Origins of Chinese Herbal Formulas

Understanding the origins of Chinese herbal formulas requires a little knowledge of their history.

According to Chinese legend, Shen Nung, the Chinese father of agriculture and leader of an ancient clan, took it upon himself to test, one by one, hundreds of different plants to discover their nutritional and medicinal properties. Many of these turned out to be poisonous to humans.

Over millennia, Chinese have used themselves as guinea pigs in this same way to continue testing plants for their properties of inducing cold, heat, warmth, and coolness.

The Buddhist monasteries were involved in the use of herbs for the poor and needy and the Taoist monks were focused on herbs for longevity, thus it has been said that a lot of these “guinea pigs” were monks and priests.

Both Buddhist and Taoist spiritual paths placed great emphasis upon rigorous meditation and mind-body awareness techniques. Many of these priests and monks were finely tuned human beings and were able to achieve altered states of awareness through their strenuous meditation and mind-body techniques. They were extremely involved with medicinal plants and examined their effects upon their own bodies and minds.

Imagine, if you would, over the course of thousands of years the lifestyles of these amazingly committed human beings. Supported by their communities, fasting and meditating for weeks on end, purifying their bodies and minds, focused upon the one goal to observe the action of a particular herb or a particular combination upon their own body.

Chinese meridians
Chinese meridians

Detailed knowledge of the meridian systems and organ fields evolved through their practices, with the laser-like focus of an altered state, these amazing individuals helped to harness this knowledge using their own direct experience of their subtle energy flows.

Ultimately, they helped to classify the medicinal effects of the plants on the various parts of the body, determine their toxicity, what dosages would be beneficial and which herbs would cause side effects.

Traditional Chinese Medecine (TCM) and other mature systems throughout the world have studied the herbal energetic signature effects on the body and mind.

Within TCM, the energy of the plant has several aspects that give it its unique personality.

In order to organize a good herbal formula, a Chinese herbalist has to know which characteristic elements and which organs are the beneficiary of which herbs.

Each herb is classified on the basis of a number of classifications, e.g.,Yin-Yang and Five Elements, so the sum of all herbs in a formula will create the harmonious “effect” of the formula.

The “Four Energies” are classified as: Hot, Warm, Cool, Cold or Neutral.

The “Five Tastes” are: Pungent, Sour, Sweet, Salty, and Bitter. These tastes help to classify herbs further, including their effect on certain meridian/organ systems throughout the body.

The “Four Directions” help to classify the tendency of the herb with respect to area of effect in the body.

Herbs are selected to target certain parts of the body, or to facilitate the movement of other active compounds in the formula such as the Envoy/Messenger/Servant herbs, e.g., sinking, or floating outward to the surface, or downward, or, rising upward.