When I was learning about herbs it was said the formula structure of the Shang Han Lun was influenced by the Decoction Classic.
I figured understanding the text from the Decoction Classic would teach me about structure and taste.
Text from the Decoction Classic
All pungent belongs to wood, for it is governed by
gui zhi is wood, shu jiao is fire, jiang is earth, xi xin is metal, fu zi is water
All salty belongs to fire, for it is governed by
xuan fu hua is fire, ze xie is earth, hou po is metal, da huang is wood, xiao shi is water
All sweet belongs to earth, for it is governed by
ren shen is earth, mai men dong is metal, fu ling is water, gan cao is wood, da zao is fire
All sour belongs to metal, for it is governed by
Metal is wu wei zi, shu yu is water, zhi shi is wood, dou chi is fire, shao yao is earth
All bitter belongs to water, for it is governed by
Water is di huang, huang qin is wood, huang lian is fire, bai zhu is earth, zhu ye is metal
When I first tried to understand this text I immediately thought it’s all about the taste. Pungent belongs to Wood. Easy enough, I thought. All the herbs in the text are pungent, so that’s it.
That works for Wood and pungent. And that works for Earth and sweet. And that works for Water and bitter. The problem was with Fire and Metal. With Fire not all the herbs are salty and with Metal not all the herbs are sour.
How can that be? Did someone make a mistake? I studied the herbs that did not match taste with the element. Eventually I realized that it did make sense if I considered movement of the element. I even doubted myself because I still thought it’s all about the taste.
It is defining the way the elements nourish and control each other and how different herbs achieve this.
For example Zhi shi is not sour but it is in the Metal class. It makes Metal descend. So keep in mind how the element is being affected.
Taste and movement
Pungent governs dispersion, and its movement can traverse, and thus it can release the surface.
Salty governs softening, its nature sinks, and therefore it can lead out stagnation.
Sweet governs moderation and its movement can ascend therefore it can tonify the middle burner.
Sour governs collecting, its nature cans astringe, and therefore it treats drainage.
Bitter governs purging, its movement can descend, and therefore it can expel excess.
Bland governs percolation, its nature disinhibits, and therefore it can clear by separation.
Understanding the placement of each herb.
Gui zhi, Cinnamomi cassiae ramulus
Gui zhi belongs to Wood because the taste associated with Wood is pungent. Gui zhi brings the Wood class to the element Wood because it warms and disperses yang qi. Wind belongs to jue yin because in jue yin wind rules. Jue yin has an internal external relation with shao yang.
Jue yin transforms from its middle and that is the ministerial fire. Shao yang transforms from its climatic qi and that is ministerial fire.
Shu Jiao, Pericarpum zanthoxyli bungeani
Shu jiao belongs to Wood because the taste associated with Wood is pungent. Shu jiao brings the Wood class to the element Fire by warming Fire directly. By warming the Fire element it warms the imperial fire of shao yin heart and kidneys and the ministerial fire of the pericardium and san jiao.
Shu jiao is not used often and because of the tradition of tonifying the mother to tonify the child. It is used to clear cold that has caused internal cramping.
Sheng jiang, Zingiberis rhizoma recens
Sheng jiang belongs to Wood because the taste associated with Wood is pungent. Sheng jiang brings the Wood class to the element Earth by warming the stomach and spleen and moving the qi in Earth while dispersing dampness and cold. This restores the strength of Earth which prevents Wood from over controlling Earth.
Sheng jiang also warms and disperses the qi of tai yin. This supports tai yin in transforming and transporting food qi into clear qi and turbid qi. Sheng jiang supports the Earth as the source of post heaven yang qi and blood.
Sheng jiang promotes yang ming dryness which restores the balance with tai yin dampness.
Xi xin, Asari herba
Xi xin belongs to Wood because the taste associated with Wood is pungent. Xi xin brings the Wood class to the element Metal by warming and dispersing fluids that prevent Metal from controlling Wood. The mandate of Metal is to disperses and descend qi and the dispersing nature of Wood needs to guided downward.
Xi xin warms and disperses the tai yin lung and spleen which clears cold and excessive dampness. Xi xin promotes yang ming dryness to balance tai yin dampness.
Xi xin also warms the tai yang channels by warming the tai yin and shao yin. The Metal lungs control the channels, blood vessels, skin and hair.
Fu zi, Aconiti radix lateralis praeparata
Fu zi belongs to Wood because the taste associated with Wood is pungent. Fu zi brings the Wood class to the element Water by warming Water to give birth to Wood. Fu zi warms the Fire element directly and by bringing Fire to Water it can once again move and control Fire and give birth to Wood.
Fu zi warms and disperses the shao yin Water and this clears excessive cold and fluids. When yang is weak yin takes its place. Fu zi puts the emperor back on his throne.
Xuan fu hua, Inulae flos
Xuan fu hua belongs to Fire because the taste associated with Fire is salty. Xuan fu hua brings the Fire class to the element Fire by clearing excess in the chest which houses the heart that belongs to Fire. By softening hardness in the chest the Fire can be controlled. Stagnation can block the flow of qi which leads to a buildup of heat which will consume fluids and further weaken yang qi.
Ze xie, Alismatis rhizome
Ze xie brings the Fire class to the Earth element by restoring the control over Water which controls Fire. The Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing suggests that ze xie is cold and sweet. Sweet tonifies and ze xie tonifies Earth which controls Water.
Hou po, Magnoliae cortex
Hou po is warm, bitter and pungent. Hou po brings the Fire class to the element Metal by clearing phlegm accumulations in yang ming so Metal can descend which controls Wood which gives birth to Fire.
