20080311-Strength20AndEndurance iron palm arts.jpg
Endurance and strength medicine
Chinese herbal remedies are regarded as strength-giving restorative medicines that prevent rather than cure illnesses and rejuvenate energy to fight illnesses caused by low energy levels. Many Chinese take herbal medicines for things like back aches, nausea, headaches, colds, flus, bronchitis, asthma, sore throats. and problems that require long-term treatment.

Herbalists believe that Chinese herbs are used to treat the entire body holistically rather than target a certain organ or disease. The ones used to treat migraine headaches are said to be particularly good. Another benefit of herbal medicines is that they have relatively few side effects in the short run. They generally don't cause allergic reactions like penicillin. Some herbs are dangerous if used frequently over a long period because some of them contain mild toxins that can damage the liver, kidneys or other organs.

Botanists in China have patiently catalogued over 28,000 plant species of Chinese plants into 120 volumes. Over 20 percent of these are used in Chinese medicine. Common Chinese herbal medicines include hedysarum, ginseng, Chinese matrimony berry and licorice. Popular restorative medicines include honey, aloe, kale, brown rice, squeezed vegetable extracts, arrowroot, and red flower seeds.

The most extensive arrays of Chinese herbal remedies are found on Ko Shing Street in Hong Kong and the vast herb market in Puning, a town on China’s southern coast.

Websites and Sources on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM): National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) / ; National Center for Biotechnology Information resources on Chinese Medicine ; Skepticism of Chinese Medicine ; Chinese Medicine Chinese Text Project ; Wikipedia article on Traditional Chinese Medicine Wikipedia ; American Journal for Chinese Medicine ;

Consumption of Herbal Medicines

20080311-Diabetes_herb_CiaoSu Nature Products.jpg
Diabetes medicine
Most Asian medicines are sold in little packets and then mixed with water and boiled in pan. In Korea medicines are often mixed into pumpkin soup. Many pharmacies mix up special brews in their own kitchens and then pour them into thermoses for delivery to people's homes on bicycle.

Some herbal remedied are applied topically. Some Chinese treats upset stomachs by rubbing things like White Flower Oil on their head and stomach. Skin balms such as "sticky dog skin plaster" (now with a dog skin substitute) are used to treat sore muscles. "Tiger balm" from Hong Kong is a salve that can be used as cure all for anything. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Many Chinese herbal medicines have a bitter taste. Foreigners often prefer to take them in gelatin capsules because they can't stand the taste. Sneezing powders are prescribed for stomach ailments as way of releasing pressure.

As Chinese become affluent the demand for certain herbs, roots and animal products has risen, causing heir prices to soar. A small box of rare root, for example, that is boiled in a soup and eaten to strengthen the lungs, sold for $600 in 2006, four times the price in 2004.

The cost of herbal medicines have risen significantly in recent years as a result of higher labor prices, increased demand in China where incomes are higher and more people can afford them and shortages of some ingredients.

Many people sell herbal remedies in the streets of China. Describing a Tibetan medicine man at a market in Guizhou Province of southern China, Patrick Tyler wrote in the New York Times, he "displayed his wares on a red cloth laid on the ground before him. On porcelain saucers lay his herbal delights: red angel hair from a Tibetan flower, yellow sawdust from a medicinal tree...While wrapping up a bundle of herbs and animals parts, which sold for the equivalent of 75 cents, the medicine man said, “Now you should put this in liquor and drink it every day. It is very good for your rheumatism.”

Western Treatments Developed from Chinese Herbal Medicine

20080311-ChinDrugstore 1901 in LA.jpg
Chinese medicine store in Los Angeles in 1901
In November 2006, Merck, the world’s largest drug company, announced that it had made a deal with the Chi-Med, a Chinese pharmaceutical company, to develop drugs and consumer health products based on traditional Chinese medicines, with a special emphases on coming up with promising cancer treatment. Chi-Med has a library of about 10,000 herbal compounds and a staff f 100 research scientists working n a lab in Shanghai. Two promising dugs have already been developed: HMPL-002, a compound used for lung cancer, and HMPL-004, an anti-inflammatory used in the treatment of a bowel disease. In China, Chi-Med makes a tumor treatment made with baked wasp nest and male rat stool. [Source: The Times of London]

Merck isn’t the only big drug company taking a serious look at traditional Chinese medicine. Novartis, the Swiss giant, has announced plans to open up a $100 million research and development center in Shanghai.

