Shen Nong, the Divine Farmer,1503 painting by Guo Xu


Shen Nong Society

Shen Nong Society News

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  • 1 Sep 2018 11:30 AM | Caroline Radice (Administrator)

    Ever wanted to hone your skills in treating Dermatology with Chinese Herbal Medicine? 
    This is your chance to study with the world renowned Dermatologist Dr. Mazin Al-Khafaji in Chicago or San Jose starting in October 2018

    Click here and here for more info

  • 1 Jul 2018 1:48 PM | Caroline Radice (Administrator)

    Pictured here speaking at our inaugural conference in 2017, Dr Brand "is a Chinese medicine practitioner with a passion for materia medica and herbal quality discernment. After graduating from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in 2003, Eric spent over a decade pursuing academic and clinical opportunities in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China. He earned his PhD at the School of Chinese Medicine at Hong Kong Baptist University with a focus on Chinese herbal pharmacy, and he serves as a TCM advisor to the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia. Eric has written or translated a variety of modern and classical texts and peer-reviewed articles, and he served as Chair of the U.S. delegation on the ISO Technical Committee for international TCM standards (ISO TC 249) from 2014 to 2017." He is also the founder of Legendary Herbs in Boulder, CO.

    Dr Brand's authorship of articles on Herb quality and discernment through history are unique to our field. 


     March 9, 2019 

    New York City


  • 1 Jun 2018 11:54 AM | Caroline Radice (Administrator)

    In September 2017, our SNS monthly update featured the White Letter by the AHPA (American Herbal Products Association) on Good Herbal Compounding Dispensary Practices published last March.

    Read the White Paper here

    Friend and Advisor to the Shen Nong Society, Dr Kevin Ergil, graciously has kept us informed of updates. Please read more below!

    Emerging Standards for Chinese Medicine Dispensaries.pdf

  • 1 Apr 2018 7:58 PM | Caroline Radice (Administrator)

       Chinese Medicine in America: Converging Ideas, People, and Practices

       Thu, Apr 26, 2018 - Sun, Sep 9, 2018          at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) 215 Centre St, New York City

    From the Museum: "Chinese medical practices and medicines are all around us. In the mid-19th century, these “mysterious and magical” practices and concoctions arrived alongside the earliest Chinese immigrants who built the railroads and searched for gold. In the 1970s, this “alternative” medicine was best represented by acupuncture which was introduced widely. Today, Chinese medicine is an integrated part of health care in America. With its perceived evolution, is Chinese medicine better understood? What are its facets and mechanisms? What are its recognized benefits?" 

  • 17 Mar 2018 9:33 AM | Caroline Radice (Administrator)

    Read Article Here

    Go to Page 21 for Full Article

  • 1 Mar 2018 8:36 AM | Caroline Radice (Administrator)

    Chinese Herbal Strategies for the Treatment of Estrogen Dominance

    Cara O. Frank, L.OM.

    Many Chinese herbal formulas date back centuries, if not millennia. They are well documented historically and endure to this day based on their efficacy. They work and surpass the test of time. Despite a wide range of doctors, currents of thought, herbs, formulas, strategies, and diseases, the core architecture of well written Chinese herbal formulas incorporates a kind of synchronous harmony of qi mechanisms: of building and clearing; of holding and moving; of ascending and descending; of expansion and contraction. Herbs are relational: they enhance one another; they control one another, and often they become more than the sum of their parts together. 

    For practitioners specializing in gynecology, one common complaint we encounter are a cluster of signs and symptoms that collectively represent a common hormonal imbalance called estrogen dominance, which refers to a hormonal imbalance where estrogen is imbalanced relative to progesterone. Perimenopausal women in their 30’s and 40’s are especially vulnerable to this.

    Estrogen dominance is a term first coined by Dr. John Lee who championed the use of natural progesterone in the 1990’s. It describes a condition where a woman can have deficient, normal or excessive estrogen, but has little or no progesterone to balance its effects in the body. Even a woman with low estrogen levels can have estrogen dominance symptoms if she doesn’t 't have sufficient progesterone to balance her hormones.

    Common symptoms that women may experience include :

    • ·      Decreased sex drive
    • ·      Irregular or otherwise abnormal menstrual periods
    • ·      Bloating (water retention)
    • ·      Breast swelling and tenderness
    • ·      Fibrocystic breasts
    • ·      Headaches (especially premenstrually)
    • ·      Mood swings (most often irritability and depression)
    • ·      Weight and/or fat gain (particularly around the abdomen and hips)
    • ·      Cold hands and feet (a symptom of thyroid dysfunction)
    • ·      Hair loss
    • ·      Thyroid dysfunction
    • ·      Sluggish metabolism
    • ·      Foggy thinking, memory loss
    • ·      Fatigue
    • ·      Trouble sleeping/insomnia
    • ·      PMS

    In Chinese medicine, we might diagnose Qi Stagnation with retention of damp, blood stasis, as well as qi and yang vacuity. We might break this diagnosis into two main presentations: The first emphasizing dampness and the second emphasizing qi stagnation causing heat.

