Long Life Chinese Herbs

Long Life Chinese Herbs



According to the Webster dictionary, the word “herbs” is defined as “any such plant that can be used as medicine, seasonings, etc” (Webster Dictionary). However, “herbs” associated with Chinese medicine should not be narrowly understood: it is a more comprehensive term including various ingredients such as animals, seashells, minerals and anything found in nature can be used medicinally. Moreover, traditional Chinese herbs sometimes play crucial roles in cuisine as well. To explore the usage of herbs in Chinese culture both as food and as medicine, our group traced the historical origin of herbal medicine and conducted fieldwork in Philadelphia Chinatown.


In primitive times, humans found out that some of the herbs could be used for curing diseases during hunting and gathering society. In Chinese history, the earliest recognized herbalist was Shennong (divine father), a mythic god-like figure who lived around 2800 BC (Wikipedia). Shennong tested hundreds of herbs and imparted his knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants to the farmers. He also wrote Materia Madica (Shen Nong Bai Cao Jing), the oldest book on Chinese herbal medicine, to classify more than three hundred flora and fauna. A large number of herbalists augmented his works. Among them the most distinguished was Li Shizhen, an herbalist lived in Ming dynasty. The Compendium of Materia Medica (Ben Cao Gang Mu) complied by Li Shizhen is still used today for consultation and reference.
There are two major methods of applying the Chinese herbs: making a decoction, a tea that must be simmered for hours, or making large honey-bounded pills.

Unlike the western medicine, these two ways of applying Chinese herbs are regarded as unpleasant and sometimes unacceptable. The teas are time-consuming, smelly and awful tasting while the pills are sticky and difficult to chew. Thus, modern forms of applications that are more acceptable have developed. There are two popular forms to replace the traditional applications. The first one is extract powder that we have found in Chinatown, Philadelphia (which would be further discussed in the Fieldwork section); and the second form is small tablets or capsules. Both of the modern ways of applications are easier for people to accept.

Furthermore, Chinese natural herbs are usually used for three major functions. To begin with, herbs can treat acute diseases and kill bacteria or virus. In general, these acute ailments are treated for 1-30 days. Second, herbs can heal chronic illness such as respiratory disorder, allergies, and immune system deficiency. These illnesses need more than 6 months to be effective. Moreover, herbs can help to maintain daily life health by keeping the balance (yin and yang) of human body. In some cases, herbs are taken daily and for an indefinite period. This is typically the situation when there are genetic disorders or permanent damage that cannot be entirely reversed, problems of aging, and ailments that have been left for too long without effective treatment (naturalherbs.com). For instance, Lin Daiyu in the novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, has taken ginseng tea or other medicines daily since her birth due to permanent illnesses.

It is a common mistake to believe that everything natural that comes from the earth is safe and beneficial. This certainly is not true (natrualherbs.com). Centuries ago, traditional Chinese herbalists such as Shennong would test the herbs on themselves and have poisoned themselves with herbs in order to document the true natures of herbs. Additionally, the usage of herbs alone is discouraged even though the herbs used in formulas are safe. It is better to visit herbalists or doctors before taking any herbal medicines and they will adjust recipes and treatment after physical assessment. We visited two doctors in Chinatown and Chutong accepted health examinations by the doctors, which will be reported later.

Although Chinese herbs are usually taken as medicines, they also can be used either as seasonings or main ingredients in cuisine. Cantonese dishes, especially the soups, often contain Chinese herbs to provide more nutrition. There is no exact line between how herbs are used as medicines and as food in Chinese culture.


On Saturday afternoon, we have visited four herbal places in Chinatown. In chronological sequence each represents herbal food shop, herbal pharmacy, and two Chinese medical clinics.
Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 8.13.30 PM

The food shop Heung Fa Chuen (杏花邨) locates close to the grand gate of Philadelphia Chinatown (費城華阜). On the menu of Heung Fa Chuen we found various items with herbal ingredients. They offer herbal drinks like chrysanthemum tea (菊花茶) and selfheal tea (夏枯草茶). Other herbs such as black sesame, red bean, green bean and peanut are available ingredients to top in sweet soup and tofu pudding. When asked why customers would pay extra to add these herbs to their food, the owner of the shop answered, “Some people like these (the herbal ingredients listed above) because they make the soup more flavorful. Some others add herbs to make their food more nutritious.” Indeed according to Chinese herbalists, black sesame, red bean, green bean and peanut all have medical functions when ingest properly. But as indicated by the shop owner, some people may have chosen herbs topping simply for their fragrance and taste. In addition, it has happened in history that people ate herbs (defined broadly as above) to alleviate hunger or even fill the stomach. For example, in Respond to Yan Chen[1], the Qing Dynasty minister Fucheng Xue stated,


