An Exploration into Chinese herb flavor combinations – continued!

You will remember not too long ago when Mitesh, a student at NCNM, released some very interesting information about an experiment he was doing concerning the flavors of Chinese herbs, their combinations, and their impact on human physiology.  Well, he completed a continuation of the project for this latest term project and has consented to let me share his findings with all of you.

I want to apologize for the formatting – I’m actually on vacation and have limited time to put this together.  Sometimes, copying and pasting from other programs (like Microsoft Word) can be pretty tricky.  Hopefully, it will still be readable.

I’ll also have another student project to share sometime soon.  It’s one student’s multi-disciplinary exploration of the energetics of Chaihu – I think you’ll find it to be very interesting.  Enjoy!

Purpose of Experiment

This experiment is a continuation of last term’s experiment in which I combined Chinese herb flavors to see if a particular effect arose. For example, did Sweet and Pungent create an inner sensation which I would call Yang Qi? Using the Tang Ye Jing herb flavor assignments, I would combine Ren Shen, the sweet archetypal herb, with Gui Zhi, the pungent archetypal herb, assess the inner experience and see if it converged on something I would consider Yang Qi. This proved to be true.

Dominant >





Bitter (Kidneys)


Wu Wei Zi

Xi Xin






Gui Zhi

Gan Cao





Sheng Jiang

Ren Shen





Chuan Jiao


Xuanfu Hua







Di Huang

Table 1: Tang Ye Jing Primary and Secondary Flavors

I continued this Chinese herb paring for Sweet and Sour, whose outcome, according to my teachers, should be the creation of fluids. This too proved true.

I further investigated the other two pairing with Sweet, that being Bitter and Salty. I then attempted to create descriptive markers to note the inner experience after which I then attempted to attribute my best Chinese Medicine term to the experiences.

The flavor combination testing was preceded with a calibration effort in which I poetically described the effect of the archetypal herb flavors. This allowed me to then have an authentic experience of what was meant to be Sour or Pungent.

Furthermore, I then take the a combination of primary and secondary flavors and see if the single herb would also have the same effect as the combined archtypal herbs. Therefore, would the herb with a primary flavor of Sweet and secondary flavor of Pungent, Gan Cao, create Yang Qi? And would the herb with a primary flavor of Pungent and Secondary flavor of Sweet, Sheng Jiang, create  Yang Qi as well? This proved not to be true for this case and there was no convergence is experience between any combination o f archetypal herb flavors and single herb with matching primary and secondary flavors. As such, I decided to drop this portion of the experiment and only proceed with testing of archetypal herb flavor combinations.

Background Information

The Tang Ye Jing assigns organs to flavors differently than the NeiJing. The Tang Ye Jing assigns flavors based upon shared gesture. The NeiJing assigns flavors based upon contrary gestures. For example, the Lung has a natural gesture of contraction, that akin to Metal and Fall. Therefore then NeiJing would assign Pungent to the Lung because its gesture is dispersive. Therefore, it would counteract the over-contractive pathology of the Lung. However, the Tang Ye Jing would assign the flavor of Sour to the Lung because they share the same gesture.

Another way of describing this difference is what is referred to as Tǐ Yòng體用, translated as body and use. Tǐ shows bones next to a ritual vessel. Yòng shows either a target with an arrow through it or bronze ritual tripod vessel. The Tang Ye Jing assignments focus on Tǐ whereas the NeiJing assignments focus on Yòng.


Suwen Chapter 5 Organs

Tang ye Jing Organ

Representative TYJ Herb


Goes to Liver and Restrains


Wu Wei Zi


Goes to Lungs and Disperses


Gui Zhi


Goes to Spleen and Tonifies


Ren Shen


Goes to Heart and Descends


Xuanfu Hua


Goes to Kidneys


Di Huang

Table 2: Flavors and Organs according to Tang Ye Jing and NeiJing SuWen

Unknown to me at the time of the conception of the experiment, a line in Chapter Five of the SuWen states:

Suān kǔ yǒng xiè wèi yīn
Sour and bitter gush and leak forth yin

Originally I hadn’t tasted this flavor combination, but this time it was on the docket. Knowing that results like this were possible, I proceeded with a little m
ore caution than when all the combinations had Sweet as a flavor.

Two Tastes Combinations


Pungent + Sour


Pungent + Sweet

Investigated – Part 1
Yang Qi

Pungent + Bitter


Pungent + Salty


Sour + Sweet

Investigated – Part 1
Yin fluids

Sour + Bitter

Investigated – Gush and Leak Forth Yin

Sour + Salty


Sweet + Bitter

Investigated – Part 1

Sweet + Salty

Investigated – Part 1

Bitter + Salty


Table 3: Two Flavor Combinations

In the future I would like to investigate triple, quadruple and all five flavors. A list in the appendix shows the possible combinations.

Methods and Design

The real question is if there was a convergence of experiences amongst herbs on a subjective level.  As mentioned previously, a primary baseline of subjective experience harmonized to the Tang Ye Jing flavors was done with the primary flavors from Table 2 above.

There was 6 oz of each herb decocted in 16 oz of water and gently boiled to a 8 oz reduction. They were ingested slowly savoring the experience. Each tasting lasted about 20 to 30 minutes for the full effect and about 10 minutes between tasting to clear the experience…

During the next portion of this article – Mitesh will reveal the results of this, his latest experiment.  Look for it coming this week!

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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