    The first is Li Dong Yuan’s Lǐ Shì Qīng Shŭ Yì Qì Tāng (Summerheat-Clearing Qi-Boosting Decoction). This large and complex formula is a variation of Li’s most iconic formula: Bŭ Zhōng Yì Qì Tāng (Center-Supplementing and Qi-Boosting Decoction). It includes all the hallmarks of his formula construction: Gé gēn, shēng má and huáng qí raise the clear yang; huáng qí, bái zhú and zhì gān căo supplement the qi and strengthen the spleen; huáng băi, cāng zhú and zé xiè clear heat and dry dampness; shén qū, chén pí and qīng pí regulate the qi; xī yáng shēn, mài mén dōng and wŭ wèi zĭ nourish the yin and generate fluids. 

    Despite the original intention of the formula to treat Summerheat invasion,

    in fact, when deconstructed, we can easily see how it can address the qi dynamics and pathologies that manifest as symptoms of estrogen dominance. 

    Lǐ Shì Qīng Shŭ Yì Qì Tāng (Summerheat-Clearing Qi-Boosting Decoction)



    huáng qí


    Radix Astragali


    xī yáng shēn


    Radix Panacis Quinquefolii


    cāng zhú


    Rhizoma Atractylodis

    bái zhú


    Rhizoma Atractylodis Macrocephalae

    mài mén dōng


    Radix Ophiopogonis


    wŭ wèi zĭ


    Fructus Schisandrae Chinensis


    gé gēn


    Radix Puerariae Lobatae

    chén pí


    Pericarpium Citri Reticulatae


    qīng pí


    Pericarpium Citri Reticulatae Viride

    dāng guī


    Radix Angelicae Sinensis


    shēng má


    Rhizoma Cimicifugae

    zé xiè


    Rhizoma Alismatis


    huáng băi


    Cortex Phellodendri Chinensis


    shén qū


    Massa Medicata Fermentata


    zhì gān căo


    Radix et Rhizoma Glycyrrhizae Praeparata cum Melle

    The actions of the formula are: to clear summerheat, supplement the qi, strengthen the spleen and dry dampness. The symptoms include: fever, headaches, thirst, sweating, a sensation of heaviness and loose stools.

    Formula Analysis:

    ·       Xī yáng shēn, mài mén dōng and wŭ wèi zĭ create the formula Shēng Mài Sǎn Pulse-Engendering Powder which preserves yin, supplements qi, calms the spirit and stops excessive sweating. 

    ·       Huáng qí and xī yáng shēn boost the qi and reduce fatigue. 

    ·       Cāng zhú and huáng băi create the mini formula Er Miào Sǎn Mysterious Two Powder, which clears heat and dries dampness, especially in the lower burner. This herbal pair can be especially helpful for treating bacterial vaginosis, which frequently occurs in menopausal women as a consequence of vaginal dryness. 

    ·       Huáng băi and zé xiè are featured together in the formula Zhī Bǎi Dì Huáng Wán Anemarrhena, Phellodendron, and Rehmannia Pill. While the first herb is bitter and cold and the latter is sweet and bland, they both settle ministerial fire, thus clearing deficiency heat. For severe sweating, Li also suggests that one add zhī mǔ Anemarrhenae Rhizoma, (along with wŭ wèi zĭ)” to restrain and gather in.”

    ·       All citrus parts regulate the qi. Here, chén pí and qīng pí dry dampness and reduce stagnation. Qīng pí enters the liver channel, and is notable for scattering and lump reducing qualities, making it helpful for breast lumps and ovarian cysts

    ·       Gé gēn along with huáng qí and shēng má, boost and lift the qi. Gé gēn is one of my favorite herbs. The range of its applications is broad, so I will limit my comments about how it can be helpful for brain-fog. We know that gé huā; the flower of gé gēn is used to treat alcohol toxicity. Therefore, gé gēn can be used for feeling dizzy and confused. Modern studies show that it can increase cerebral blood flow. In my practice, I include it in most of my formulas for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. So, within the context of this discussion, gé gēn may help alleviate brain fog. The second point of interest is that gé gēn is filled with isoflavones: mainly puerarin, methylpuerarin, daidzein, daidzin, and daidzein glucopyranoside. These are some of the same isoflavones that are found in soybeans. They are especially cardio protective, but the weak effect on hormones may act as an estrogen agonist, thus balancing the estrogen dominance. 

