Founder’s Note : This is the first of a long series of articles we’ll be releasing here about the theory and herbs of the Tangye jing. The enthusiasm and scholarly integrity of the author – new regular contributor Joshua Park, DSOM, LAc – will make this a thought provoking and engaging read that we hope you’ll share with friends and colleagues. Joshua is eager to hear your feedback, either here on the site or on our Facebook page. Thank you and welcome, Joshua!
What is the Tang Ye Jing?
The Decoction Classic or Tang Ye Jing (湯液經) is an ancient text in the historical canon of Chinese Medicine.
Building on the content of both the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (神農本草經) and the Huang Di Nei Jing (黃帝內經), it describes Chinese herbs and their interactions in terms of the Five Phases (五行) and the dynamics of the Five Flavors (五味). It is the first text we know of solely devoted to herbal formulas, and it had a seminal influence on Zhang Zhong Jing (張仲景), author of the Shang Han Za Bing Lun (傷寒雜病論).
To say that the Tang Ye Jing is a mysterious text would be an understatement.
Despite its status as a foundational text of Chinese Medicine, relatively little is known about it. Attributed to an author called Yin Yi (伊尹), there is no exact date for its composition, although it is referenced in many other classical medical texts, such as the preface to the Zhen Jiu Jia Yi Jing (針灸甲乙經). Although copies of the Tang Ye Jing were apparently available as early as the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 CE), it appears to have disappeared by the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), and it was believed to be lost for centuries.
In the 20th century however, another ancient text was discovered, the Fu Xing Jue Wu Zang Yong Yao Fa Yao (輔行訣臟腑用藥法要), a work attributed to the Daoist herbalist and Tao Hongjing (陶弘景, 456-536 CE). The Fu Xing Jue,whose full title could be translated as “Auxiliary Secrets For Treating the Zang Fu Using Herbal Medicine”, discusses the Tang Ye Jing extensively and also contains long passages that appear to be direct excerpts from the Tang Ye Jing.
Although some controversy over the authenticity of the Fu Xing Jue remains, for the most part scholars and practitioners and China have accepted it, and the portions of the Tang Ye Jing contained within it, as genuine.
Why Study the Tang Ye Jing?
While the history of the Tang Ye Jing remains somewhat murky, it is clear that it is heavily associated with Daoism and also that its impact on Zhang Zhong Jing was profound. Several of the most famous formulas of the Shang Han Lun and Jin Gui Yao Lue appear, often under different names and with slightly different ingredients, in the Tang Ye Jing.
This implies that Zhang Zhong Jing learned these formulas originally from the Tang Ye Jing, and adapted them to treat the conditions outlined in his text. And of Zhang Zhong Jing formulas which cannot be directly traced back to the Tang Ye Jing can still be usefully analyzed according to the Five Phase and Flavor dynamics laid out in there.
Because the works of Zhang Zhong Jing form the canonical basis of Chinese formula science, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Tang Ye Jing is the wellspring of all Chinese Herbalism.
Therefore, if we want to gain a deeper understanding, either of Zhang Zhong Jing’s formulas specifically or Chinese Herbal Medicine more generally, it makes sense for us to thoroughly understand the Tang Ye Jing.
Moreover, because the Tang Ye Jing utilizes the Five Phases as its framework, it has the potential to be extremely useful for practitioners who may already use other systems based on the Five Phases, such as Saam Four Needle Acupuncture, Master Tung’s Acupuncture, Worsley Five Element Acupuncture, or the system of Chinese Medicine psychology in Dr. Leon Hammer’s Dragon Rises Red Bird Flies.
By studying the Tang Ye Jing, we can gain a better understanding of the Five Phases overall, and this can in turn deepen other Chinese Medicine practices that make use of the Five Phases as a model, and perhaps help to better integrate them with herbal medicine.