An Australian study showed the Chinese herbal treatments were effective in treating irritable-bowel syndrome, a gastro-intestinal disorder that afflicts between 10 percent and 20 percent of the population in industrialized countries.

Chinese folk healers have traditionally treated tiger bites and wounds with frog and toad secretion. In the 1990s, it was discovered that species of frog secrete a previously unknown family of antibiotics.

In 1995, scientist at Harvard Medical School found that a traditional Chinese herbal medicine made with the kudzu vine helped curb the natural desire of Syrian golden hamsters to consume alcohol. Syrian golden hamsters are often used in alcohol research because they prefers water mixed with alcohol over plain water.

Side affects of anti-cancer drugs have been mitigated with Chinese herbal medicines. Controlled doses of arsenic is now of one of the most common methods used to treat a nasty form of leukemia. The treatment was developed after the study of a concoction used by a shaman in Heilongjiang made from two kinds of ground rock and the venom of local toad.

Safety of Chinese Herbal Medicine in China

20111102-Wikicommons Ginseng 22.jpg
An article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in February 2010 warned that mixing herbal remedies such as St. John’s Wort and gingko biloba with prescribed medication for heart disease could cause dangerous even fatal side effects, especially for people with liver or kidney problems or a propensity to bleed heavily. St. John’s wort is known to interfere with medications for irregular heart beats, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Ginkgo biloba raises the risks of excessive bleeding. Arshad Jahangir of the Mayo Clinic, Arizona, who worked on the report, told the Times of London, “Many people have a false sense of security about these herbal remedies and drugs because they are seen as “natural.” But “natural” doesn’t always mean they are safe. Every compound we consume has se effect in the body, which ius essence, why people are taking these products to being with.”

In December 2010, a new law will go into effect in Hong Kong that requires all traditional Chinese medicines sold to be safe, but says nothing about whether they work or not. From December, any sale, import or possession of unregistered proprietary Chinese medicine will be an offense subject to a maximum penalty of HK$100,000 and two years' imprisonment. [Source: Ella Lee, South China Morning Post, August 16, 2010]

The enforcement of a section under the Chinese Medicine Ordinance comes 11 years after the law was passed in 1999, and seven years after a registration system for these products was introduced in 2003. Although the 11,000 products sold in Hong Kong will have their “safety” tested, they will not be subject to tests for “quality” or “efficacy”. More than 80 per cent of the proprietary Chinese medicines sold in Hong Kong will lack scientific proof of their quality and efficacy.

Quality refers to the medicine's ingredients, shelf life and manufacturing method, while efficacy means the drug's effectiveness for treating certain conditions. Some products may require clinical trials to prove efficacy. The Department of Health, facing repeated criticism over its slow progress on the matter, says it has yet to work out a timetable on when these products would eventually be tested comprehensively.

Drug safety in Hong Kong has been a growing public concern after a spate of incidents in recent years. In March 2010, Po Chai Pills were found to contain cancer-causing chemicals. This came a year after a locally produced Western drug, Purinol, was contaminated with a rare fungus that killed eight leukaemia patients. A law that requires proper labels and package inserts will not come into force until December 2011.

As of June 2010, the makers of 16,560 proprietary Chinese medicinal products had applied to the Chinese Medicines Board for registration. Of the products, 11,260 have been granted temporary registration and can continue to be sold after December 2010. The Department of Health said these products had been proven “safe” based on three separate tests - heavy metals and toxicity, pesticide residue and microbial limit. But in order to get a full registration, traders must also prove the quality and efficacy of the products.

Society of Hospital Pharmacists vice-president William Chui Chun-ming said, “It is acceptable for the department to allow a soft landing for the trade, given that Chinese medicine has a long history and it's complicated. However, we should not allow the current situation to stand forever. Traders who fail to get a full licence in two to three years should have their products banned from the market.”


20080311-ginsenplant 41 south aquaculture2.jpg
ginseng roots

Ginseng — a plant that grows primarily in China, Korea, Canada and the United States — is one of the most common Chinese herbal remedies and an ingredient of many traditional concoctions. Found primarily in forests, the ginseng plant grows from 8 to 16 inches high and has five-sectioned leaves red berries and yellow-green flowers. Medicines are made from the roots, which range in length from four to eight inches.

Ginseng has been used by the Chinese for over 5,000 years and has been called the “elixir of life." Its Latin name Panax quinquefolius means “cure-all.” Ginseng plants take six years to mature. When clusters of scarlet berries appear the roots are ready to be dug up.

