Founder’s note: Here is an article in three parts from two third year students in the classical Chinese medicine program at NCNM. They wrote this paper, and the accompanying presentation, as part of their Chinese herbal training. Welcome, Josh Park and Munleen Soni (gradutated 2017!)
Last fall, Herbs Lab professor Eric Grey L.Ac. assigned each of us to thoroughly investigate a single herb, with a joint presentation to follow in spring. Though we don’t prescribe single herbs, the purpose of our individual inquiries was to develop an understanding of the complexities governing each herb, e.g., nature, lifeworld, function. By learning one herb, Grey emphasized that the same technique can be applied to understanding combinations and hence, formulas.
We chose two premier tonic herbs – Renshen (人蔘) for Qi and Danggui (當歸) for Blood. As a pair, they represent the strategy of tonification. We presented on the meaning and clinical implications of this technique. To our surprise our results suggest that despite its ubiquity, tonification as a distinct herbal strategy represents a significant departure from Zhang Zhongjing’s classical approach.
To better understand this point, we need to talk about vampires. Yes, vampires.
Meet the Jiangshi
In Chinese Medicine, tonification is often talked about in relation to the concept of deficiency. This fundamental principle can be found in Chapter 3 of the Lingshu:
“The superior [physician] observes the spirit” means: The physician observes the deficiency and excess of the blood and Qi of the patient, in order to tonify and disperse.
The implication is that tonification should be used as a strategy when Qi and/or Blood are deficient, with the intention of supplementing or consolidating what is missing while dispersing any surplus. To guide our investigation, we sought the advice of respected elders, familiar with Qi and Blood. Specifically, those familiar with Chinese vampires, or Jiangshi.
Also called hopping vampires, Jiangshi literally means stiff corpse in Chinese. Even after being reanimated by Daoist priests, the Jiangshi’s body is extraordinarily limited. Flexion and extension never fully return from rigor mortis. Unlike their agile Western counterparts that can fly through the night, Jiangshi awkwardly hop around with arms stretched out hobbling for balance.
Interview with a (Chinese) Vampire
If one of these creatures hobbled into our clinic, based on their pale complexion, stiff limbs, and nocturnal hyperactivity, we’d probably consider a situation of Blood deficiency. Our hypothesis would be: Liver-Blood failing to nourish the neuromuscular system or house the Shen. Unfortunately, determining a differential diagnosis is tricky. The undead don’t come equipped with a functioning vascular system. There is no pulse to check and verify our findings. If in doubt, we rely on common sense. So, if the Jiangshi are vampires and vampires crave blood, it should be logical to presume their craving is symptomatic of deficiency, right?
There’s just one problem with our diagnosis: Chinese vampires don’t suck blood. Instead, they absorb Qi from their victims. While some later depictions show them drinking blood (possibly reflecting a Western influence), traditionally the Jiangshi were after Qi.
What should we make of this apparent anomaly? We’d like to propose something audacious – namely, that the polarity between the Chinese vampire which feeds on Qi and the Western vampire which feeds on blood, reflects more than just different cultural mythology. It’s a powerful image that can help us understand the relationship of Chinese Medicine to Western Medicine. It can also serve as a metaphor for understanding the difference between classical formulas which contain tonic herbs like renshen and Danggui, and the later development of tonification as one of the “Eight Methods” (Ba Fa).
The Polarity of Qi and Blood
The Neijing often speaks of Qi and Blood together (xueqi) as a unified entity. This implies Qi and Blood have an interdependent relationship; they are inseparable entities whose existence comprise the core of all ongoing transformative processes within the human body. Their polarity engenders the capacity to function. As with any natural system, we cannot separate any one component of the system without comprising the integrity of the whole.
If viewed as a polarity, Qi would be on one end, representing a lighter, faster moving entity that has the possibility of differentiating into an infinite range of possibilities. Blood would be on the other end, as a denser, more static, material-like substance that functions as a substrate.
When Qi is said to be Yang and kinetic, those qualities refer to the capacity of Qi to engender the functions of various physiological processes, i.e., Qi is the “Energetic Motive Force” of the system. Force implies both direction and magnitude. The direction is toward the production of fluids, of which include but are not limited to: Jin-Ye, Wei, Ying and Blood. Magnitude refers to the size of Qi’s potential to differentiate – it is much larger than Blood. However, Blood is said to contain the San Bao (The Three Treasures of Jing, Qi and Shen), allowing constant communication throughout the body.
In light of these considerations, our earlier question about the Chinese vampire takes on a deeper dimension.
Why does the Jiangshi want Qi, which is harder to grasp compared to Blood? Is he just a glutton for punishment? More to come soon…
Continue to Part 2