Cynthia Birkhimer, OMD
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The History of Chinese Herbal Medicine*

Chinese Herbal Medicine is based on centuries of empirical observation and on centuries of clinical trial and error. Whether addressing illness or enhancing health, healers and common folk alike have tested a myriad of herbs throughout time and observed their effects on the human body. Through centuries of intention and unintentional uses, the experience and knowledge of herbs gradually have been recorded and passed along, leading to Chinese Herbal Medicine as it is practiced today.

Written documentation of Chinese Herbal medicine has extended over three thousand years. Artifacts made between 1066-221 B.C. have been discovered, listing botanical and animal medicinal substances, giving case studies and focusing on topics such as toxicity. The first authoritative documentation of Chinese Herbal Medicine in its complete form today is the Shen Ben Cao Jing (Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica) compiled by numerous authors in the second century, A.D. It contains information on 365 herbs, including details such as thermal properties, taste and toxicity, dosages, dosage forms and similar details.

As commerce between countries became more common, many herbs from neighboring countries were introduced to China. These herbs gradually gained acceptance in medicinal use and were documented accordingly, compiled by Tao Hong-Jing in 480-498 A.D. the Ben Cao Jing Ji Zhu (Collection of Commentaries on the Classic of the Materia Medica) is the second-oldest major text of Chinese Herbal Medicine. It describes 730 herbs and offers additional information such as methods of preparation and how to correctly identify herbs.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) of China experienced tremendous progress in medicine and culture. Numerous important classics were written during that time. Tang Ben Cao (Tang Materia Medica) is a revised text compiled in 657-659 A.D. by Su Jing and 23 others. The book included detailed descriptions and illustrations of 850 medicinal substances. In 600 A.D. another Tang Dynasty text focused on theory and functions of herbs.

During the Song dynasty, Kai Bao Ben Cao (Materia Medica of the Kai Bao Era) written in 973-974 A.D., was the most comprehensive source of information about herbal medicine of its time, providing descriptions of 983 herbs.

In 1057-1060 A.D. Jin You Ben Cao (Materia Medica of the Jin You Era) written by Zhang Yu-Xi and Su Song, detailed profiles of 1082 herbs.
In 1578 A.D. during the Ming Dynasty, Li Shi-Zhen wrote one of the most important texts of Chinese Herbal Medicine, the Ben Cao Gang Mu (Materia Medica). He spent his entire life studying herbal medicine and invested over 27 years compiling this text. Many herbalists/scholars consider this to be the most comprehensive and historically significant text. It contains detailed descriptions and illustrations of 1892 individual herbs and 11,000 herbal formulas. This book corrected many errors found in previous texts.

This list of texts mentioned above are only some of the landmark writings throughout history.


The use of Chinese Herbal formulas requires first the correct diagnosis made by a qualified practitioner who has the knowledge and experience to prescribe the appropriate formula(s) for the patient. Some still believe that because herbal formulas are made from “natural” substances that they can be used by everyone without thought. Herbs are very specific in pharmacological effects and therapeutic actions, and have cautions and contraindications regarding toxicity and dosage/over dosage. Herbs should not be used without an adequate education of their traditional uses and applications. Licensed Acupuncturists in California are trained, examined and licensed to prescribe Chinese Herbal Formulas.

I am asked often if herbal formulas are safe. The answer is yes and no! When herbs are used properly, they are as safe as any natural food and they are far safer than Western drugs. When used improperly, they can cause a number of undesirable side effects and can even cause death. We also need to be very cautious when using Chinese Herbal Formulas while taking western medicines concurrently. Chinese formulas tend to be slower acting and their gentler action reduces side effects. Western medications are stronger and have the tendency to interact negatively, sometimes with other drugs and especially herbal formulas.

I prefer to use Chinese herbs in formulas. Using single herbs requires using a higher dosage to achieve the desired therapeutic effect and increases the risk of potential side effects. When I combine herbs with similar functions to moderate each other’s actions in the formula, I can lower the dosage of individual herbs to minimize potential side effects.
The treatment of disease in Chinese Herbal Medicine is said to be antagonistic to the disease process, in other words, it utilizes strategies and substances that are opposite in nature to the disease. For example, warm and or hot herbs for cold conditions or cool or cold herbs to treat hot conditions.

Chinese Herbal formulas are not just collections of medicinal substances in which the actions of one herb are simply added to those of another in a cumulative fashion. They are complex recipes of interrelated substances, each of which affects the actions of the others in the formula. It is this complex interaction which makes the formula so effective.

Chinese Herbal Formulas can be utilized in numerous ways. Decoctions, which involves placing herbs in water and boiled for a specific amount of time, is a powerful way to take herbs. One of the primary advantages of a decoction is that it is rapidly absorbed by the body; its effects are strong and felt almost immediately. Powders and granules contain herbs that have been ground and sifted into powder and can be taken internally or can be applied externally. Pills contain ingredients that are finely ground or pulverized and moistened with liquid (water, wine, honey) and pills are formed. These are called patent medicines, sold in herb shops in Chinatown. Tablets are made by processing or extracting the active parts of the ingredients of a formula, adding filler and forming into tablets (usually under pressure). Extracts are ingredients that are simmered with water or vegetable oil until a concentrate with a syrupy or gummy consistency is formed. They can be used internally or externally.

*Adapted from Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology by John K. and Tina T. Chen, L.Ac. Art of Medicine Press, 2004

© Cynthia Birkhimer, Purple Dragon, Inc