There are various grades of ginseng, with the best coming from wild plants. Single wild ginseng roots are sometimes worth tens of thousands of dollars. The value of ginseng is often determined by the shapes of the roots. Odd shapes that resemble human forms, animals or auspicious signs are the most valuable.

Ginseng comes in two main varieties: 1) Asian ginseng, regarded as “hot” (a mild stimulant) in Chinese medicine; and 2) American ginseng, regarded as “cool” (a calming tonic) in Chinese medicine. Both contain compounds known as ginsenosides but in different proportions. These days the American variety is often more expensive than the Asian variety.

Ginseng is commonly served in tea or added to soups. One ginseng user in Beijing who says she drinks slices of the root in hot water when she I anxious or cannot sleep told AP, “It tastes kind of bitter but also sweet. I don’t take it all the time just when I think of it, and it seems to work. I often feel better the next day.” Another user steeps pre cut ginseng root in a bottle with grain alcohol and takes a shot in the evening to help him relax before bed.

Books: “Ginseng: the Divine Root” by David A. Taylor (Algonquin, 2006)

Ginseng as a Medicine

20080311-ginsengplant 41 south aquaculture.jpg
ginseng plant

Ginseng is said to promote virility, boost the immune system, help digestion, increase stamina, help users resist stress and make people live longer. It is used to treat drowsiness, upset stomachs, lack of sexual desire and is prescribed as a stimulant, an aphrodisiac, hangover remedy, fatigue reliever, and a treatment for about everything. It is sometimes prescribed to control the blood sugar levels of diabetics and regulate hormone levels. It also offers hope as a cancer treatment.

Many people feel nothing when they take ginseng. Others say they feel a lot. In 1713, a Jesuit missionary in China wrote, “I found my Pulse much fuller and quicker. I had an appetite, and found myself much more vigorous.”

Ginseng tastes like a bitter radish when it is eaten plain. It is sold as a powder, extract and tea and is an ingredient in energy drinks, tablets, tonics, creams and other products. Studies have shown that many products that purportedly contain ginseng have little or no ginseng in them.

Some studies show that ginseng can increase stamina, endurance and resistance to stress but it can also cause high blood pressure. Other studies have shown it is no more of an energy inducer than sugar pills Yet other studies have shown it does have cancer-fighting “antioxidant properties” and can lower blood sugar in Type II diabetes.

Ginseng stimulates the sex drive of laboratory rats and appears to prevent breast cancer cells from reproducing. It is believed to stimulate brain cells and endocrine glands in humans. According to studies done in Russia ginseng "increases sexual energy and has a general healing and rejuvenating influence on the body."

Wild Ginseng and Farm-Grown Ginseng

Wild ginseng roots shaped like a man's body are one of the most expensive Chinese medicine, selling for as much as $20,000 an ounce. As a rule wild ginseng is much more valuable than farm-grown ginseng. In the mid 1990s the wholesale price of wild ginseng doubled to $500 a pound. At the time cultivated ginseng was selling for only $25 to $40 a pound.

Ginseng is found in the leaf mold of damp forests and is easiest to find in the autumn. Scientists are worried that too many ginseng roots are being dug for quick money before they have a chance to release their seeds.

20111102-Wikicommons Ginseng China.jpg
Ginseng is a slow-growing temperamental plant that is difficult to grow and even more difficult to profit from because the most valuable roots are the oldest ones. In Korea it grown under plastic tarpaulins. Most ginseng produced in the U.S. is sold to China.

Wild ginseng from North America is sometimes referred to as "green gold." It was discovered by a French Jesuit who lived among the Iroquois Indians and has been exported to China since the 18th century. The American root is said to have a more relaxing and less energizing affect than its Asian counterpart.

In West Virginia some ginseng harvesters have learned how to plant wild ginseng seeds and harvest the roots years later. In Virginia farmers guard their precious plants with surveillance cameras, motion detectors and shotguns. Almost 11,000 pound of wild ginseng root was harvested in Virginia in 1994 A lot is also grown on farms in British Columbia

Western Ginseng

The term “Xinyang shen” (“Western ginseng”) has become a catch all term that includes Wisconsin root, Canadian imports and other varieties of American ginseng cultivated in China. Bottles of Western ginseng sell for about $44 a piece in Chinese medicine shop in Beijing. The American-Chinese ginseng trade dates back to at least 1784 when trading ships sailed from New York to Canton (today’s Guangzhou) loaded with 30 tons of ginseng roots.

