Guizhi tang and Miles Davis – an exploration in the harmony of Chinese herb formulas

Note: This post is written by NCNM student & CMQ contributor Eugene Lee. He also provided the painting here – a beautiful interpretation of the characters for “Guizhi tang” – please comment on this post, encourage Eugene’s contributions!

One of the words for Medicine in Chinese is 藥 yao, the top part of which indicates plant and the bottom which translates as either happiness or music.

The etymology suggests a close relationship between Chinese Medicine and music: both disciplines use external agents (in one case sound, in the other case herbs and acupuncture) to balance and harmonize the internal energetic landscape of the body and mind. As a longtime jazz musician and fledgling Chinese medicine student, one of my goals is to elaborate on this relationship between music and medicine, and I am finding connections in unexpected places.

One day in my herbs lab class, Eric had us taste combinations of herbs from the classic formula Guizhi Tang, which has 5 herbs: Guizhi, Baishao, Shengjiang, Dazao, and Gancao. It was the second week in a series in which he had us taste individual herbs, observe their effects in our body, and then observe specific combinations and note how the herbs modified each others effects.

This was a familiar feeling to me even though I had no prior experience in herbal medicine.

…suddenly I realized that the language that Eric used to describe the herbs’ interrelationships was exactly the same way that I thought of the dynamics within a small jazz group


As Guizhi tang is arguably the central formula in Chinese herbal medicine, I sought to compare a similarly prominent small jazz group with five members and settled upon the Miles Davis Quintet.

There were many permutations of this group throughout the various decades that Miles Davis was active on the jazz scene, but my personal favorite was the one with the following members: Miles Davis (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Tony Williams (drums), and Ron Carter (bass), which was most prominent in the mid to late 1960’s and was considered his “second great quintet”.

The more I pondered about the correlations between the two worlds the more things clicked:

Guizhi 桂枝– cinnamon twig, is the leader of the formula and its acrid and warm nature helps to “release the exterior”– bringing the body’s energy to the surface of the body to aid in expelling pathogens that have invaded. It gives the formula its name, is the most prevalent ingredient portion wise, and reflects the main medicinal action of the formula. It’s also felt to “connect the yang” and open up the lungs; all of its actions in general are expansive and energizing. Guizhi is thus clearly Miles Davis, the leader of the quintet, who with his high pitched trumpet and poetic yet piercing phrasing, takes moment to moment command of the quintet’s dynamic.

Miles Davis

Just as all the other herbs mainly function to support Guizhi in Guizhitang, all the other musicians in the quintet are essentially beholden to Miles’ leadership, who by this period in jazz history had already risen to the status of living legend.

Baishao 白芍– peony root, is often paired with Guizhi and tends to compliment Guizhi’s upward, expansive energy with a downward, contractive quality. In our herbs lab class when we were tasting the Guizhi / Baishao combination, I had the sensation that Baishao lowered the seat of Guizhi’s action, as well as tempering it. The complimentary relationship with Guizhi suggests that Baishao is Wayne Shorter the tenor saxophonist in this metaphor.

Listening to the two play a melody together demonstrates this perfectly; Wayne syncs up to the exact tempo and mood of Miles’ phrasing, and to me adds a depth that is undeniable and melodious. In addition, Baishao is known to be a blood nourishing herb, having an affinity for the liver and therefore the element wood.

Listening to Wayne Shorter’s solos fits this description perfectly; in particular the propulsive, wood quality of his melodic ideas. During this period he was already a master jazz composer and while listening to his solos it seems as if he has endless inspiration, evoking the birthing energy of springtime and thus of wood and the liver.

Guizhi and Baishao also have affinities for different areas of the body; Guizhi is directed more at the chest, whereas Baishao allows for more of an abdominal focus. This is exemplified with the formula that is a slight modification of Guizhi Tang– Guizhi qu Shaoyao tang, which just takes out the Baishao from Guizhi tang, and is used for cases in which chest symptoms such as a sense of fullness in the chest are prominent.

