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中成药: The 5 Most Useful Chinese Patent Medicines

Posted by Joe from WrittenChinese.Com

What is Chinese Herbal Medicine?

Chinese herbal medicine has been a tradition for thousands of years.  The first known compilation of medicinal plants and other substances is the 神农本草经 (shénnóng běncǎo jīng) – the Divine Farmer’s Classic of Herbal Medicine, named after the mythical ancient Chinese king 神农 (shénnóng) and dating from around two thousand years ago.

In the old days, plants and other substances such as minerals and animal bones would be gathered and collected by doctors and their assistants, who would then combine these substances according to the individual needs of patients. According to Chinese medical theory, each patient should receive a unique treatment specifically made for their individual constitution and imbalances. The patient then takes these herbs home and cooks them together as a kind of soup or tea.

As time went on, doctors noticed that certain kinds of problems were more common than others, and certain herbal formulas had a wide range of applications in treating these common problems. These standard formulas now form the basis of a student’s education in Chinese herbal medicine, and are studied all over the world.

In present-day China, there are still many practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine who prescribe herbal formulas according to this standard model.  But there are also many pharmaceutical companies which make prepared medicines (成药 – chéngyào) that can be bought over the counter in drug stores, just like aspirin or cough syrup in Western pharmacies.  Newcomers to China are often confused and overwhelmed by the plethora of unfamiliar medicines that stare out at them from the shelves of Chinese drug stores. 

So, in an effort to familiarize readers with some of the benefits of Chinese herbal medicine, here are my Top 5 Most Useful Chinese Patent Medicines.


1. 保和丸 (bǎo hé wán) – Preserve Harmony Pill

 This should be in everyone’s medicine cabinet, especially when traveling.  It has two main uses: First, it treats indigestion caused by eating bad or unfamiliar food, quickly eliminating stomach discomfort, bloating and diarrhea.  Second, it treats hangover better than anything else I know of.  (Not that I’ve ever needed to use it for this . . . ahem.)  Even better, it can prevent a hangover if taken while drinking, along with water.  A standard dose is 8 of the little round teapills, three times a day, but you can safely take up to twice this amount.  For a bad hangover, I recommend an initial dose of 12 pills, followed by another 8 pills in one or two hours.  A reliable Chinese brand is Foci Pharmaceutical Company, which is GMP certified as free of contaminants and is also exported to the West. The cost in China: 8-10rmb per bottle, or about $1.50.


2. 酸棗仁湯丸 (suān zǎo rén tāng wán) – Sour Jujube Decoction Pills

 Trouble sleeping?  This safe, non-addictive herbal formula should be your first choice.  It’s made from five different herbal ingredients, the main one being 酸棗仁  (suān zǎo rén) – Sour Jujube Seed.  It gently and effectively helps you fall into a sound sleep, without any morning-after fogginess.  I once was the unlucky neighbor of some college kids who loved to have loud parties almost every night.  After nearly a week of waking up all through the night because of the noise coming from their place, I decided that I either had to find something to help me sleep or kill all of them.  Being a nice guy, I opted for the former.  One dose of 酸棗仁湯丸 (suān zǎo rén tāng wán) made such an improvement in my ability to fall and stay asleep that I’ve had a bottle on hand ever since.  For those of you in China, unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a good brand to recommend, but for the rest of you, you can order this formula from Mayway or NuHerbs on the internet.


3. 逍遙丸 (xiāo yáo wǎn) – Free and Easy Wandering Pills

 This famous formula takes its name from a saying in the Daoist classic 庄子 (zhuāngzǐ) which says that an enlightened sage roams through the world aimlessly and carefree. Such an attitude sounds like an antidote to our modern stress-filled lifestyles, which is also what this herbal formula is.  In Chinese medical theory, the 肝 (gān) is responsible for the free-flowing of energy and blood throughout the body. Too much stress and emotional upset can interrupt this free-flowing, leading to depression and digestive irregularities, as well as menstrual problems in women.  逍遙丸 (xiāo yáo wǎn) is famous for its ability to lift depression and correct digestive problems due to emotional turmoil.  In China, this formula is especially well-known for its ability to treat PMS, and thus is often found with other medicinals for women in drug stores. Look for the teapills made by Foci Pharmaceutical or by Tong Ren Tang, another reliable manufacturer.


4. 玉屏风散丸 (yù píng fēng sǎn wǎn) – Jade Windscreen Pills

 In Chinese medical theory, bacteria and viruses are often classified as diseases related to (fēng) – wind – because of their fast onset; hence the name of this formula, which protects a person from infectious diseases the way a windscreen protects from wind.  The main ingredient in this formula is 黃耆 (huáng qí) – Astragalus root, which modern studies confirm has a powerful effect in strengthening the immune system.  So next time cold and flu season comes around, add this formula to your daily routine.


5. 云南白药 (Yún Nán Bái Yào) Yunnan Baiyao

 Ok, so this isn’t a traditional formula but rather a modern product, and furthermore, it’s not a pill but rather a liniment that you apply to your skin.  But I’m including it anyway because it’s just so darn useful and good.  Actually, Yunnan Baiyao is a large company which does make pills as well as liniments, and also a host of other products including toothpaste, but the one I’m including is their bottled liniment tincture.  It has a sponge applicator that disperses the medicine onto your skin, and it’s great for everything from muscle aches to bug bites (it’s my go-to remedy for Shenzhen mosquito bites.)  Just uncap the bottle and apply it to the affected area. The ingredients of Yunnan Baiyao are notoriously kept secret by the company, but it’s known that the main ingredient is an herb called 三七 (sān qī) which has long been used in Chinese herbal medicine.


I hope this proves useful, whether to foreigners in Asia or people all over the world who are interested in the tradition of Chinese herbal medicine.  Here’s to your health!