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7Mar/13Off

Traditional Chinese Medicine – herbs, foods, over the counter, tonic tinctures

Traditional Chinese medicine shops usually stock 100-200 natural medicinal substances. Although they include minerals and items of animal origins, they're commonly referred to as "herbs". It's interesting that some people who're introduced to Chinese herbology tend to feel weird or strange about certain  elements being used for medical purpose. Like the medical use of precious minerals - jade, pearls and gold or animal parts like deer antler and tiger bone in some of more exotic prescriptions. These actually function like herbs in the prescription to adjust the perverse energies like "wind, heat, coldness, dampness, dryness" and Yin Yang in a sense.  Too bad sometimes this unusual aspects of traditional Chinese medicine often overshadows the basic commonsense advice of the tradition, such as the importance of healthy diet.

Among the herbs, there are many items that are indeed foods. For example, nuts (walnuts, cashews, peanuts), mushrooms (black mushrooms, black ear fungus, white ear fungus), different dried beans, figs, barley and abalone. Many of these items are critical ingredients in the extensive soup cuisine of the Cantonese. Others are imply exotic and expensive foods. This tradition somehow shows that Chinese believe that food and medicine are part of a continuous spectrum, varying in potency but not mode of action.

Besides food, there are also patented, over the counter medicines. Usually these are based on prescriptions  that have been developed over decades, or even centuries, of use. The function of these medicines are usually quite broad and not tailor-made for everyone. Buying these will be more convenient for Americans or people from the other countries, but be very cautious on the instructions in the box or the bottle.

Another form of medicine are called tonic tinctures, or medicinal wine. These are special tonics, usually stored in large (1-2 liter) jars full of herbs immersed in a dark liquid. These are prepared by very complex combination of herbs in rice wine for months or even years. Three basic types: tonic for yin essence, tonic for yang essence, and tonics for the elderly. They're quite expensive and usually have to drink regularly in small quantities. Some of them are very exotic, (like "snake wine" for example) so usually it's hard to find in America or outside China.

For wounds, bruises, bleeding injuries or rash on the outside of the body, normally herbs will be used as paste on a sticker and stick on the bruises or wounds for a while or for a few days. Tonic tinctures that are for external use are pretty common too. The smell may be bad, but Chinese often use them for healing and pain relief when there's an injury.

(sources: Streetwise Guide: Chinese Herbal Medicine by Wong Kang Ying and Martha Dahle, Chinese Herbal Medicine made easy by Thomas Richard Joiner.)