As discussed in my prior article introducing the way I look at Chinese herbs, there is a dizzying array of information available about any given Chinese herb. Each bit of data is a doorway through which one can walk into an entire universe of understanding.
Appreciating each of these universes for what they offer, and allowing them to co-mingle in your brain, is – in my estimation – a critical success factor in becoming an excellent Chinese herbalist.
In this article, I’ll reveal the first stage of information gathering – using a favorite herb as an example. In many ways, this first step represents the “must have” information that most every student gets to know early on in their Chinese herb education.
As helpful as the information below is, the unfortunate reality is that few go beyond this in their study of Chinese herbs. You’ll find at the bottom of the article a mindmap you can download. This mindmap not only lays out this information, but also indicates the places where this data can branch out into other aspects of the Shennong method, as well as deeper study about foundational concepts in Chinese medicine.
未 Wei – Flavor
Right off the bat we have a place where deep education is possible – maybe even necessary. Briefly, we must remember that the concept of flavor is more than the sensory experience of taste. It references directionality, can be related to biochemical properties, and is a typical example of ancient Chinese “shorthand” – communication of a huge amount of information in a tiny character.
Further, there are many ways to understand what flavor “means” in terms of its relationship to the five elements and, thus, the five organs and everything else embedded in the system of five. We also often see differing understanding of the flavor of herbs as the medicine undergoes the normal scholarly process through time. One text might say an herb is pungent, another says it is bitter. These are fascinating points to explore.
In this case, gancao is unambiguously sweet.
We see this assignment through all the major texts, and I’ve not run into anybody so far who has a significantly different understanding. What does this mean? Well, we’re lucky in that there’s also not too much controversy around the concept of sweetness. Sweet is generally affiliated with the earth element, and thus the earth organs and their domain.
This is one simple way to work with flavor information. However, from reading into texts like the Shanghan lun and the Neijing suwen, we can uncover deeper and deeper layers of information about flavor. We might run across passages that tell us things like:
“Of qi and flavor, pungent and sweet effuse and disperse and belong to yang” (Suwen 5)
“When the liver suffers tightness, swiftly eat sweet to moderate” (Suwen 22)
There are dozens of passages in the texts that refer to the flavors of herbs, and scholars discuss their meaning and power to this day. One recent elaboration, by my friend and colleague Michael Givens, can be studied in the fine little herbal handbook for the Year of the Snake, called – appropriately – “Snake Oil.”
So, again, each bit of information about a Chinese herb can become a jumping off point from which we can deepen our understanding of medicine. I prefer a balanced approach, never getting mired in any particular piece of information, but allowing each to unfold and flourish and intearct with the others.
氣 Qi – Nature
The other fundamental piece of information affiliated with Chinese herbs is the nature, sometimes translated as “temperature.” Again, even this simple concept can become rich with even a small amount of consideration. Does the nature refer only to some thermal property? How does it relate to yin and yang, and how do these yin and yang facets relate to the flavor? Is the thermal nature within the herb itself, or does it have something to do with the interaction between the patient’s body and the herb?
We see a range of qi from cold to cool to neutral to warm to hot.
In gancao’s case – the verdict seems to be that it is neutral. When it is mix fried, as in zhigancao, it is often thought to be warm – as most mix fried herbs tend to be. This herb, then, is unlikely to aggravate either cold or heat conditions – making it suitable for a wide range of situations.
This is one of the first thing most people learn about a Chinese herb – what bucket does it belong in? Humans are categorizing animals. We like to know what belongs with what – it simplifies understanding and remembering. Unfortunately, in my experience, categories can be misleading. A person who learns an herb as “heat clearing” often has a very difficult time thinking of it as having any other significant properties. This can become a real barrier to practitioner development, and results in negative outcomes for patients.
So, while I think it is important to learn categories – just as with all the rest of this information – it is one piece of the puzzle.
Resist the urge to over-simplify.
There are lots of categories available. Those available in the standard herbal textbooks, like Bensky’s ubiquitous Chinese Herbal Materia Medica, are the most commonly known. Examples include “Pungent, cool herbs that release the exterior,” and “Herbs that drain fire.” Sheng/unprocessed gancao is listed in the category “herbs that tonify the qi.” This, of course, tells us a lot about what physicians have used gancao for through the years. Just knowing that, we can have a basic sense for the types of situations where we might employ the herb.
But for the love of all that is holy – do not stop there.
The Shennong ben cao jing, which we will discuss shortly, has its own system of categorization. It lists herbs relative to one another as upper, middle and lower class. While this is an arbitrary classification, reading how the masters of our medicine thought of this concept can be instructive. This text also refers to herbs as coming from a particular class of thing – herb, wood, fruit and so on. This is a fine way to connect to the herb as a living thing, if only a little bit.
Gancao is listed in the Shennong ben cao jing as a superior class herb.
Herb is a rather broad category that includes the majority of the herbs in the text, which says little about it except that it is not a “wood”, mineral, animal part, fruit, or a member of any of the other categories. Being a superior class herb means it is non-toxic, suitable for taking long term, and of great utility in the project of “nourishing life” as opposed to simply treating an already existing disease.
神農本草經 Shennong ben cao jing passage
Continuing with our discussion of the Shennong ben cao jing – it’s always good to read the passage associated with the herb and add it to the growing pile of information we are gathering.