    To further  illustrate how wide ranging this formula is, in my book, Case Studies: Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat DisordersLǐ Shì Qīng Shŭ Yì Qì Tāng is used to treat a case of Ménière’s Disease. It is interesting to consider other disorders that share similar symptoms and indication a need for this formula such as chronic fatigue syndrome, gastroenteritis, environmental allergies, SIBO, and many others. 

    How can a formula, originally written to treat summerheat pathogen, and not gynecology, be helpful to a perimenopausal, estrogen dominant woman? The answer is simple: when the pathomechanisms of a disorder are deconstructed, the formula is spot on. Treat the pattern.

    A second perspective: 

    One of my favorite formulas for the mixed patterns of qi stagnation, heat, and blood deficiency and stagnation is Jīng Jiè Lián Qiào Tāng, Schizonepeta and Forsythia Decoction. This formula was first recorded in the Wondrous Lantern for Peering into the Origin and Development of Miscellaneous Diseases (Zá Bìng Yuán Liú Xī Zhú, 病源流犀) published in 1773

    jīng jiè


    Herba Schizonepetae


    lián qiào


    Fructus Forsythiae

    fáng fēng


    Radix Saposhnikoviae

    dāng guī


    Radix Angelicae Sinensis


    chuān xiōng


    Rhizoma Chuanxiong


    bái sháo


    Radix Paeoniae Alba


    chái hú


    Radix Bupleuri


    zhĭ qiào


    Fructus Aurantii


    huáng qín


    Radix Scutellariae

    zhī zĭ


    Fructus Gardeniae


    bái zhĭ


    Radix Angelicae Dahuricae


    jié gĕng


    Radix Platycodonis


    gān căo


    Radix et Rhizoma Glycyrrhizae

    The formula is usually placed with formulas that dispel wind-heat pathogen. The actions of the formula are to dispel wind, clear heat, clear toxicity and reduce stagnation. 

    Formula Analysis: 

    ·       Jīng jiè and lián qiào are the chief medicinals that dispel wind and clear heat. You can find this pair in Yin Qiao San as well. Both are light and ascending.Jīng jiè enters the blood, to vent heat from the blood, while lián qiào can clear wei level heat. 

    ·       Bái sháo, chái hú, zhĭ qiào and gān căo create the formula Si Ni San- Four Frigid Extremities powder, which regulates the qi, clears constraint, and spreads liver qi

    ·       Huáng qín and zhī zĭ clear heat. This pair is featured many formulas that clear fire. 

    ·       Dāng guī and chuān xiōng harmonize the blood.

    ·       Bái zhĭ might be paired with lián qiào to clear toxic heat. It might also be paired with jié gĕng for this same purpose. 

    ·       Gān căo harmonizes the formulas and, along with jié gĕng, benefits the throat. 

    ·       Chái hú and jié gĕng have an ascending directional energy, while zhĭ qiào descends. The use of these three opens the chest and alleviates depression. Another formula that features these medicinals is Xuè Fǔ Zhú Yū Tāng House of Blood Stasis-Expelling Decoction.

    In relation to our discussion, the list of common symptoms of perimenopausal, estrogen dominant women includes: Breast swelling and tenderness, anxiety and mood swings, “fuzzy thinking,” irritability, fatigue, loss of ambition, slow metabolism, water retention, loss of libido, PMS, weight gain, insomnia, thickening of endometrial lining, clotted menses, increased risk of uterine fibroid, increased incidence of ovarian cysts.

    Let’s review how Jīng Jiè Lián Qiào Tāng might address these symptoms: 

    ·       PMS, mood swings, breast swelling and tenderness, along with irritability are easily treated with Si Ni San

    ·       Anxiety, irritability and insomnia can be treated with lián qiào and zhī zĭ, both of which clear heat form the heart and alleviate vexation. 

    ·       Bleeding irregularities such as cramps or clotty menses can be treated with dāng guī and chuān xiōng and to a certain extent jīng jiè and huáng qín.

    ·       Ovarian cysts and breast lumps can be treated with bái zhĭ.

    ·       Acne is treated with jīng jiè, lián qiàofáng fēng, jié gĕng and bái zhĭ. 

    Thus, the formula addresses nearly every symptom that might be encountered for a woman presenting with estrogen dominance. In contrast to Qīng Shŭ Yì Qì Tāng, Jīng Jiè Lián Qiào Tāng is more effective for regulating the liver, harmonizing the blood and clearing heat, while Qīng Shŭ Yì Qì Tāng is more effective for spleen deficiency with retention of dampness combined. If we were to think about the directional energy of the formulas, Qīng Shŭ Yì Qì Tāng is uplifting, while Jīng Jiè Lián Qiào Tāng uses both ascending and descending herbs to open and regulate the qi. 

