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Chinese herbalism is quite ancient. Disputes always arise between traditionalists and historians as to exactly how old, whether it is 2000 or more like 3,500 years old. But in general, the main point is that herbalism is both old and quite safe. However, the form of practice is the main difference. In many systems, the use of single herbs or entire plants is the common practice. However, for the Chinese, not only did each plant represent different therapies, but things that were not plant-like a tall, including insects, animal parts (or whole animals), minerals, and refined substances and powders. Occasionally, even urine, feces (of animals) or human organ (such as placenta).

5 Elements

fire hot spicy moving
earth warm sweet nourishing
metal neutral bitter draining
water cold salty drying
wood cool sour containing or releasing
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On top of this diverse approach, which relied on the Doctrine of Signatures (similarities), the Chinese had ideas about the nature of the herbs that are quite unique. Firstly, each herb has a taste (one of 5 or 7 if you include the special tastes), a temperature (from hot to cold, with warm, cool, and neutral in between), a general direction of movement (up, down, out, in, containing or draining, adding or nourishing, etc…), and finally they had of course not one but multiple properties. So the herbs were not for symptom use inherently, they were for multiple functions.

They also believe that when herbs get together, they naturally form a family or state-like governance of hierarchy that guides the process. Two herbs together form a Yin/Yang pair called a Dui yao. But when you have more than two then a leader and an assistant appear, and even envoys which harmonize the formula (licorice or “gan cao” is the most common envoy.)


They took this unique system even further in the past in dividing herbs up to how powerful, therapeutically speaking, versus how toxic they were (basically, how often could you use it?). They called them Superior, Middling, and Inferior herbs. Believe it or not, ginseng (ren shen or man root) was not originally thought of as Superior, it was a middling herb because it was for a specific purpose, and did not become a staple herb until the advent of a specific school in the middle ages. Foods and a few herbs such as licorice, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, etc… these were Superior, while some of the most powerful herbs such as Indigo, Aconite (Wolf’s bane), Gypsum, etc… which are more conducive to pharmaceutical grade therapies, were all considered harsh and therefore Inferior.


But even this is not the end of the herbal spectrum. It is merely the “visible spectrum” if you will of Chinese herbalism.


In China, there has long been a tradition of something called “Taoist Alchemy.” Most will remember the Greek alchemists and Dark Ages (pre-Chemistry) as those guys obsessed with turning copper into gold. But actually in Chinese Alchemy the goal has always been primarily long life.


The result of the efforts to create the pill of Immortality from Realgar, Cinnabar, and Lead have for the most part been met with dire disasters, but actually there have been uses of such “herbs” in small amounts in special preparation for centuries, In fact, in a related medicine system called Ayurveda, the use of gemstones and precious minerals is considered a powerful medicinal art even to this day. Also in the west Alchemy for longevity has not ceased, and has even led to a melding with Chemistry in the pursuit of so called ORMUS (ORMES).

@ Left: a real modern western Alchemy text

This of course in Chinese herbalism would be considered all Inferior herbalism due to its toxic nature.

But if taking herbal medicines is the Middling ‘visible spectrum’ process (as well as Acupuncture and massage), what forms the “Superior” practice of herbalism?

In the 8th and 9th Century, in China, there was an interesting confluence of ancient myth/legend, growing Buddhist and Yogic (Vedanta) influence, and staunch support of Confucian values. The Dao/Tao had long become rooted in the Chinese psyche.

Furthermore, Buddhism (especially Tibetan and Ch’an or Zen) had upped the anty in the study of psychology through tantra and other types of meditations. Taoists (especially those contending for money from the Crown) no longer simply used incantations and oracles, they actually participated in Yogic practice, leading to a complex study of psychology. This lead to the Complete Reality School of Taoism. Therein they began to talk about Realgar, Cinnabar, and Lead, not as physical “herbs” and minerals but as internal processes and states of mind. The idea being that in the right state of mind, the Qi will flow with the Tao (God’s Way or the way of Heaven “Shang Di” where Di means Supreme Ruler), and the body will thus heal of itself.

1,100 years later, Carl Jung got a hold on some of these documents, most notably the “Secret of the Golden Flower,” and lo and behold in the West psychoanalysis flourished and continues to move forward to new and improved ways of dealing with psychosis and neurosis (as opposed to lobotomy and electrocution).

1,200 years later and mankind has discovered most of the hormones and neurotransmitters which are released by glands (zang-fu miniatures), and the nervous system (channels & meridians if you will) in the brain which affect human psychology and ultimately even one’s health. Try going without melatonin for a month and you will see not only cognitive decline but physical as well – even death. Are these little, microscopic (invisible practically), compounds (and vitamins and minerals) which would have been the subject of fable and fantasy in 19th century leech-craft and landed a physician in a psychic ward less than 200 years ago really the “herbs” that these Taoists were talking about?

Modern research, conducted even close to home at the University of Kentucky into “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction therapy” (another fancy way of saying dogma-less meditation) has shown that indeed the mind can release upon command certain compounds which lead to health, happiness and a positive disposition.

Those crazy Taoists whose works and methods Jung dismissed as being too mystical to be practically used in “real” psychoanalytical therapy may have been onto more than even they knew.
For example…
Perhaps Wood can come from Fire. On the outset a person would say that’s illogical fire burns from wood. But have we not recently learned – tragically so – that the life of forests is heavily related to frequent, controlled, and limited “burns”? Can all five elements actually be “reversed”?

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What about Control!?

Can metal control fire? We use copper to transfer electricity – a fire-like energy in everyday magical application (what would be considered so to the ignorant).


Can water make metal? Certainly there is dew which evaporated leaves salts.

Can metal make earth? Certainly when iron rusts it powderizes into dust…Can earth make fire? Have we not seen the power of coal?
Can wood make water? Recent research is showing us just how important forests and tree-cover are to planetary evaporation levels and cloud-coverage!

So to bring it full circle, let us emphasize that herbalism is an ancient, diverse, AND living (ie: changing and evolving) system of medicine. Chinese Medicine is above all very ancient, codified, and conservative. Changes don’t come often enough, and yet it has evolved. At one time all disease was from wind, then cold, then heat became part of the problem and then it was Spleen and Kidney and other deficiencies, and now we understand excess is a big part of the problem in chronic disease (as well as sedentary lifestyle).
Chinese herbalism has the ability to change and adapt, to include supplements, vitamins, minerals, drugs, and as I have said above perhaps the entirety of neuropsychology. We can learn from the west to improve herbalism, and certainly they can learn a few old tricks from us which will aid everyone overall. As the old saying goes, “There’s nothing new under the Sun.”
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