine

Just like synthetic drugs, the correct and accurate dosage of herbs, should never be taken in excessive amounts. It is also important just like you should always consult a doctor if you have a serious or recurring complaint, or doubts, you should also consult a trained herbalist.