If one looks at the body’s vertical dimension as a metaphor for frequency / pitch, this translates exactly to the relative relationships between the high pitched Miles Davis as the chest oriented Guizhi, compared to the low toned tenor saxophone of Wayne Shorter, who represents Baishao’s abdominal action.

Shengjiang 生薑– fresh ginger, is the agent in guizhi tang that energizes and potentiates the action of the other herbs. Its main flavor is acrid, which is known by any who have tasted ginger to have a dispersing, spreading effect. It is another herb that releases the exterior, warms, and disperses. The effect that Shengjiang has on me, both in this formula as well as in culinary use, very much reminds me of Tony Williams, the young drummer who was hired by Miles Davis at 17 years old.

Tony Williams’ way with the ride cymbal in particular, the highest pitched cymbal with which jazz drummers provide a steady, syncopated beat, is forceful yet light, and provides a sizzling backdrop against which any soloist seems younger and more energetic. He has a tendency to play ahead of the beat, which might be correlated to ShengJiang’s ability to treat “dampness” if one imagines dampness in terms of a group slowing down in tempo– something that would never happen in a group with Tony Williams.

Dazao 大棗 (Jujube), and Gancao 甘草 (Licorice) are both sweet herbs that act upon the spleen / stomach system and help to harmonize the effects of the other herbs. Because of these similarities, when I first considered the assignments of the last two players in the group (Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter) it seemed somewhat arbitrary until I talked to Eric, who pointed out some of the differences between the two herbs: Gancao is much more ubiquitous than Dazao, and even has the distinction of being the only herb that is also considered to be a formula onto itself: Gancao tang.

This alone points to the fact that Gancao is the bassist Ron Carter, considering the fact that jazz groups oftentimes don’t have piano players, but almost always have bass players. This argument is bolstered by the fact that Gancao is actually a root, which can be easily likened to the bass, whereas Dazao is a red fruit, which evokes the piano more strongly.

Also, one might consider the words of Japanese scholar Yoshimasu Todo, who said of Gancao,

“主治急迫也”: “Gancao mainly treats urgent pressing”, and of Dazao, “主治攣引強急也”: “DaZao mainly treats pulling tightness and urgent stiffness”.

Our herbs teacher Dr. Joonhee Lee thus describes the main ability of Gancao as moderating urgency, and Dazao as moderating pulling tightness/stiffness.

To me this goes along with Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock’s roles in the group: in a sense, Ron Carter moderates the urgency of Tony Williams with his grounded basslines, and Herbie moderates the potential “stiffness” of the soloists, by filling the empty spaces with quirky piano accompaniment and by adding harmonic depth. Although Todo was likely referring the effect on the patient, rather than on the other herbs in the formula, it is still something to consider.

Finally, according to the Tangye Jingfa, a rediscovered herbal classic that categories 25 major herbs into 5-element categorization, Gancao is classified as the “wood herb of the earth realm” where as Dazao is the “fire herb of the earth realm”. It makes sense that both of these herbs fall under the earth realm as they are both sweet, moderating herbs that target the spleen/stomach primarily. Ron Carter as the “wood of earth” Gancao makes sense, as his walking bass is characterized by its sense of propulsion partly due to huge interval leaps and accented rhythms that suggest wood-like movement.

On the other hand, Herbie Hancock as the “fire of earth” Dazao also makes sense: although he mainly plays a supportive role behind the soloists, when he does take a solo it is full of flair, technical expertise (of perhaps more of a metal quality) and fiery expressiveness.

Although the metaphor isn’t perfect, and my understanding of these herbs and this formula is rudimentary at best, it has been an intriguing way of looking at the hallmark formula of Chinese Medicine with far reaching implications– what sort of musical dynamics do other formulas represent? Is it possible to make custom tailored music that that will have specific medicinal effects just as Chinese Formulas do?

These questions and many more have inhabited my mind since I began contemplating the relationship between medicine and music and I look forward to the doors that will open up in the future from them.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more!


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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