A lot of Western ginseng is produced in Wisconsin. The roots from there are regarded as relatively high quality in part because the roots are short and stubby and the soil it is grown is uncontaminated with DDT. Of late Wisconsin ginseng has had problems as counterfeiters have slapped a Wisconsin label on inferior ginseng to boost the price.

About 90 percent o the 300,000 kilograms of American ginseng grown each year is produced n Wisconsin. In recent years the bottom has fallen out the Wisconsin ginseng market. The number of farmers that grow it fell from 1,500 in the early 1990s, when the Chinese bought nearly everything they produced, to around 150 in 2010, when the Chinese where much pickier and demanding of good quality stuff. In that time the price has fallen from around $132 a kilogram to $52 a kilogram.

Ginkgo biloba

“Ginkgo biloba” is an anti-toxicant that increases oxygenation and blood circulation by thinning the blood. It reportedly improves memory, delays progression of early Alzheimer's disease, lessens the effects of aging and helps poor circulation and impotence.

20111102-Wikicommons Seoul Namdaemun Market ginseng.jpg Ginkgo is oldest tree species (a form of the ginkgo first emerged about 300 million years ago). It once thrived along the Pacific rim but died out in the Ice Age everywhere but China. The gingko tree has lovely fan-shaped leaves that turn bright yellow in autumn and stay that way to early winter. Ginkgo biloba is sacred to Buddhist and a familiar sight at temples in Japan and China. The tree now grows throughout Europe and North America.

Ginkgo-based drug are widely used in Asia. Dried leaf extract made from gingko biloba is sold in tablets and capsules as a treatment for age-related memory loss. Americans spend more than $240 million a year for remedies made with ginko. Studies have shown that gingko has little effect on the memory and mental abilities on normal, healthy people but does help slow the rate of mental decay in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Ginko biloba is being subjected to a careful study that involves 3,000 patients over the age 75 in four states in the United States to see if it slows the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. The study will be completed in 2010. Among the things revealed so far is that 75 percent of gingko bilboa medicines sampled had minimal amounts of the active ingredient.

Ginkgo may offer some help minimizing brain damage caused by a stroke in animals. Mice given daily doses of gingko biloba extract before having a laboratory-induced stroke suffered only about half the damage of animals who were not given it according to research at Johns Hopkins University. Mice give ginkgo extract immediately after a stroke also suffered less brain damage. This was significant in that generally little can be done to help stroke victims after they have suffered a stroke.

Gingko raises levels of heme oxygenase-1, or HO-1, which is an enzyme that acts as an antioxidant to protect against cell damage caused by “free radicals” — toxic oxygen molecules released by cells under stress.

Ma huang (Ephedra)

20080311-plants_market chinese medicine planst wwf.jpg
Plants market

“Ma huang”, also known as ephedra, is an herb that contains the drug ephedrine, a mild stimulant that is used to increase energy, control weight and create a mild high. Derived from the leaves of a Chinese plant used for at least 2,000 years to treat respiratory ailments and breathing problems. Ephedrine is the main ingredient in many asthma treatments, is used in legal highs like Herbal Ecstacy, Cloud nine, Xtacy and can be used with other chemicals to methamphetamine.

In the United States, ephedra (Ma Huang) was banned when unregulated American Supplement makers promoting Ma Huang for a purpose which it was never designed for (Weight-loss). The "chinese medicines" themselves have not been banned. A specific herb has been banned: Ephedra ("Ma Huang"). But, there is an exemption in the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) ruling which exempts practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine from using it:

According to the final FDA ruling on Ephedra in "Traditional Asian Medicine": “Several Ephedra species (including those known as ma huang) have a long history of use in traditional Asian medicine. These products are beyond the scope of this rule because they are not marketed as dietary supplements.”

Qinghao (Sweet Wormwood) Malaria Treatment

Artemisinin, a drug developed by Chinese scientists from the extract of the sweet wormwood or “qinghao” plant, is the most effective new malaria treatment, curing 90 percent patients in three days with no significant side effects.

Artemisia comes from a six-foot-tall plant that grows in China and Vietnam and originated from the Luofushan area of Guangdong Province in China. No one knows how it was first discovered. It was prescribed as hemorrhoid treatment in the 2nd century B.C. medical treatise “Fifty-Two Remedies” and described by Ge Heng (283-363), a Taoist priest preoccupied with the search for elixirs of immortality. In his Book of Emergency Medicine Ge wrote that patients suffering from high fever are advised to “take a handful of sweet wormwood, soak it in a sheng [about 1 liter] of water, squeeze the juice and drink it all.”

