An Eastern Approach to Understanding Plants and Herbs

By: George Munger, MSOM, L.Ac

According to the Mawangdui medical manuscripts, al., the history of Chinese medicinals began in the latter part of the Han dynasty (25-220 CE).  However, this is not to say the Chinese people did not use Herbal Medicine prior to this date.  In fact, it would be inconceivable to deny the existence of medicinal herbs prior to 25-220 CE.  It is in the nature of even the most primitive societies to observe the outside world.  Through this observation of nature it is logical to assume these peoples would have hunted for game and foraged for things to eat.  During this process of trial and error these people would have undoubtedly experienced the effects of the things they ate and developed uses for these plants, herbs, minerals, etc.  How could they not?  The Chinese culture has been around for a long time, and Chinese pharmacology, or any pharmacology, could not develop overnight. TCM utilizes centuries of observation and experimentation with herbs and their effects on animals, humans, where they grow, how they grow, when to plant them, when to harvest them, which parts of the plants are to be used (root, leaves, bark etc.), and much more.

It appears that most of the original research is lost.  However, scholars believe that information concerning various herbs and herbal formulas were passed down and refined as more and more practitioners experimented with these herbs and formulas.  Today, many of the same formulas that were used thousands of years ago are still being prescribed in a modern pharmacopeia.  This is a testament to their effectiveness.

Quantification back then was not the most reliable and replicateable template to utilize for treating ailing humans.  A more recent era, the Han dynasty, is a reliable beginning for research proposals.  According to Dan Bensky, author of the Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Metica, 3rd Edition, the number of entries in the Chinese Materia Medica has been increasing for the last two thousand years. This is a good sign for reliability.

Chinese botanicals have been categorized the following way:


There are (5) five major property designations that are ascribed to plants or herbs:

  1. Hot
  2. Cold
  3. Warm
  4. Cool
  5. Neutral


There are also (5) five major taste distinctions that are ascribed to plants or herbs:

  1. Acrid
  2. Sweet
  3. Bitter
  4. Sour
  5. Salty

Concepts that link therapeutic actions with each herb or plant are as follows:

  1. Promote sweat
  2. Induce vomit
  3. Purge
  4. Harmonize
  5. Warm
  6. Clear
  7. Tonify
  8. Reduce

The Chinese also employed another organizational technique by identifying which Channels (Meridians) the herbs affects or enters. (Note:  There are 12 main channels in Chinese Medicine;  Lung (LU), Large Intestine (LI), Stomach (ST), Spleen (SP), Heart (HT), Small Intestine (SI), Kidney (KD), Urinary Bladder (UB), Pericardium (PC), San Jiao (SJ), Liver (LV), and Gallbladder (GB)).  According to Chinese Medicine, this helps facilitate healing of the patient by allowing the Practioner a systematic approach toward affecting the symptoms of the patient.  However, the Chinese did not always use just one herb.  In fact, they created many formulas combining the properties of different plants, animals, and minerals to specifically direct the curing properties to the various channels and viscera thus addressing patterns of disharmony and not just symptoms.  These remedies where not only confined to formulas that were ingested, but also included various other healing aspects such as syrups, plasters, powders, medicinal wines, and heat and smoke. (Moxa, Artemisia Vulgaris)

Chinese herbalists were also concerned with the color and the shape of a plant.  Color indicates possible thermal properties.  The closer a plant’s color is to red, the warmer the energetic and the closer a plant’s color is to blues/purples the cooler the energetic.  However, this is just a guide and does not always follow the above stated generalization.  The shape of the plant or mineral, now commonly referred to as “Doctrine of Signatures”, was also considered a clue as to what the plant could be used to treat.  For example:  The shape of a kidney bean might be useful in treating the kidneys, or the shape of a mandrake root that resembles a human, etc.

Eastern medicine’s systematic approach toward utilizing the healing properties of plants is not the approach used by modern western/allopathic medicine.   Western medicine utilizes a more reductionistic approach in their understanding of these same plants or herbs.  (However, it is an interesting point to note that most of the Early Western Medicine’s early formulas for treating their patients were in fact herbal formulas.)  Western science believes the reductionistic approach to understanding how well a plant’s constituents affect a patient’s malady to be the preferred vehicle toward understanding. By identifying a beneficial constituent Western science could duplicate it in a laboratory, provide more of the active component and provide a more efficient means of treating a malady on a larger scale. This is based on the “If one is good, then a hundred must be better” theory.   Of course, these well-meaning researchers did not take into account the human body’s inability to effectively metabolize the higher concentrations of the synthesized constituent; which has proven to be toxic in many cases.  Humans evolved mainly eating plants or eating animals that ate plants.  It has only been relatively recent that genetically altered foods and laboratory produced foods have come into existence for man to consume.  Perhaps the reason many people are experiencing so many side effects from pharmaceuticals is due to the human body’s inability to assimilate  the higher concentrations of these constituents.  These constituents would normally be found together in plants that have evolved as compounds and in a manner that is compatible with the human metabolism.

Chinese medicine has been in existence for thousands of years, and is still used today.  It has only been in recent years that Chinese herbal formulas have been tested by Western scientific methods.  The Chinese take an all-inclusive approach toward herbal research and are primarily interested in the “effect” the herbs have on the patient and normally not on the specific constituents that are causing the effect.  Their approach toward utilizing the healing properties of plants, herbs, etc. has been very effective in helping countless people all over the world.  Chinese medicine uses “empirical evidence” rather than the allopathic evidenced base trials.  However, this system is very effective and is still utilized today in modern China and countless other parts of the world.


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