Understanding Chinese herbs using Classical Chinese Medical thinking

deeper_understanding_of_chinese_herbsSometimes I learn small things that turn out to be very useful. I would like to start sharing these as bite sized treats interspersed in between the thicker cuts that many of you are accustomed to here on Chinese Medicine Central. Today, I would like to offer one of those which is a way of thinking about herbs (and, thus, formulas) that I initially learned from my mentor, Dr. Arnaud Versluys. It’s a simple thing, maybe, but hopefully helpful to you.

In our Classical Chinese Medicine education here in Portland, OR, we are given a variety of types of information. I’ve talked about this several times before. We are sometimes told that truly Classical Chinese Medicine includes the information in the standard TCM system and includes information in the Western/allopathic system, but then goes outside of those reaching back to the Classical texts and cultivated ways of knowing. All of this information must be explored and, ultimately, integrated. We are encouraged to find that which really drives us and dive deep into that, but always asked to keep our minds open to the whole symbol field of information that human striving has uncovered.

In that spirit, consider the study of Chinese herbs. There’s a huge amount of information one could associate with any given single herb. The information has many different aspects – let us consider the relative materiality and the relative size (in time and/or space) of the information.

We can create two axes. One from grossly material to highly immaterial, and one from microscopic to quite macroscopic. We can find useful information anywhere in the field created by these two axes. Let me provide a partial list of information along these two axes that I use to understand single Chinese herbs. The information will be listed from more material and more microscopic to less material and more macroscopic (obviously not a perfect gradation).

  • Specific biochemical constituents, chemical bonding (for example, discussion of specific alkaloids)
  • Classes of biochemical constituents, herb-herb interaction (for example, what are alkaloids?)
  • Western medical physiological understanding (for example, discussion of the endocrine system)
    • This might include information from Western medical studies/clinical trials
  • Habitat and other botanical information (what kind of plant is this?)
  • Chinese herbal category information (qi, flavor, channel affinity) and dosage information
  • Contradictions (both Chinese and Western)
  • Use of the herb through history in China (what formulas? what doctors? what contexts?)
  • Understanding via various systems of differentiation (Ba Gan/8 Pillars, 6 Conformations, 5 Element)
  • Information in various Classical texts concerning this herb other than what’s already been covered in another category
  • Symbolism behind any of the previous categories of information (for instance, given the relevant habitat in which the herb grows – how can we understand it symbolically)
  • Use of categories of information associated with the organ clock (If this is a Spleen herb, how can the symbolism of the snake help us think about it?

Let’s just look at a quick example on a very basic level using just some of the partial list above. Bai Shao, anyone?

白芍 Bái Sháo (Yào)


Biochemical constituents/other minute level Western information

  • Paeoniflorin, albiflorin, oxypaeonifloring, benzoylpaeoniflorin, paeonin, hydorxypaeoniflorin (glycosides), gallotannin, d-catechin, eugeniin (tannins), benzoic acid, proteins and other constituents
    • To extend this into the next category, we might be interested to look more deeply at the general function of glycosides and tannins, their function in the body and the families of things on the planet that either create or use them in high amounts. Of course this must all be evaluated symbolically.
    • Herb-herb interaction? We might consider that Bai Shao is often paired with Gui Zhi, look into the chemical constituents of Gui Zhi and investigate, from a Western standpoint, what those interactions tend to produce.
    • Herb-drug interaction? What drugs does Bai Shao resemble? What drugs does Bai Shao work poorly with? For instance, one is asked to have care when using Bai Shao for patients on anti-coagulants. What does this mean?

We could definitely find many clinical studies about Bai Shao and isolate what pharmacological effects allopathic medical researchers have found. A quick look tells me that some researchers have found that Bai Shao has:

  • CNS suppressant, gastrointestinal, antibiotic, antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, anti-platelet and cardiovascula effects

Habitat and other botanical information

Bensky tells us that Bai Shao is Paeonia lactiflora with the bark removed and that Chi Shao is a wildcrafted version of the same species – with bark intact. It would be interesting to know more about this distinction and to understand whether this distinction held during the Han dynasty. Anyone with information to that effect?

It is native to a large part of the area from Tibet through China up to Russia. It enjoys a wide range of habitats and the entire plant can be used medicinally or as food. This may help us to understand its rather broad range of effects and its extensive use in the classics.

Chinese herbal category information, inclusion in formulas

  • Wei/Flavor: Bitter and sour
  • Qi/Temperature: Slightly cold/cool
  • Channel affinity: Liver and Spleen
  • Dosage: Typically 6-15 grams

A quick search at Rootdown.us shows us that Bai Shao is included in 48 formulas. As the formula database is not complete on that site (it’s growing every day!) I’m certain the number is much higher. We could look at the usage of Bai Shao in each of those formulas and come to some conclusions about what kinds of effects it has and use those findings to further dive into the symbolism associated with the herb.

Use of the herb through the history of Chinese medicine, inclusion in various Classical texts

How did Zhang Zhong Jing use Bai Shao? How is this different from the way later physicians used it? What is said about Bai Shao in the Shennong Ben Cao Jing? This entry is getting a bit too long already, so I won’t delve into these questions — but you can see how the information would be very useful in coming to a full understanding of Bai Shao.

Understanding some of the above information more symbolically

Just as a quick example take the broad habitat adaptation of Bai Shao. It’s a relatively easy plant to grow – and it grows quickly. The Earth seems to want to give it to us in abundance. An herb that adaptable has to be important for the basic physiology of the body – one might think. Perhaps it lends itself to a certain adaptability in us as well.

Various systems of differentiation

Again, to save time I will be very brief. One way to understand Bai Shao is that it backs Wood off of Earth. This doesn’t mean that Wood has to be very excessive. Earth merely needs to be a bit under the weather (so to speak) and the normal amount of Wood will be too much for it. This is part of the way we can come to understand Bai Shao’s use in Xiao Jian Zhong Tang. One symptom one might find in a XJZT syndrome is mild muscle cramping or mild abdominal cramping due to a weak Earth being unable to resist the basically “normal” Wood energy. Bai Shao mildly backs Wood off of Earth so it can recover.

Organ clock and other high level theoretical constructs

Bai Shao is basically a Wood herb. How can we use the symbolism behind the Wood organs – Liver and Gallbladder, to come to a fuller understanding of Bai Shao? We can consider, perhaps, the symbol of the Ox or the Wood constellations in Chinese astronomy. We could look at the clock pair of the Liver and try to uncover any mysteries there.

Ok, so this turned out a little longer than I expected. My gut level instinct is simply this. While I am not personally interested in going down every little rabbit hole that the current information culture serves up for me, I am certainly open to embracing a wide variety of information sources. I find that when I am able to see an herb (and by extension a formula) from many angles, my relationship with it deepens. I can only assume that this is molding me into a better clinician. I’d be very interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this topic in the comments. Go on – take a chance!


About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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