The Chinese first synthesized artemisinin in 1979. They had given the qinq hao plant to the Vietnamese who used it when they were fighting the Americans in the Vietnam War. The West first became aware of artemisinin in 1985 when Science published an article that described the drug’s success treating several thousand Chinese malaria sufferers.

Even though China is the solo source of sweet wormwood, it sells the plant to Novarsis, who makes and distributes anti-malaria drug at cost, rather than developing drugs itself.

Artemisinin is used against the falciaparum strain if malaria. It acts very quickly, reducing the parasite’s biomass in the human body, and is particularly effective at destroying drug-resistant malarial parasites in the bloodstream. Artenisinin attacks the parasite during the sexual stage of the cycle, disrupting the transfer of the parasite from humans to mosquitoes. Because it throws off the whole malaria cycle it also holds great promise eradicating malaria from areas where it used.

20111102-Wikicommons Chineseherbjars.jpg

Licorice, Star Anise and Tamuflu

Licorice, a purple-flowed pulse native to Afghanistan and China, is a key ingredient to many traditional Chinese medicines and natural medicines. Seventy percent of the natural remedies sold in Japan contain licorice. Among other things it is said that licorice helps the body burn fat.

China is the world’s largest producer of licorice. Since around 2000 the Chinese government has limited the harvesting and export of licorice. This has driven up prices. The production of it quadrupled between 2005 and 2010. In Japan, licorice is an ingredient in about 70 percent of herbal medicines. Worried about supply cut offs Japanese firms have begin cultivating their own licorice.

Tamiflu, a popular drug used to treat all kinds of influenza, is derived from star anise, a common seasoning in Chinese cuisine. In 2009, sales of Tamiflu was over $2.9 billion.

Garlic as a Medicine in China

The price of garlic shot up during H1N1 flu epidemic in 2009 and 2010 as Chinese bought it as a putative cure and speculators bought up large quantities in hopes of making a quick buck. Many Chinese used garlic rather than getting a flu shot. The China Daily reported on a high school that bought 180 kilograms of garlic and forced students to eat it for their health.

Garlic was one of the best performing assets in China in 2009 and 2010. Its price was 15 times higher in November 2009 than it was six month earlier. China usually produces three quarters of the world’s supply of garlic but reduced planting areas by up to 50 percent in 2009 because of the global economic crisis, Supply and demand explains why prices would rise to some degree but not as much as they did. Speculators, in some cases gangs with large amounts fo cash and credit, were behind the stratospheric rise.

Explaining how the speculators operated, Jerry Lou of Morgan Stanley told the Financial Times, “You need warehouses, a lot of cash and a few trucks, Basically what you do is try to arrest as much supply as possible, then you bid up the price. Moving garlic from one warehouse to the other you make millions of dollars.”

Other Herbs and Plants

Other herbs and plants used in Chinese medicine include black bamboo, whose juice is used to treat kidney ailments, prickly heat and bring down fevers; “dong quai”, an herb that reputedly stimulates normal menstrual flow and prevents cramping; and “ganoderma”, an expensive mushroom used in expensive anti-wrinkle creams. Licorice is a common ingredient in many Chinese medicine tonics.

20111102-Wikicommons Chineseherbjars 2.jpg


The “Rauwolfia verticillate”, a plant native to China, yields reserpine, used to produce tranquilizers and drugs to treat both hypertension and schizophrenia. Usnea, a lichen similar to Spanish moss, is used as an antibiotic and a treatment for gynecological disorders in China. A substance found in Chinese cucumbers has showed promise as a treatment for AIDS.

Capsaicin extracted from chili peppers grown in China is used to make a drug made by the company Bioglan Pharma called Zostrix. It relieves arthritic pain by depleting substance P, the brains pain messenger.

Chinese “kombucha” mushrooms were once promoted as cancer fighters but they have caused a number of people to be hospitalized for conditions such as jaundice, headaches and nausea. Seaweed has also been heralded as cancer killer

Image Sources: Wiki Commons; Tqnyc; All Posters com Search Chinese Art ; Wikipedia; Compassionate Dragon Healing; Accupuncture Products; Iron Palm Arts; WWF; Ciao Su Nature Products; South Aquaculture, caterpillar fungus, Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.