What is Chinese Herbology?

Chinese herbology (simplified Chinese: 中药学; traditional Chinese: 中藥學; pinyin: zhōngyào xué) is the theory of traditional Chinese herbal therapy, which accounts for the majority of treatments in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).


Chinese herbs have been used for centuries. Among the earliest literature are lists of prescriptions for specific ailments, exemplified by the manuscript "Recipes for 52 Ailments", found in the Mawangdui which were sealed in 168 BC.


The first traditionally recognized herbalist is Shénnóng (神农, lit. "Divine Farmer"), a mythical god-like figure, who is said to have lived around 2800 BC. He allegedly tasted hundreds of herbs and imparted his knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants to farmers. His Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng (神农本草经, Shennong's Materia Medica) is considered as the oldest book on Chinese herbal medicine. It classifies 365 species of roots, grass, woods, furs, animals and stones into three categories of herbal medicine:

1. The "superior" category, which includes herbs effective for multiple diseases and are mostly responsible for maintaining and restoring the body balance. They have almost no unfavorable side-effects.
2. A category comprising tonics and boosters, whose consumption must not be prolonged.
3. A category of substances which must usually be taken in small doses, and for the treatment of specific diseases only.

The Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders and Miscellaneous Illnesses was collated by Zhang Zhongjing, also sometime at the end of the Han dynasty, between 196 and 220 CE. Focusing on drug prescriptions, it was the first medical work to combine Yinyang and the Five Phases with drug therapy.

Succeeding generations augmented these works, as in the Yaoxing Lun (simplified Chinese: 药性论; traditional Chinese: 藥性論; literally "Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs"), a 7th-century Tang dynasty Chinese treatise on herbal medicine.

Materia Medica

Arguably the most important of these later works is the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu:本草綱目) compiled during the Ming dynasty by Li Shizhen, which is still used today for consultation and reference.

Impact of Chinese Herbal Medicine in the Western Countries

The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of the world population uses herbal medicine. People not satisfied with western medicine, have turned to alternative and complementary medicine resulting in increasing popularity of herbal products and traditional Chinese medicine, especially acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.


Herbal medicine and western medicine may be seen as totally separate distinctive entities and disciplines, but, in fact, both can be combined together for better results. They can be quite complementary to each other for synergizing the therapeutic effects.