The Basic Structure of the Tang Ye Jing
The Tang Ye Jing’s materia medica consists of twenty five herbs, classified in sets of five according to Flavor and Phase identification. In terms of Flavor, Acrid herbs belong to Wood, Salty herbs to Fire, Sweet herbs to Earth, Sour to Metal and Bitter to Water. Nested within each of the five phases, this five fold pattern repeats itself, so that within the Wood phase we have five herbs that are in turn classified as the Wood of Wood, Fire of Wood, Earth of Wood, Metal of Wood, and Water of Wood.
This classification system is similar to the Five Shu Points of acupuncture, where we have at one level the Five Phase classification of a channel (i.e., the Hand Taiyin Lung Channel is Metal) and then all of the Five Phases represented in the Shu Points of the channel (i.e. LU11 shaohang is Wood of Metal, LU10 yuji is Fire of Metal, LU9 taiyuan is Earth of Metal, etc). From this basic structure, formulas are constructed that tonify or drain the corresponding organ associated each Phase. This is reminiscent of the way that Saam Four Needle Acupuncture and other styles have constructed protocols to tonify or drain channels and organs according to the Five Phases.
So far, so good, except for one detail that is probably nagging those of you who are familiar with the Nei Jing’s discussion of the flavor and nature of herbs in terms of the five phases.
The Tang Ye Jing’s association of flavors with particular phases probably seems different from the common order we are taught in Chinese Medicine school. Most of us learn that Wood is associated with Sour, Fire with Bitter, Sweet with Earth, Metal with Acrid, and Water with Salty.
Ultimately, this common set of association of Flavor with the Five Phases is rooted in the Nei Jing. We encounter it time and time again throughout the text, but it is specifically highlighted in Chapters 4, 5, 9, 10, 23, 67, and 70. With the exception of associating Sweet with Earth, the Tang Ye Jing otherwise seems to turn the standard correlative cosmology of Chinese Medicine on its head.
This provides us with an important opportunity to reflect on some of fundamental operating principles of Chinese Medicine.
Chinese Medicine does not deal in absolute truth or dogma; instead, it offers us different frameworks and models by which we can apprehend reality. In this case, it offers us a model by which we can approach both the materia medica as well as our patients. The same phenomena can be analyzed in terms of Yin and Yang, or in terms of Heaven, Earth and Humanity, or the the Four Levels, or the Five Phases, the Six Conformations, etc.
These are all just different perspectives that can be brought to bear on a given situation. And so the different arrangement in the Tang Ye Jing does not actually contradict the more standard arrangement. In fact, it can help us enrich our existing knowledge, so that we understand what it really means to say that “Sour goes to the Liver”, as well as understanding what the Tang Ye Jing means when it associates Sour with the Lung.
The key to all of this can be found within the Nei Jing.
A good place to begin our exploration of this topic is Chapter 22 of the Su Wen, entitled “Discussion of the Qi of the Five Zang Following the Seasons” (藏氣法時論). Uniquely, Chapter 22 lists the Five Phase Flavor associations we find in the Tang Ye Jing side by side with the more standard arrangement found in the other chapters of the Nei Jing.
It states that the Flavors assigned to the Five Phases by the Tang Ye Jing tonify their respective organs – so that Acrid tonifies the Liver, Salty tonifies the Heart, Sweet tonifies the Spleen, Sour tonifies the Lung, and Bitter tonifies the Kidney. In addition, it also says that the more standard arrangement of Flavor have a reducing or draining effect on their paired organs – so Sour drains the Liver, Sweet drains the Heart, Bitter drains the Spleen, Acrid drains the Lung, and Salty drains the Kidney.
For many of you, this will make more sense when we’re actually talking about herbs – so that’s where we’ll go in the next article in this series! Thanks for joining me – and don’t hesitate to chat with me over on Facebook about this post. I look forward to it!
- Foundations of Theory for Ancient Chinese Medicine by Liu Guohui
- “Introducing the Fuxing jue (Extraneous Secrets) and Tangye jing (Decoction Classic) Translation Project” by Heiner Fruehauf
- “Introduction on Fu Xing Jue: Passages from Tang Ye Jing” by Hui Zhang, Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine
- Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen translated by Paul Unschuld