    What is the takeaway? The takeaway is to honor this statement: Tóng bìng yì zhì yì bìng tóng zhì. Same disease, different treatments. Different diseases, same treatment. As long as we treat the pattern, not the western diagnosis, we can nearly guarantee clinical results.

    About Cara Frank, L.OM.

    Cara Frank, L.OM. was raised by in a health food store in Brooklyn NY. When she was 8 she cartwheeled 5 miles from Greenwich Village through Soho and Chinatown and across the Brooklyn Bridge. For over 33 years she has had the same crazy passion for Chinese medicine. At 17 she had her first acupuncture treatment. At 20 she enrolled in acupuncture school. In 1998 she went to China to study where she fell deeply in love with Chinese herbs. Since then, she has devoted her life to studying and teaching the topic. 

    Cara is the founder of Six Fishes Healing Arts in Philadelphia where she maintains a busy acupuncture practice and acts as the head fish of warm and lively office. She is also the president of China Herb Company. You can read her full bio or schedule an appointment.

  • 1 Feb 2018 8:43 AM | Caroline Radice (Administrator)

    We are honored present some thoughts of another of our fantastic featured speakers at Conference 2018, Dr Craig Mitchell. Well known and respected scholar, translator and educator, Craig will speak at the Conference on the topic, "A Frog at the Bottom of the Well: Why Siloing and Polarization in East Asian Medicine Leads to Poor Patient Outcomes”

    In Essentials from the Golden Cabinet, Zhang Zhong-Jing discusses the formula Tangkuei and Peony Powder (dāng guī sháo yào sǎn) in the chapter on miscellaneous women’s diseases and also diseases occurring during pregnancy. In both cases, the formula is recommended for abdominal pain, without much additional information. Of course, this terseness is often found in classical texts and it is one of the aspects that makes this fascinating, as well as difficult, for modern readers. 

    One of my own strategies for understanding a classical formula in a modern context has been to look in books of case studies to see what physicians have used the formula to treat and to see if that can help me to get an idea of the pathodynamic that unites the cases. In the modern book, Selected Medical Cases from Famous Physicians [Employing Formulas from] the Golden Cabinet, we find a list of cases that ranges from gynecologic complaints such as dysmenorrhea and vaginal discharge to other pain complaints, such as headache and angina, to problems of fluid metabolism, such as edema and diarrhea. 

    My approach then is to combine the information gleaned through reading cases with an understanding of the formula dynamics, the individual medicinals, the abdominal diagnosis, and my own clinical experience to form a practical understanding of how to use the formula. This approach can be used for any formula, but is particularly useful for times when the associated text is not modern and when the formula indications seem difficult to understand in the modern clinical context. 

    Most modern texts on herbal medicine include a great deal of information about the specific medicinals in the formula and about the formula dynamics, but they often include very limited or no information about abdominal diagnosis. In reviewing the Chinese literature, I found some useful information about the abdominal pattern. From the modern text,  Abdominal Diagnosis: Patterns and Treatment, the pattern is described as follows, “The abdominal musculature is lax and there is a feeling as though one is kneading dough. However, there are spasms and tension in the peri-umbilical area and with pressure on the area, pain may radiate to the back. There may be water sounds and/or pulsations in the epigastric region. The classical text, Extraordinary Evaluation of Abdominal Patterns, describes the abdomen as, “There are spasms above, below, and to the sides of the umbilicus. Application of pressure will cause pain to radiate to the back. In addition, there are epigastric pulsations and strong pain in the lower abdomen. There may also be thirst and inhibited urination.” 

    By combining these two perspectives, modern and classical, we begin to get a useful picture of the Tangkuei and Peony Powder (dāng guī sháo yào sǎn) abdomen. It will likely be lax overall, yet will have areas of spasm and tension. Pressure on the abdomen will cause pain and the sensation may radiate to the back. Finally, problems of water metabolism will be in evidence, as a water sound or even as urinary problems. This type of investigation can deepen our understanding of the formula, even as it aids us with increased diagnostic guidelines. 

    Dr. Craig Mitchell, Ph.D.(China), E.A.M.P., received a Master of Science degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco (1993). Craig completed his PhD from the China Academy of TCM (Beijing) in 2006. He has written numerous articles and translated several Chinese medical texts, including On Cold Damage: Translation and Commentaries. Craig is the President of the Seattle Institute of Oriental Medicine, where he is also a clinic supervisor and teaches classes on herbal medicine and medical Chinese. Craig maintains a private practice in Seattle, WA.

