Classical Chinese Herbalism: Ancient Medicine For Modern Times

Most of the Chinese herbal medicine practiced both in China and in the West is of the Communist government approved style called TCM, but in recent years there has been a growing interest in so called ‘Classical‘ Chinese medicine, which looks for inspiration from the classic texts and seeks to understand the roots of this ancient medicine.

The ‘Jing Fang Six Syndrome Differentiation System’ is one of these Classical approaches to Chinese herbalism, and I’m honoured to have been able to study it with a true master.

Jing Fang literally means formula pattern. It is a method of Chinese herbalism in which a herbal formula is used on the basis of the ‘pattern’ of symptoms present. In fact, the way the formulas were described in classic texts like the Shang Han Lun (dating from almost 2000 years ago) is exactly in terms of the pattern of symptoms that the formula would be used to treat.

For example:

“The patient has rapid pulses, absence of heat, slight vexation, reticence with a desire to sleep, and sweating. 3 or 4 days after the   initial onset, the eyes are as red as those of a turtledove. After 7 or 8 days, the 4 corners of the eyes turn dark. If the patient is able to eat, this indicates that pus has developed. [The formula] chi xiao dou dang gui san is indicated.”

Some of the descriptions in the formula patterns are very specific, like the ‘eyes as red as a turtle dove’ in this example. In the same text you can find a description of heaviness around the waist ‘as if wearing a belt of 1000 coins’ or in another section, a sensation of a ‘palm sized patch of cold in the upper back’.

At first I thought these were metaphors or descriptive analogies only, but clinical practice quickly showed me that many patients experience these exact symptoms – I find it wonderful and amazing that these words written so long ago still hold exactly true in the modern world!

This precision and deep understanding makes this kind of Classical herbalism a truly holistic way of working with herbs. All aspects of your health and well-being are considered, to form the detailed ‘pattern’ of your current health. This pattern is then matched as closely as possible to one of many herbal formulas.

This method treats the person not the disease, and promotes the body’s natural ability to restore health. It is particularly effective in complex conditions with vague, variable or even contradictory symptoms.

The ‘Jing Fang Six Syndrome Differentiation System’ is a specific approach to Chinese Herbal Medicine taught by the rewnowned doctor Feng Shi Lun from Beijing. The formulas themselves come primarily from the Shang Han Lun, mentioned above, and 1 other ancient Han Dynasty text written by the ‘father’ of Chinese herbal medicine, Zhang Zhong Jing, on which Dr Feng is a world renowned expert (he refers to us non-Chinese practitioners of this style as ‘Foreign Zhang Zhong Jing’, which is quite an honour!)

Dr Feng is now in his late 70s, has been working in Chinese medicine for over 50 years, and is the author of over 20 books. He has a wealth of knowledge and incredible practical experience, and he has the reputation in China of the man you go and see when nothing else has worked!

I’ve been very privileged to be the recipient of this line of knowledge through an apprenticeship in the UK, as well as meeting the man himself on 2 occasions, one of which was a recent clinical internship in Beijing, studying with Dr Feng in his own clinics (The picture above is me with Dr Feng outside the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing.)

In China, the Classical Jing Fang approach of treating the person not the disease has sometimes been criticized as unscientific. In answer to this accusation, Dr Feng’s teacher, Professor Hu would often say:

“Etiology, pathology and disease location constitute the three elements of disease classification. Western medicine can clearly tell people the name of their disease, even if can not cure it, therefore it is ‘scientific’. Chinese medicine can cure diseases, but cannot clearly name them, so it is ‘unscientific'”.

And this is the crux of it, for me. Jing Fang is an extremely powerful system, which works for all manner of conditions and illnesses, some of which are very hard to treat by other methods. The ‘diagnosis’ as defined by Western medicine is less important, what matters is the precise matching of a formula to a condition, which gives amazing results.

If you’d like to know about this way of working, or to book a herbal medicine consultation at one of my Bristol or South Wales clinics, just get in touch

1 reply
  1. Kevin Grey
    Kevin Grey says:

    Great article Neil.
    I love the idea that no matter what newly named diseases arise over time, the human body always responds in the same fundamental ways, be that fever, pain, swelling, diarrhoea etc. etc. and that Chinese medicine has tried & tested methods of alleviating these symptoms – developed over thousands of years of observation & treatment.
    It was a pleasure studying with you in China.
    All the best.
    Kevin Grey

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