味甘, 平,無毒。主五臟六腑寒熱邪氣。堅筋 骨,長肌肉,倍力,金創 ,重尰 ,解毒。久 服,輕身、延年。生川谷。
Translation generously offered by Sabine Wilms:
Gancao: Sweet, neutral. Non-toxic. Governs evil qì of cold and heat in the five viscera and six bowels. Hardens the sinews and bones, grows flesh, doubles the strength, treats incised wounds and swellings, and resolves toxin. Taken over a long time, it lightens the body and extends the years. Grows in valleys with streams.
There’s a lot of information in each line of the Shennong ben cao jing. To begin working with it, you don’t have to be a sinologist who can call up the whole historical record and contemplate the intricacies. Already, just by reading the simple English translation, you get a sense for the herb. The more lines from the Shennong ben cao jing you read, the better you’re able to see patterns – these patterns are very important in classical Chinese texts, but it is not required that you comprehend the ins and outs completely before you benefit!
Gancao has a very broad range of application, as we can see.
It is related to all the organs, both cold and heat, it has both tonic (generating, strengthening) and clearing (resolving) powers. It has adaptogenic/nourishing life properties. In fact, Gancao has far fewer specific disease types mentioned in its line relative to many other herbs. Its power comes in its wide scope and lack of conflict with any particular organ system. These are just a few of the things you could take from the line – perhaps you can find more?
Botanical lineage information
Gancao is known as Glycyrrhiza uralensis, and is differentiated from the more common Western form of licorice, Glycyrrhiza glabra. Both are members of the Fabaceae family – also known as the pea or bean family. This family includes a huge variety of plants, many of them edible and/or medicinal. With this simple bit of information, you can do a lot of valuable exploring. Look into the species – what other types of licorice plant are there? How do they differ? Look deeper into the Fabaceae family – even such a large grouping can yield interesting facts.
While I’ve never had much success gleaning any real medical information from knowing these bits, it does help me to “know the plant” in a relational way. I feel that I understand it more as a living thing, which gives me a greater connection that increases familiarity and thus ease of use. But, there is plenty more to take from looking at the plant as a plant – outside of human classification schema.
Characteristics of the plant
Learning more about how the plant grows, and where, under what conditions, with or without other plants, and so on, can be INCREDIBLY valuable. We’ll go into more depth with this in the future, but I always like to begin with the most basic characteristics of the living form.
Gancao is a plant that grows a lot below (underground) and a lot up top (leafy!) but the connection between is relatively tenuous. The plants have a feeling of top or bottom heaviness. This makes me think that the plant has a “strong center” – it is able to grow strong despite the visual appearance of flimsiness. The roots are tough, and spread like crazy, this is a plant that clearly loves and thrives in the earth element.
You might think all plants are this way, but there are plenty of Chinese herbs I’ve grown (especially those that are channel unblockers or that treat the lung and/or taiyang organ systems) that clearly enjoy spreading through the air – creating only the barest root system necessary for survival.
These simple observations may seem TOO simple. But, again, the increase familiarity which can never be a bad thing. They can also be effective scaffoldings on to which we build more complex information – helping in recall and in making connections between disparate elements.
Critical classical Chinese herbal formula
Before we wrap up this review of the basics of Gancao, one more bit of information. While I like to do an in-depth study of the formulas that each herb are involved in, I always like to have an immediate sense for the main formulas the herb is involved with. As a person who loves formula science, it gets my brain churning right away if I review this information. As a student new to studying Chinese herbs, it can be valuable to do this – even if you don’t feel comfortable with formulas yet.
Gancao, of course, is in virtually every classical Chinese herbal formula. In fact, it can be more interesting to look at the formulas that gancao is NOT in. For now, though, we’ll note one important formula where gancao plays a starring role. By learning these formulas at the beginning of our investigation, we have clinically relevant information right off the bat as well as developing a deepening understanding of the single herb. In this case, the formula happens to be named after the herb – or rather it’s honey-fried version.
炙甘草湯 – Zhigancao tang
You might ask – where are the “herb actions?”
Frankly, I don’t spend much time with those. The information above is enough for me to get started, and the further exploration I’ll reveal in future articles obliterates the need to oversimplify herbs into a few bullet points. For me, describing Chinese herbs that way is similar to trying to describe my wife or daughter in a couple of bullet points. Sure, I could explain some features of those two important people that way. Sure, that might be helpful sometimes. But, if I was “teaching” about these people to someone who was unacquainted with them? No. Instead, I would use those types of bullet points in the company of others that know them well already – as a way to simplify a conversation or task. Same is true of herbs.
(Note: There are some other ways to understand “action” – but here I’m talking specifically about the actions (and indications) referenced in standard herbal texts.)
You might also ask – what about “channel affinity?” Again, this is a concept I don’t find to be particularly helpful. It can be helpful for students asked to learn hundreds of herbs and differentiate from them. The idea can be part of an overall guidance system to lead you in the right direction when studying. I find, however, that the information about channel affinity is too inconsistent, lacks stable classical referents and can be incredibly misleading when students start out in clinic. There are so many other wonderful sources of information – I just don’t see the point in working with this.
In the next article, I’ll detail the results of my latest sensory exploration with gancao.
This will include results from tasting the herb by itself in a variety of preparations as well as the herb in a couple of simple combinations. I’ll also note some combined results from various groups of students I’ve worked with over the last couple of years to give a broader perspective. I hope you’re enjoying this series so far!