In summary, he said the Manchurian army were not used to eating rice. So they depended on Za Liang-a mixture of cereal, corn, buckwheat, soybean, sweet potato, peanut, green bean, and sesame for food consumption. Of course it is not likely that people go to Heung Fa Chuen and order extra herb toppings to expel hunger. But the example does add a third motivation to consuming herbs. From visiting this food shop, we conclude that the line between food and medicine could be drawn in terms of motivation of consumption. When herbs are consumed to complement nutrition, it could be considered as medicine; when herbs are served against hunger or out of gastronomical preferences, it belongs to the category of food.

After we left Heung Fa Chun, we turned left onto Arch Street and visited the herbal pharmacy at the corner. If not for all the Chinese characters on the pill cases, we would have mistaken the store with CVS or Rite Aid. This store features a lot of herbal medicine one could easily find in a regular pharmacy in China. Unlike fresh/dried/crushed herbs found in Heung Fa Chuen, here herbs appear in a more modernized form. In most cases they are highly condensed and candy-coated. It was not busy on a Saturday afternoon, so we chatted with the pharmacist. He told us that 90% of the customers are Chinatown residents or Chinese students from neighboring universities. To further explore our topic, we asked him whether they sell any food ingredients in the store. He looked at us with a strange smile and said, “Well, most people won’t be here unless they are sick.” According to him, herbs are consumed as medicine when an illness has occurred. In other words, herbs are medicine when herbs they as cure. Otherwise it cannot be labeled as medicine because it does not remedy any sickness. We are skeptical about his argument. If the function of herb decides which category it belongs to, then the judgment largely depends on the definition of “illness”, not herb itself anymore. Turtle jello (龜苓膏Guiling Gao)for instance, is served as a Cantonese snack dish, not a medicine. Yet it claims to cleanse, nourish “yin”(陰), and improves circulation. If the imbalance of “yin” and “yang” can be counted as illness, then technically turtle jello is a medicine as well, which is against our empirical experiences.

Our final stop was the two medical clinics. To look less suspicious, we decided that Chutong would pretend to be a real patient-and was there to treat acnes. Doctor A felt Chutong’s pulse and prescribed packets of condensed fluid. Some of the ingredients include: honeysuckle, chrysanthemum and radix bupleur. Interestingly, we later noticed that on the pockets printed a tiny line-The Chinese Herbal teas. Doctor Lin, on the other hand, did more careful check-up for Chutong’s acne. He practiced the traditional four methods of Chinese medicine-Observe, Smell, Ask, and Feel the pulse (望闻问切). His prescription came in pockets of mixed herbal powder a convenient substitute for fresh/dried herbs. When we were waiting for Doctor Lin’s assistance to mix the herbal powder, we chatted randomly with people in the clinic. We asked why they chose Chinese medicine over western one, and the answers can be summed up in four categories. Almost everyone mentioned that Doctor Lin is trustworthy and well respected in the area. A lot of people said they were used to Chinese medicine and believe it has fewer side effects on their body. Some claimed that they found it really convenient that Chinese medical clinics do not require appointments. And a few explained that they were here solely for balance of health. It is amusing to associate the last answer with the Pharmacist’s theory. If the fourth group of people came merely for balance of health, i.e. not sick, should we define the herbs they get as food rather than medicine? Now we think that there should be more divisions than “food” and “medicine” when categorizing herbs according to function. At least there should be “health care” to cater the needs of those who enthusiastically pursue the balance of “yin” and “yang”.
Although we failed to obtain a solid conclusion on what determines the line between herbs as food and herb as medicine. We did acquire two potential factors: motivation and function. The nuance between the factors is that “motivation” is a subjective perspective, i.e. why people take the herbs. Meanwhile, “function” is more objective in describing the actual effects of herbs. However, the two criteria are not always in accordance. The turtle jello for example, is often taken as food motivation wise, but benefits balance of health as a function.

[1] Xue, F. (n.d.). Respond to Yan Chen.


One thought on “Long Life Chinese Herbs

  1. Do you think that you can expand the notion of “medicine” or “illness” to include re-balancing of yin and yang, so that nutrition is a step in the process of maintaining an equilibrium?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *