Random Notes on Gancao, Danggui, and Fuzi
The following translation is a collection of excerpts I prepared for my students in my Classical Texts class. It presents commentaries by Chen Xiuyuan, Li Shizhen, and Wang Ang, some of my personal favorites.
1. Original 神農本草經:
1) Gāncǎo: Its qì and flavor are sweet and balanced. It is non-toxic.
2) It rules the five zàng organs and six fǔ organs, the evil qì of cold and heat, hardening the sinews and bones, making the flesh grow, multiplying the qì strength, incised wounds and swellings, and resolving toxins.
3) Taken for a long time, it makes the body light and extends the years [of one’s life]. Used raw, it clears fire; used mix-fried, it supplements the center.
2. 陳修園：神農本草經讀 (early Qing)
1) In terms of the sweet flavor of medicinal substances, there is none greater than gāncǎo.
2) Sweetness rules the spleen. The spleen constitutes the root of later heaven, and the five zàng organs and six fǔ organs all receive their qì from it.
3) As for the root qì of the zàng and fǔ organs, this is the right qì. As for the qì of cold and heat that comes from the outside, this is the evil qì. When right qì is effulgent, evil qì retreats on its own.
4) The sinews are ruled by the liver. The bones are ruled by the kidney. The flesh is ruled by the spleen. The qì is ruled by the lung. Physical strength is ruled by the heart.
5) And yet, as soon as you make spleen qì exuberant, the five zàng organs all receive benefit in the progression of the cycle [of five phases] and receive its effect of hardening, promoting growth, and multiplying them!
6) As for incised wounds, these are wounds sustained in injury from knives and axes. When the wounds are serious, they are accompanied by swelling. When the spleen receives supplementation, the flesh naturally becomes full again.
7) As for [gāncǎo’s] ability to resolve toxins, this resembles the situation when toxic substances enter earth/soil and are transformed as a result. Earth is the mother of the myriad things, and when earth is invigorated, this lightens the body and extends the years.
3. 李時珍：本草綱目 (Completed in 1578)
【釋名】Explanation of Names
1) Honeysweet (Bielu), Honeygrass (Bielu), Beautygrass (Bielu), Magic Penetration (Jishizhu), Country’s Elder (Bielu).
2) Quoting [Táo] Hóngjǐng: “This herb is the greatest ruler of the multitudes of medicinal substances. Among the classic formulas, there are few that do not use it. This is just like the presence of chénxiāng (agarwood) among the fragrances. ‘Country’s Elder’ is precisely the title for the emperor’s teachers. Even though it is not a lord, it is nevertheless revered by the lords. For this reason it is able to harmonize the [other] herbs and minerals and resolve the various toxins.”
3) Quoting Zhēn Quán: “Among the various medicinals, gāncǎo is the lord. It manages the seventy-two types of stalactite poisoning, resolves the one thousand two hundred forms of plant poisonings, and harmonizes the effects of the multitudes of medicinals. Hence it has the name ‘Country’s Elder’.”
1) Qi and Flavor: Sweet, balanced, non-toxic. Quoting Kòu Zōng: “In the raw, it is slightly cooling and its flavor is not the best; mix-fried, it becomes warm.”
2) Quoting Wáng Hàogǔ: “Its qì is fine and its flavor is thick. It is ascending and floating, hence yáng. It enters the foot Tàiyīn and Juéyīn channels.” Quoting Shízhēn: “It penetrates through to enter the twelve channels of the hands and feet.”
3) Quoting Xú Zhīcái: “Báizhú, kǔshēn, and gānqī serves as its envoys; it is averse to yǔanzhì, and it counteracts the effects of dàjǐ, yuánhuā, gānsuì, and hǎizǎo.” Quoting Quán: “Avoid pork!”
4) Quoting Shízhēn: “Gāncǎo counteracts the effects of the four substances hǎizǎo, dàjǐ, gānsuì, and yuánhuā. Hermit Hú Qià [uses it] to manage phlegm by adding gāncǎo and dàhuáng to Shízǎotāng, which is addressing the presence of phlegm above the diaphragm. His intention is to cause its discharge, to pull out the disease by the root. Dōngyuán and Lǐ Gǎo [use this to] manage bindings and nodes below the neck, disperse swellings, and burst hardenings. Dōng adds hǎizǎo. Dānxī and Zhū Zhènhēng manage taxation consumption by using yuánhuā in Liánxīnyǐn. Both of these formulas both include gāncǎo, reflecting the original intention of Hermit Hú. Therefore Táo Hóngjǐng says that the ancient formulas also contain ones with mutually averse and mutually counteracting substances, but that these will not cause harm. If this is not a cause of ingenuity reaching the most profound level of subtlety, I do not know its reason.
1) Evil qì of cold and heat in the five zàng and six fǔ organs, hardening sinews and bones, lengthening muscles, multiplying strength, metal wounds, resolving toxins. Taken over a long time, making the body light and extending the years (Běnjīng).