  • 31 Dec 2017 2:21 PM | Caroline Radice (Administrator)

    We are delighted to feature as one of our speakers at Conference 2018, scholar Sabine Wilms. She writes on Shen Nong:

    It is not just because I am also a farmer with dirt under my nails that the “Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica” (Shén Nóng Běncǎo Jīng 神農本草經) has always been one of my favorite books. As a critical historian and teacher of classical Chinese medicine, I firmly believe this little book to be one of the most important, foundational texts of this medicine that I love so dearly and have dedicated my life to. For this reason, I produced a bilingual literal translation of this text last year and continue to promote this text and its teachings to anybody who will listen. Whether you are a practicing physician or pharmacist, a fellow “herb head” and plant lover, a historian of early Chinese culture and natural science, or just curious about one of the most ancient texts from early Chinese literature, you may enjoy listening to what the Divine Farmer has to say.

    One reason for the importance of this text is obviously the ancient origin of the knowledge contained therein and its association with Shén Nóng, a name that translates literally as “Divine Farmer.” This ancient semi-mythological culture hero of Chinese civilization has been celebrated for thousands of years in China for the invention of agriculture, among many other achievements. A text from the second century BCE called Huáinánzǐ 淮南子 recounts the following legend:

    In ancient times, the people subsisted on grasses to eat and water to drink, picked fruits and nuts from the trees and ate the meat of snails and clams. They frequently fell ill due to being injured by poisoning. For this reason the Divine Farmer began to teach the people how to sow and cultivate the Five Grains and assess the suitability of land and soil for dryness and moistness, fertile or rocky ground, and high or low elevation. He tasted the flavors of the hundred herbs and sweetness and bitterness of the water in their springs, letting the people know what places to avoid and what places to draw near to. During this time, he encountered seventy poisons in a single day…


    In addition to his association with agriculture, bibliographic records and citations from the Han dynasty on connect Shén Nóng’s name to titles on the subject of “nurturing life”  (養生 yǎng shēng), or in other words, the prevention of illness and preservation and optimization of health for the purpose of prolonging one’s lifespan or even attaining immortality by transcending the limitations of the mortal body.  The content as well as the value judgments inherent in the categorization of medicinals in this text will show the astute reader the significance of this association with a tradition not primarily concerned with treating illness but with preventing it and with promoting longevity or even immortality instead. It is no coincidence either that the single other key figure associated with the text, namely the historical figure Táo Hóngjǐng 陶弘景 (see below), is better known in Chinese history as the founder of the Shàngqīng 上清 (“Supreme Clarity”) school of Daoism. His biography aptly depicts him as a hermit who specialized in academic, religious, and alchemical research into methods of transcending the limitations of the natural human body by transforming it into a refined immortal existence, similar to the emergence of a butterfly from the chrysalis.

    “Materia medica” is the standard English translation for the Chinese term běncǎo 本草 (“roots and grasses”), which denotes a category of literature that has a long and illustrious, if somewhat overwhelming, history in Chinese medicine. The trusted catalogue of Chinese medical literature Zhōngguó Yī Jí Kǎo 中國醫籍考 (“Investigation of Chinese Medical Literature”), published in 1819 by the Japanese scholar Tanba no Mototane, lists no fewer than 2,605 titles in this category, a number that does not include the subsequent category of shízhì 食治 (“Materia Dietetica”)! In Mototane’s work, the title Shén Nóng Běncǎo Jīng (“Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica”) appears as the first book in the category of  běncǎo 本草. Although recorded as a text in three volumes in the bibliography of the Sui dynasty (581-618 CE), the original, if we can even speak of a single source at all, has unfortunately not survived. Due to later scholars’ respect for the information contained in this work, however, we have countless copies of the preface and the text of the individual entries, as quoted in the major materia medica literature from classical times on. With some minor disagreements on the placement and order of individual substances in one or the other of the three categories, scholars agree that the original text contained descriptions of 365 medicinal substances, classified into the three categories of “upper,” “middle,” and “lower” in accordance with their effect on the human body and their association with Heaven, Humanity, and Earth, respectively. The preservation of this treasure trove of early Chinese knowledge about the natural world may be due mostly to the efforts of one of the earliest and most illustrious proponents of this text: the above-mentioned scholar, author, and Daoist practitioner Táo Hóngjǐng 陶弘景 (452-536), style name Yǐn Jū 隱居(“Living in Hiding”).

