I teach Chinese herbs at NCNM, and every year I learn something new. It’s gotten to the point where I’m actually doing a lot of research into how teaching topics like this has been done in various times and places. I’m also engaging in plenty of coursework myself to see how others are doing it in the here and now.
I want to draw a picture of how Chinese herbs are generally taught, while suggesting how the picture may be problematic
Let me note at the outset that there are many, many fine herbs teachers in the world. Some of them even get to teach some of what they are passionate about. But, the sad reality is that the licensing situation in the US, economic pressures and a lack of any real encouragement for teachers to pursue new vistas in their teaching create an unsavory situation for all of us.
We’ll use a favorite herb of mine as a case study – Chaihu 柴胡. You might be interested to read some bits and pieces of my take on Chaihu in one of my latest blog posts. I also did a little video about Chaihu, if you’ve not seen it – go give it a look. It’s worth your time, I think. When you’re done, come back and read this. I can wait.
Chaihu as typically taught in a college course
Most Chinese herbs courses at colleges and universities are required to cover something in the neighborhood of 300 herbs during 2-3 academic terms. That’s too many, by more than half. This is probably the reason that the following information is about all the average student will get…
Name of the herb : Chaihu, bupleurum root
Strangely, many people do not learn the official scientific binomial name of the herb in question. This causes real problems if the person seeks to do some additional research, say into biochemistry, personal propagation or even simply to learn more about it in the Chinese medicine texts.
Fortunately, Bensky does list the scientific name of the typical species, and a few other besides. However, many people learn and remember one or another common names, which can cause confusion.
Category : pungent, cool herbs that release the exterior
I never, ever teach Chinese herbs by the categories set out in the standard Chinese herbal texts. Why? Because the vast majority of our best herbs do not fit easily into a single category. When students and teachers are seeking to economize in their teaching and learning, they tend to remember the category, the name and not much else.
In the case of Chaihu – thinking of it as a pungent, cool herb that releases the exterior will NOT help you to understand the vast majority of classical formulas containing Chaihu. These categories are intended to simplify learning, but in most cases, it just further confuses the issue.
Channel affinity : Gallbladder, Liver, Triple Burner and Pericardium.
Note that these are usually represented by their shortened forms (GB, LR, TB, PC) and almost never are interesting relationships pointed out (Shaoyang and Jueyin). While one could argue that one is supposed to know this, the fact is that most first year herb students either don’t know enough yet or are never taught to note these relationships.
While I don’t agree that this kind of shorthand is actually helpful, it’s made even less so by the poor state of patho-physiological education in most Chinese medicine institutions. (That’s why we’re teaching courses like the Essentials course on the Six Conformations). When a student finds out that an herb “enters the Triple Burner” what on EARTH can this possibly mean to them? How should they use this information in clinic?
Flavor / Nature : Pungent, bitter and cool
Though most books and websites that list this information do so prominently, few teachers emphasize it and even fewer require memorization of the information. Apart from that, there is almost no effort made to discuss what these concepts actually mean, the historical development of those concepts and disagreement about the flavor and nature of herbs through time.
Though a nuanced discussion of these issues would take a class all by itself, even a simple mention of the flavor in our foundational text – the Shennong bencao jing – would seem to be a simple addition to any class.
Herb actions are essentially short-hand for the most important things an herb does in the human body. The Clif Notes version. The sad part is that most of these are memorized as a list, and the larger theory about when and why these things happen is usually not addressed. Further, this takes students far, far off the path of holistic understanding. If you begin to think about herbs in terms of “actions” you are typically banished to “symptom” thinking.
At this point, the herb has the character of something like the shell of a new building.
A few walls, a ceiling, a floor. Straight lines, an open box. This can be ok – it’s open, it’s ready to be filled, it’s fairly simplistic. In fact, from the perspective of many teachers and long-time practitioners, the information seems insanely simplistic. So, it must be easy for students – right?
The reality is that this simple, bland structure often reaps more confusion – and given the sometimes deadpan delivery and pressure of testing – it can be too much to take. Students drop out, do poorly, or zombie walk their way through. Some enterprising individuals manage to fill the empty walls with color, to find sources of information that energize them. Others come with pre-existing knowledge that keeps them inspired – they are excited no matter what they’re learning!
If you need help reenergizing your herbal learning – you’re not alone. The Shennong course is ready for registration, and as you’ll see described on the page of information about the course, might be just what you need to get beyond the bland way that most herbal teaching is done.
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.