2) Warming the center and bringing qì down, vexing fullness and shortness of breath, damage to the zàng organs with coughing, quenching thirst, making the channels flow freely, disinhibiting blood and qì, resolving the toxins of the hundred medicinals, constituting the essence of the nine earths, harmonizing the seventy-two types of minerals and one thousand two hundred forms of herbs (Biélù).
3) Rules cold pain inside the abdomen, treats fright epilepsy, eliminates abdominal distention and fullness, supplements and boosts the five zàng organs, nourishes internal damage to kidney qì, prevents yīn wilting, and rules trickling of blood with lumbar pain in women. In all cases of vacuity with profuse heat, add it (Zhēn Quán).
4) Quiets the hún and settles the pò souls, supplements the five taxations and seven damages, for all cases of vacuity detriment, fright palpitations, vexation and oppression, and forgetfulness, frees the flow through the nine orifices, disinhibits the hundred vessels, boosts essence and nourishes qi, makes the sinews and bones robust (Dàmíng).
5) Used fresh, it drains fire heat; used cooked, it disperses cold from the exterior, gets rid of throat pain, dispels evil heat, relaxes right qì, nourishes yīn blood, supplements the spleen and stomach, and moistens the lung (Lǐ Gǎo).
6) Vomiting up the pus and blood in lung wilting, dissipates the wounds (mistake for 癰 “welling-abscess”?) and abscesses of the five eruptions (Hàogǔ).
7) Resolves small children’s fetal toxin and fright epilepsy, brings fire down and relieves pain (Shízhēn).
4. 汪昂：本草備要 (published in 1694)
1) Sometimes supplementing, sometimes draining, is able to [affect] the exterior and the interior, can raise up or bring down, with a sweet flavor.
2) Used raw, its qì is balanced and it supplements insufficiency in the spleen and stomach and drains heart fire (when the fire is acute and severe, you must use this to moderate it).
3) Used mix-fried, its qì is warm, and it supplements the original qì in the Sānjiāo and dissipates cold from the exterior.
4) Added to harmonizing preparations, it supplements and boosts. Added to sweat-inducing preparations, it resolves the flesh (resolves and reduces heat in the fleshy exterior). Added to cooling preparations, it drains evil heat (e.g., Baihutang or Xiexintang). Added to drastic preparations, it revives right qì (added to ganjiang or fuzi, when you fear their overly up-lifting effect; and added to xiaoshi or dahuang, when you fear their drastic down-moving effect. In all cases, the meaning of this sentence is that it moderates their effect). Added to moistening preparations, it nourishes yīn blood (such as in Zhigancaotang).
5) It is able to assist and harmonize all the other medicinals, causing them to not struggle with each other.
6) It generates flesh and relieves pain (earth rules the flesh and sweetness is able to moderate pain), it frees the flow in the twelve channels, resolves the hundred medicinal toxins (it resolves all toxic medicines. At the same time, you must drink it as an ice-cold beverage. When you consume it hot, it is ineffective. When children are just born, wipe out their mouth to get rid of the malign blood in their mouth, use silk floss soaked in its liquid and let them suck on it, it is able to resolve fetal toxin). Therefore it has the name Country’s Elder.
7) In patterns of center fullness, it is contraindicated (Sweetness causes fullness in people. There’s also the notion that it can be used for draining when used raw, because it is able to draw all the other medicinals to reach the place of fullness. This is what the classic saying ‘Use sweetness to supplement, and use sweetness to drain” refers to. Therefore the Biélù and Zhēn Quán both state that it eliminates fullness, because when the spleen’s function of transport is vigorous, fullness is eliminated. [Zhāng] Zhòngjǐng includes the formula for Gancaoxiexintang to treat glomus fullness. Again, when gāncǎo receives [the effect of] fúlíng, it does not supply fullness but on the contrary drains fullness.
More Selections from Chen Xiuyuan：
Nature and flavor: Bitter, warm, non-toxic.
Effect: Rules cough, counterflow, and ascent of qi, warm malaria, cold and heat with shivering in the skin, women’s leaking from the center and interruption of childbearing, all kinds of malign wounds and sores, and incised wounds. Boil the juice and drink it.
1) Dāngguī is warm in its qì, is endowed with the spirit of wood and enters the liver. Its flavor is sour and it is non-toxic. When it receives the flavor of fire, it enters the heart.
2) As for its effect of governing cough, counterflow, and qì ascent, the heart rules the blood and the liver stores the blood. When blood is desiccated, liver wood holds fire under the arm (seizes, coerces, clasps?) and then punishes metal (wood engenders fire and metal controls wood). Entering the liver, dāngguī nourishes blood. Entering the heart, it clears fire. For this reason, it governs these [conditions].