    As Táo’s preface to the text shows, it was already obvious to scholars in the early sixth century that the information contained in the various materia medica texts associated with the Divine Farmer did not come directly from his pen but had been expanded on in the process of oral transmission over several thousand years:

    The old explanations all refer to a “Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica.” I consider this to be reliable. In the past, in his rule of Under Heaven, the Divine Farmer drew the trigrams of the “Classic of Changes” to provide access to the dispositions of the supernatural entities; set up the plowing and planting of fields to save people from death from terminal injuries; and promulgated [information on] medicinals and the curing of illnesses, to rescue from the fate of premature loss of life and injuries. These three Teachings (lit. “Dao”) were [then] enriched and illuminated by passing through large numbers of sages. King Wén and Confucius added judgments, images, and commentaries, acclaiming humanity and heaven through obscurity. Hòu Jì and Yī Yǐn disseminated the Hundred Grains, bestowing their benevolence on all living people. Qí Bó, Huángdì, Péngzǔ, and Biǎn Qùe provided guidance and support with great fervor. In this way, the [Divine Farmer’s] beneficence has circulated and remained alive. And even though three thousand years have gone by, the people still rely on it to this day!

    Nevertheless, before the time of the Yellow Emperor, written characters were not yet transmitted and the six lines [from the Classic of Changes] were bequeathed to posterity with finger gestures, while the tasks of sowing and reaping were transmitted by means of pictures…

    舊說皆稱《神農本草經》,余以為信然。昔神農氏之王天下也,畫易卦以通鬼神之情;造耕種,以省煞害之弊;宣藥療疾,以拯夭傷之命。此三道者,歷群聖而滋彰。文王、孔子, 彖象繇辭,幽贊人天。后稷、伊芳尹,播厥百谷,惠被生民。岐、皇、彭、扁,振揚輔導,恩 流含氣。並歲逾三千,民到於今賴之。但軒轅以前,文字未傳,如六爻指垂,畫象稼穡。。。

    While in pursuit of immortality, alchemical transformation of the body, and transcendence of this mundane world in his hermitage on Mount Máo, Táo Hóngjǐng collated and compiled the materia medica information of his times into first a shorter three-volume, and then a longer seven-volume version of a so-called “Classic of Materia Medica.” Making matters a bit confusing, he titled the first one Shén Nóng Běncǎo Jīng 神農本草經 (“Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica”) and the second one Běncǎo Jīng Jí Zhù 本草經集註 (“Collected Comments on the Classic of Materia Medica”). Their content overlaps substantially, and these texts have themselves been lost in their original version. Nevertheless, because the text of Táo’s materia medica, regardless of the version, has been quoted and expanded on innumerable times by later authors, it has been possible to reconstruct the original with considerable confidence.

    In his preface to the “Collected Comments,” Táo mentions that the original information of the text, referred to by its abbreviated title as Běn Jīng 本經 (“Root Classic”), was first written down during the Hàn dynasty in four volumes, one containing general information and the other three containing monographs on medicinal substances in three categories associated with Heaven, Humanity, and Earth respectively. Táo further explains that his work includes an expansion of the original 365 substances by another 365 substances and commentaries by himself and by “famous physicians” (名醫 míng yī) on such topics as alternate names, information on growing, harvesting, preparation, and storage, and medicinal uses, which he set off from the original text by using a different ink color. Táo’s collected commentaries were subsequently published separately under the title Míng Yī Bié Lù 名醫別錄 (“Separate Records by Famous Physicians”). More importantly, however, the text of his original “Classic of Materia Medica” and the commentary by himself and the “Famous Doctors” has been preserved and expanded upon ever since, ensuring not just their survival but their continued preponderance as one of the pivotal texts in the traditional literature of Chinese medicine.

    In contemporary Chinese bookstores, editions of the Shén Nóng Běncǎo Jīng are ubiquitous but unfortunately not consistent in regard to the order, numbering, and classification of substances. This does not need to concern the practitioner who is merely looking for information contained in the individual monographs. It can, however, cause serious headaches to critical scholars or translators like myself who are trying to publish a new version of the text. Táo Hóngjǐng himself had already mentioned categorizing the monographs both in the original three tiers of upper, middle, and lower, and in accordance with their natural origin into “precious stones” (玉石 yù shí), “herbs and trees” (草木 cǎo mù), “insects and wild animals” (蟲獸 chóng shòu) and “fruits, vegetables, rice, and grains” (果菜米穀 guǒ cài mǐ gǔ), as most scholars believe he had done in his own edition. Modern English-language editions follow either of these two models and can therefore differ in structure and order of individual entries.