By clearing the excess it prevents excessive drying of fluids which can weaken yang qi as imperial Fire.
Da huang, Rhei rhizoma
Da huang is cold and bitter. Da huang brings the Fire class to the element Wood by descending Metal to control Wood which gives birth to Fire. Excessive heat in Metal and Wood will cause heat in Fire. If left unchecked the excessive heat will further weaken yang qi till a separation of yin and yang causes death.
Mang xiao, Natrii sulfas replaces xiao shi
Mang xiao belongs to Fire because the taste associated with Fire is salty. Mang xiao brings the Fire class to the element Water by clearing excessive heat in Metal. When Metal fails to nourish and give birth to Water Fire will weaken.
Mang xiao is cold, bitter and salty. It drains excess in yang ming to preserve fluids and eventually yang qi.
Ren shen, Ginseng radix
Ren shen belongs to Earth because the taste associated with Earth is sweet. Ren shen brings the Earth class to the element Earth by nourishing fluids in Earth and by tonifying the Qi in the yang ming stomach and tai yin spleen and lung.
Ren shen also tonifies the original qi from shao yin kidney and together with food qi and gathering qi nourishes and produces true qi. True qi is then dispersed by the shao yin heart and tai yin lung over the kingdom.
Mai men dong, Ophiopogonis radix
Mai men dong belongs to Earth because the taste associated with Earth is sweet. Mai men dong brings the Earth class to the element Metal by nourishing yin of the yang ming stomach and tai yin lung. Mai men dong brings the Earth class to Metal by adding yin to Earth which gives birth to Metal and then Water.
Fu ling, Poria
Fu ling is not sweet but bland and bland can belong to Earth. Fu ling brings the Earth class to the element Water by promoting urination. Fu ling restores control over Water by Earth. Fu ling directly drains excess water and this restores control.
Fu ling is often combined with bai zhu to restore control over Water. Bai zhu by Earth and fu ling by Water.
Zhi gan cao, Glycyrrhizae radix prep
Zhi gan cao belongs to Earth because the taste associated with Earth is sweet. Zhi gan cao brings the Earth class to the element Wood by nourishing Wood and tonifying Earth. Zhi gan cao nourishes fluids to calm Wood excess yang. If Wood is excessively warm it can over control Earth causing dryness in the yang ming stomach.
Da zao, Jujubae fructus
Da zao belongs to Earth because the taste associated with Earth is sweet. Da zao brings the Earth class to the element Fire by nourishing blood directly and by tonifying tai yin. By nourishing heart blood yang qi becomes stronger. Tai yin is the source of post heaven qi, yin and blood.
Wu wei zi, Schisandrae fructus
Wu wei zi belongs to Metal because the taste associated with Metal is sour. Wu wei zi brings the Metal class to the element Metal by tonifying the tai yin lung which belongs to Metal.
Shan yao, Dioscoreae rhizome aka shu yu
Shan yao brings the Metal class to the element Water by tonifying the lung and spleen. Shan yao is sweet and it strongly tonfies Metal to give birth to Water. Metal lung disperses fluids over the body and Earth spleen transforms fluids to be sent to the lungs from Earth.
Zhi shi, Aurantii fructus immaturus
Zhi shi brings the Metal class to the element Wood by clearing accumulations in yang ming stomach so Metal can once again descend. Metal can then once again control Wood.
Zhi shi is a shao yang and yang ming herb. It is bitter and cold and it clears the damp phlegm congestion that causes the Wood wind to stagnant and heat up.
Dan dou chi, Sojae semen praeparatum aka dou chi
Dan dou chi brings the Metal class to the element Fire by mildly warming the Lung. It warms the surface and the lung and stomach. Dan dou chi warms the Fire element which controls Metal.
Bai shao, Paeoniae radix lactiflora aka shao yao
Bai shao belongs to Metal because the taste associated with Metal is sour. Bai shao brings the Metal class to the element Earth by nourishing yin and blood to moisten yang ming dryness. Bai shao creates dampness and calms Wood wind by nourishing yin.
Sheng di huang, Rehmanniae radix recens aka di huang or sheng di
Sheng di belongs to Water because the taste associated with Water is bitter. Sheng di brings the Water class to the element Water by nourishing the fluid essences. It is bitter, sweet and cold. It is heat clearing and yin nourishing. The cold bitter drains heat from deficiency and the sweet nourishes yin and blood. It clears deficient heat in the kidney heart connection.
Huang qin, Scutellariae radix
Huang qin belongs to Water because the taste associated with Water is bitter. Huang qin brings the Water class to the element Wood by clearing excess heat that damages fluids that weaken imperial Fire yang qi. Cold and bitter heat clearing that cools blood which when hot gives way to excessive bleeding or flaring of ministerial fire.
Huang lian, Coptidis rhizome
Huang lian belongs to Water because the taste associated with Water is bitter. Huang lian brings the Water class to the element Fire by clearing heat in yang ming dryness that damages fluids that weaken imperial Fire yang qi.
Bai zhu, Atractylodis macrocephalae rhizome
Bai zhu belongs to Water because the taste associated with Water is bitter. Bai zhu brings the Water class to the element Earth by drying excessive dampness which restores control over Water. Bai zhu warms the Earth and dries the tai yin dampness which restores the control over Water.
Zhu ye, Lophatheri herba aka dan zhu ye
Zhu ye belongs to Water because the taste associated with Water is bitter. Zhu ye brings the Water class to the element Metal by clearing heat and draining it out through urination. It clears Earth stomach and Metal large intestine dry heat without damaging depleted fluids.
I must say that this took me a long time to figure out and there is still a feeling that I am missing something. I may never know why each herb justifies its place. Still it taught me about movement!