Founder’s Note : This is part of a series of articles about the theory and herbs of the Tang ye jing. The enthusiasm and scholarly integrity of the author – 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.
Now that we’ve completed our tour of the herbs of the Metal Class, our ongoing exploration of the Tang Ye Jing moves on to the herbs of the Water Class.
As before, we will begin with the Wood Phase and work our way around the cycle until we come to Water. We will kick off the Water herbs with Huangqin 黄芩, also known as Scutellaria baicalensis or skullcap root:
All bitter belongs to water, for it is governed by Dihuang, and Huangqin is wood, Huanglian is fire, Baizhu is earth, and Zhuye is water.
We’ve seen through examining the action of the herbs of the Metal Class how the Tang Ye Jing’s classification system describes their function.
Generally speaking, we can say that the grouping of an herb with two phases means that it mediates between the two – so that we can understand Huangqin as bringing Water into the realm of Wood.
Now if we knew nothing about the actions and indications of Huangqin, we might assume that this means Huangqin’s action is to tonify Wood, because we know that through the generating cycle Water nourishes Wood. However, Huangqin is not typically understood as a tonic in either contemporary Chinese Herbal Medicine, or in Classical sources.
Here’s what the Shennong Bencao jing has to say about Huangqin:
Huangqin tastes bitter and neutral. It governs all hot yellowing disorders, intestinal afflux, diarrhea and dysentery, expelling water, descending blood obstruction, [treating] malign sores, subcutaneous ulcers, erosions [of the flesh], and firey sores. Another name for it is Fuchang (Putrid Intestines). It grows in rivers and valleys.
Based on this passage, Huangqin is an herb that powerfully clears heat by virtue of its bitter flavor. And indeed that is how Huang Qin is used by Zhang Zhongjing. It’s a very commonly encountered herb in the Shang Han Lun and Jin Gui Yao Lue, where it is often paired with Chai Hu to harmonize disease in the Shaoyang, as in Xiao Chaihu Tang (小柴胡湯) and its variations. And from seeing its application as a Shaoyang herb, we will be able to understand why it is classified as the Wood of Water.
It may be helpful to briefly review Six Conformations (六經 Liu Jing) theory here.
Shaoyang’s function is described as pivoting (樞 shu), it governs the Ministerial Fire (相火 xiang huo), and it encompasses both the San Jiao, which from a Five Phase perspective belongs to Fire, and the Gallbladder, which belongs to Wood. From this lens, Shaoyang pathology can be understood as arising from the dysfunction of Ministerial Fire – the cardinal signs of a Shaoyang pattern are described as “a bitter taste in the mouth, dry throat, dizzy vision” (口苦，咽乾，目眩) in the Shang Han Lun.
From a Six Conformations perspective, this symptom complex can all be attributed to the flaring of Ministerial Fire.
However, from a Five Phases perspective, we might describe this same pathology in in terms of Wood and Fire – dysfunction of the generating cycle, wherein Wood feeds too quickly into the Fire phase, causing flaring of Fire and the various heat signs seen in Shaoyang syndrome. In either case, the remedy for an excess of Fire is Water.
Huangqin’s bitter flavor brings the cooling activity of Water to Wood by descending, controling, and clearing congested Ministerial Fire in the Gallbladder. It works synergystically with Chaihu for this purpose. Chaihu moves, courses, and releases Gallbladder qi while Huangqin drains fire; together they harmonize the Shaoyang.
Chaihu and Huangqin are paired together so commonly in the Shang Han Lun and Jin Gui that is sometimes difficult to seperate their actions, however the action of Huangqin alone is illustrated in a lesser known formula called Huangqin Tang (黃芩湯).
Huangqin Tang is discussed in Line 172 of the Shang Han Lun:
When in taiyang and shaoyang combination disease there is spontaneous diarrhea, it is suitable to give Huangqin Tang.
“Spontaneous diarrhea” is very much in keeping with the indications of Huangqin listed in the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (as well as the colorful alternative name of Fuchang, “Putrid Intestines!”). It is also interesting to consider the etiology of the kind of diarrhea described in this passage, as well as the composition of the formula. Huangqin Tang consists of the ingredients Huangqin, the Wood of Water, and also Shaoyao, the Earth of Metal, as well as Dazao, the Fire of Earth and Gancao. the Wood of Earth.
There is some debate among different commentators about how to understand the pathophysiology behind diarrhea in a Taiyang and Shaoyang combination disease, but one interpretation is that heat in the Gallbladder is being transferred to the Small Intestine. Like other Shaoyang patterns, this a problem of obstructed and stagnant Ministerial Fire, however this particular pattern is playing out within the fu organs.
And as with a more general Shaoyang pattern, the Huangqin Tang pattern involves Wood and Fire, and is addressed by using Huangqin to bring the activity of Water into the realm of Wood by draining Gallbladder heat.
And earlier this series we’ve explored how Shaoyao, as the Metal of Earth, can help to control Wood while the combination of Shaoyao and Gancao together can relax and soothe urgency. While we’ve yet to analyze the role of Dazao, understanding the functions of the herbs we have already covered should help to understand the actions of both Huangqin Tang and Huangqin as a single herb.
Based on this analysis, Huangqin ‘s function of draning heat from the Gallbladder can be understood in terms of bringing Water into Wood.
This is in keeping with the direction of Water, which the Neijing associates with the season of Winter and the concept of going into storage (cang 藏). The direction of Fire, in contrast, is to move upward and outward; it is assoicated with the activity of Summer, which is growth (zhang 長) and expansion.
These are in effect opposing actions, and the dynamic balance between Fire and Water is the basis for normal physiology in the microcosm of the body and the orderly movements of the seasons in the macrocosm of the cosmos.
In between Fire and Water is the phase of Wood.
We know from Five Phase theory that the Child of any given phase can drain its Parent, and we can apply this metaphor to the concept of Wood and Ministerial Fire – if Fire rages out of control, it will eventually consume Wood. Bringing a healthy dose of Water in the right way does not douse the Fire, but causes it to descend, become consolidated, and stored in a way that it can do its appropriate work of warming and moving without destroying the base upon which it feeds.
Huangqin is now hopefully a bit clearer to you as far as clinical use, and we’ve started to understand how the Tangye jing approaches herbs of the water class. Keep an eye out for the next in the series, everyone’s favorite herb, Huanglian. Feel free to comment on this post if you have questions – or maybe join us on Facebook?