    For the Western reader, a bigger problem than these editorial issues is the translation of many terms that simply do not have accurate direct equivalents in modern English. The character , for example, is most commonly translated as “toxin” or “toxic,” depending on its grammatical function. Most importantly, it is used in each entry of the text in the phrases wú dú 無毒 or yǒu dú, 有毒, translated as “non-toxic” or “toxic” respectively. For each substance, the text gives information on the “toxicity” right after the categorization into the Five Flavors (wǔ wèi 五味, namely sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and acrid) and Four Qì (sì qì 四氣, often translated as “thermodynamic qualities,” namely cold, hot, cool, and warm). Given the use of this text as a materia medica, in other words, as a collection of information on substances recommended for human consumption for the purpose of improving or preserving health and longevity, we are led to wonder: Why would a full third of this text be classified as “toxic,” namely the so-called “lower” category of medicinals that are associated with earth, identified as “assistants and messengers,” and said to “eliminate the evil qì of cold and heat, break up accumulations and gatherings, and cure diseases”? And then there is the middle category of “vassals” who are “in charge of nurturing the Heavenly nature,” about whom the text warns: “Some of them are toxic and some are not, so deliberate their suitability carefully!” Why would the substances with the highest efficacy, which are actually able to “treat disease” (zhì bìng 治病), be classified as the lowest category, directly contrary to the way in which most modern doctors would rank them?

    To cite just one example, the medicinal effect of the substance qínjiāo 秦艽 (book 2, line 70, Zanthoxylum bungeanum or “Shenxi pepper”), which is classified as toxic, is described in this way: “It treats wind evil qì, warms the center, gets rid of cold-related impediment, makes the teeth firm, grows the hair on the head, and brightens the eyes.” These effects certainly make it look like a highly useful substance. More significantly, the text continues: “Consumed over a long period of time, it lightens the body, makes the complexion beautiful, allows you to withstand aging, increases the years, and facilitates the breakthrough of spirit [illumination].” How do we reconcile this description, and the advice on long-term consumption, with its classification as “toxic”? This entry might in fact shed light not only on the meaning of (“toxic/toxin”), but also on two other phrases of great significance throughout this text: The phrases jiǔ 久服 (“consumed over a long time”) and tōng shén 通神, which I have ended up translating with considerable awkwardness as “facilitate the breakthrough of spirit [illumination].”

    Let us first return to our consideration of the meaning of toxicity in The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica. When we look at the categorization of substances as toxic (or the sub-category of slightly toxic) or non-toxic, it becomes clear that our contemporary, whether scientific or popular, meaning of “toxic” does not fit neatly into the ancient Chinese meaning of . For example, why are shíliúhuáng 石硫黃 (sulfur; book 2, line 96) and máfén (hemp seed; book 2, line 95) categorized as “toxic” when dānshā (cinnabar, a.k.a. mercuric sulfide; vol. 1, line 90) and féngzǐ (wasp, Vol. 1, line 118) are said to be “non-toxic”? For an answer, we need to recall the primary intention and authorship and audience of the information contained in this text. Today, the Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica is considered one of the most important classics in Chinese Medicine and is therefore treasured deeply by students and practitioners of this form of medicine. For many centuries, physicians have found insights in this text into the medicinal effect of substances for human consumption, to support their practice of treating disease and alleviating their patients’ suffering. Nevertheless, we must never forget that our modern understanding of the scope and goals of “medicine” or of “materia medica” was very different from the early notions of (“medicine”) and of běncǎo 本草 (lit. “roots and grasses”). As expressed in most classical medical literature in one form or another, the creators of the early Chinese classics, for example, idealized the approach of “treating disease before it arises” (zhì wéi bìng 治未病). Even more drastically, many if not most of the leading researchers of natural science in early and medieval China were actively engaged in efforts to physically and spiritually transform their natural body and transcend the limitations of its mortal human form (xíng ), to avoid or transform death and turn into spirit immortals (xiān ). We must never forget this alchemical background, which differs so greatly from our own intentions for the use of “medicinal” substances.

    From this perspective, the character “toxin/toxic” takes on a different meaning. Looking at its etymology, it is a combination of the two characters shēng (“life”), or cǎo (“grass”) over (“do not!”), aptly paraphrased by the famous Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren as “forbidden herbs.” Early variations of the graph include the characters dāo (“knife”) or chóng (“insect”), both things that are associated with harming people.  So in other contexts, the character can safely be equated with the English term “toxin,” which is why I have chosen to do so here as well. The issue, in other words, is not that the Chinese character means something different from the English word “toxin,” but that it carries a specific meaning here that we must keep in mind. I used to explain it as “medicinal efficacy” in the context of this book, but such an explanation only works if we are clear on the different meaning of “medicinal” in the early texts: Yes, treating disease was one desired outcome of using natural substances, but the actual transformation of the physical body, which in cases like the long-term consumption of cinnabar and other minerals might involve inflicting real and permanent harm on it, was a higher and more important goal, associated with the connection to Heaven.