3) The liver is wind, and the heart is fire. Wind and fire are yáng, and when yáng is exuberant, the result is a type of warm malaria that is only characterized by heat and has no cold. And when the lung contracts the evil of wind fire, lung qì becomes timid and is unable to serve as ruler for the skin and body hair. Therefore you see cold and heat and shivering in the skin. Dāngguī is able to make liver blood sufficient and thereby settle wind, as well as to make heart blood sufficient and thereby extinguish fire. As a result, the cold and heat in the skin can be eliminated.
4) The liver rules the storage of blood, and supplementing the liver therefore immediately stops leaking. When there is great stirring in the hand Shàoyīn vessel, this means that a woman is with child. By supplementing the heart you will [facilitate] the planting of seeds [i.e., quite literally, the implantation of the fetus].
5) Wounds and sores are all associated with heart fire, and when blood is sufficient, heart fire is extinguished! Metal wounds never occur without the loss of blood, and when blood is made to grow, metal wounds are healed!
Nature and flavor: Acrid, warm, has great toxicity.
Effect: Rules wind cold cough counterflow evil qì, warming the center, metal wounds, breaking concretions and hardenings, accumulations and gatherings, blood aggregations, cold-damp-related wilting and crippling, hypertonicity, knee pain, and inability to walk.
1) What the Sùwèn refers to as using toxic medicinals to attack evil is the wondrous technique of restoring life. Later people established methods like supplementing and nurturing as the crafty skill of “neither here nor there.” In the end, attacking the patient’s evil and then having right qì returned is precisely the reason why you [can] supplement a patient by attacking.
2) Fùzǐ is acrid in flavor and warm in qì. The nature of fire is to erupt with great speed, and there is nothing that it does not get to. Therefore it constitutes our primary medicinal substance for restoring yáng and rescuing from counterflow.
3) What the Běnjīng calls “wind cold cough counterflow evil qì” is a reference to cold evil moving counterflow in the upper Jiāo. Cold-damp wilting and crippling, hypertonicity, knee pain, and inability to walk are precisely [manifestations of] cold evil attaching itself to the sinews and bones in the lower Jiāo. Concretions and hardenings, accumulations and gatherings, and blood aggregations are precisely [manifestations of] cold qì congealing and binding and of qì stagnating in the center.
4) When we investigate the Dà Guān Běn, under the line for cough counterflow evil qì, we find the four characters “warm the center for metal wounds.” This refers to creating warmth in cold strike by warming the patient, and to creating closure [of wounds] by warming the blood and flesh. The deep underlying meaning of this is that regarding the heart and lung above, the liver and kidney below, the spleen and stomach in the center, and the blood, flesh, sinews, bones, ying provisioning, and wei defense, if any of these have contracted disease because of cold-damp, there is not a single case where this [fùzǐ] is not appropriate. And even in cases of insufficiency of yáng qì and spontaneous internal generation of cold, with symptoms like major sweating, major diarrhea, major panting, wind strike, or sudden inversion, we must also rely on this substance with great qì and great strength as the only way to turn the patient’s condition around and restore life. This is the implied meaning of the Běnjīng.
5) Another quotation: Fùzǐ rules cold-damp, which is something that all doctors understand, and [Zhāng] Zhòngjǐng’s use of it to transform [cold-damp] is something called divine because it is unknowable. Furthermore, the reason why humans are alive is yáng. Yáng collapse results in death. The character 亡 can be divided into two meanings: One is pronounced wáng, with the meaning of “to flee” or “to forget”, as in the meaning of “to flee” in the Chūnqiū Zhuàn. The other is pronounced wú and has the meaning of “not having.” As in the Lùnyǔ quotation “Not having and yet considering it as having” and when [Zengzi] asks in the Mencius whether there are any left-overs and he answers that there are none.
6) Mistakenly using medicinals to induce serious sweating that fails to stop, this causes yáng collapse. [The use of fùzǐ in this context] is like Xīn Shǔ from the Táng period and [Zhāng] Zhòngjǐng’s method of using Sinitang or Zhenwutang to welcome it [back]. Using vomiting and disinhibiting in reversal cold, this causes yáng collapse. [The use of fùzǐ in this context] is like the palace guard from Zhōu and Zhòngjǐng using Tongmaisinitang and Jiangfutang to rescue the patient. Moreover, when as a branch symptom in Tàiyáng disease yáng is exposed on the outside, resulting in heat effusion, fùzǐ is able to cause it to intersect with Shàoyīn, and the heat abates. In Shàoyīn diseases triggered by the shén, fùzǐ is able to cause rising from below and for the vessel movement to be generated, for circulation and movement to reach everywhere and reversal to be cured. In combination with bitter and sweet medicinals like shaoyao and gancao, it supplements vacuity. In combination with bitter and bland medicinals like fuling and shaoyao, it warms and secures. The original subtlety of this approach is unfathomable. Given how he established this method, which differs from explanations in the Běnjīng, how on earth did Zhòngjǐng craft this insight?
 Or, as in the commentary below, “warming the center in the treatment of incised wounds.”
 An alternate name for the 證類本草, one of the most important materia medica texts from the Song period. It was published first in 1083 under the leadership of唐慎微.