Ginseng and Ancient Chinese Medicine

March 19, 2014 Updated: March 19, 2014

The patient of an old Chinese medicine doctor once told him that ancient Chinese medicine couldn’t keep up with modern herbal remedies. Some modern remedies have dozens of ingredients in them, while many Chinese medicine prescriptions, such as ginseng, have only a single ingredient.

Another story helps answer this student’s question, a translator who had been doing oral translation for many years felt a lack of vital energy and was often weak, even to the point of having trouble speaking. He had taken many remedies but had not seen any improvement. He then went to a Chinese medicine doctor who told him to put a piece of ginseng in his mouth. He did, and his symptoms disappeared.

Why is it that remedies containing numerous ingredients were not able to do as much as a single piece of ginseng?

Modern science can analyze the ingredients in Chinese medicine, but still not reach its true essence. The essence of Chinese medicine refers to the nature of yin and yang (cold, cool, warm, or hot) and its taste (sweet, spicy, salty, acidic, or bitter). Each taste can be further divided by nature and functionality. For example, a sweet taste can remove extravagated blood, improve blood circulation, and improve vital energy.

According to the book, Herbal Classic, attributed to the mythological emperor Shen Nong, ginseng is, “Sweet, and slightly cold. Especially good for vital organs.”

The nature that ginseng possesses has to do with the environment in which it grows. Wild ginseng typically grows on the slopes of mountains at a height of around 1,600-3,600 feet (500 to 1,100 meters). It is generally found growing in the Changbai Mountains and Xiaoxinganling Mountains in northeast China. 

The Chinese character for “mountain” comes from the sign of “gen” in the Eight Trigrams. The Eight Trigrams are a set of eight symbols that help explain the interrelationship between all things. This sign “gen’ possesses more yin than yang and corresponds to the cold and shadowy nature of a mountain. 

Therefore, ginseng has a slightly cold nature. But ginseng grows on the sloped part of a mountain, which is the yang part, so ginseng therefore has a slightly yang nature. In addition, the gen sign belongs to the element “Earth” which is slightly sweet, and thus ginseng is slightly to the yang side of sweet. 

Among our organs, the spleen and stomach belong to the element Earth, which is believed in Chinese medicine to be the root of energy. Therefore, the yang side of sweetness in ginseng can fortify the yang of the spleen and stomach, thereby sending energy throughout the entire body.

This is why other remedies cannot beat the healing effects of ginseng. But of course, at a deeper level, the ancient Chinese believe that ginseng and other elements of Chinese medicine are effective because they were taught to humans by gods. 

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