    The long-term consumption of substances aimed at the gradual alchemical transformation of the physiological body is therefore an essential aspect of the information presented in The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica. The reader can gain a better understanding of the specific goals of this alchemical transformation by looking at the effects of substances described after the phrase jiǔ 久服 (“consumed over a long time”). The most important effects are related to three actions: lightening the body (qīng shén 輕身), staving off aging (or extending the years or some variation thereof, nài lǎo yán niān  耐老延年), and, the most difficult phrase to translate in the entire book, “facilitate the breakthrough of spirit [illumination] (tōng shén 通神). The goal of preventing or reversing aging requires no more explanation here. Similarly, “lightening the body” is an effect that the reader can experience on a personal level. In my mind, I read it literally, in the sense that the body feels light and airy, instead of being weighted down in such a way that it requires effort to keep it upright or move limbs.

    Resolving the conundrum of translating the expression tōng shén 通神, or its common relative tōng shénmíng 通神明, proves much harder. I have changed my translation dozens of times, from the awfully prosaic “unclog the spirit” to the unclear “connect [the body’s?] spirit/s with [Heaven’s brightness?],” to my current choice, “facilitate the breakthrough of spirit [illumination].” There are almost as many possibilities for interpreting and translating this phrase as there are readers and translators. Neither tōng nor shén are characters that are easily translatable into any modern language. In the case of shén , the English “spirit” or “Spirit” may express the connection to Heavenly Spirit, or to spirit in the sense of a person’s vitality or esprit, but it leaves out the plurality of “spirits” that inhabit the human body, surround it in the natural environment, and connect it upwards with Heaven. Those of you who practice Chinese medicine or any of the Chinese arts of self-cultivation know that shén is just shén, and that “spirit,” whether in the singular or plural, is indeed a questionable and uneasy English rendition of one of the most important concepts in Chinese culture. Etymologically, you could perhaps explain it as the act of “stretching upward toward something sacred,” a place or entity that most people associate with the Chinese concept of “Heaven.”

    Concerning the character tōng , it implies the idea of connecting, of penetrating through something all the way to the end, of unclogging, as in the medical action of tōng jīng 通經, of unclogging the channels, or the menstrual period, by removing obstructions, of restoring free flow. Again, this is perhaps a concept that is more easily grasped by experiencing the effect of this action on the human body in person. In the oldest Chinese dictionary Shuō Wén Jiě Zì 說文解字, the character is defined as , “to reach.” In addition, the classical meanings of the character include notions like “to pervade,” “to comprehend,” “to move forcefully,” and “to communicate and interact.” In my mind, especially in the phrase tōng shénmíng 通神明 (“facilitate the break-through of spirit illumination”), the medicinal substance that is said to have this effect allows the light of the spirit or spirits to shine through, to illuminate the farthest reaches of “Under Heaven” like the supercharged beam of a magical flashlight. Ultimately, this phrase may just be impossible to express in a modern Western language but can only be grasped on a non-rational level, because it is beyond the limitations of our linguistic capacities.

    In conclusion, I hope that you enjoy pondering these sorts of conundrums as much as I do and that this text invites you to ponder a few new ones.

    “Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”  Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

    I gratefully accept the count by Paul U. Unschuld in his Medicine in China. A History of Pharmaceutics, p. 2.

  • 1 Dec 2017 4:15 PM | Caroline Radice (Administrator)

    All Attendees will become Affiliates of the Shen Nong Society and you are required to Join or Renew to Register for the Conference. Please start here and then once membership payment confirmed, look for email link to register for Conference. If you joined After Conference 2017, please go directly to Registration page.

    Early Bird Pricing in effect until 12/31/2017

    Registration Page

  • 3 Nov 2017 1:13 PM | Caroline Radice (Administrator)

    The Shen Nong Society is an organization focused on communication and education between practitioners and other members of the East Asian herbal community.  This includes distributors, educators, farmers, and policy makers.

    At our inception in 2016, we planned to create a registry of practitioners which would be open to the public as well as to refer to one another.  However, because this effort is duplicated in many ways by the NCCAOM, we have decided to forgo it at present as one of our goals. 

    We believe that maintaining professional standards is integral to every healthcare modality.  In that light, we encourage all East Asian herbal practitioners to maintain their NCCAOM Diplomate status, as it is the only standard that currently exists to confirm our training.

    Beginning December 1, 2017, affiliation with the Shen Nong Society will be open to everyone who attends our annual conference.  Conference fees will include both the conference and affiliation with the Shen Nong Society. Those who are unable to attend the conference, but wish to join our efforts to enhance the professionalism of the field of East Asian Herbal Medicine, may join the Shen Nong Society for an annual rate of $50.

    As an affiliate of the Shen Nong Society, you will receive notification of the discount for our annual conference via early bird registration.  (In 2016 we sold out two months before the conference!)  In addition, you will receive our monthly bulletin that includes articles and/or case studies relevant to the profession, and notifications of upcoming classes relevant to East Asian herbal medicine.

    CONFERENCE 2018 


    Registering for the Conference will make you an automatic member for 1 year!

    Visit our Conference Page and stay tuned for emails

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