Peter Holmes deserves to be a familiar name to Chinese herbalists. His concern, which amounts to a passion, is the integration of Chinese and Western herbal systems. In his earlier book, The Energetics of Western Herbs (1995), he offered an explanation of Western herbs in terms of the energetics of the Chinese tradition. In Jade Remedies he looks the other way, examining the Chinese pharmacopoeia in both the vitalistic and scientific terms of Western herbalism. His aim is to present a materia medica which explains Chinese herbs not only in the traditional terms of their energies, tastes and so on but also according to a fourfold division extrapolated from the herbal traditions of Europe and North America, in which herbs are described as being restoring, relaxing, stimulating or sedating
Using this framework, and the more particular actions of medical herbalism such as demulcent, antitumoral, diaphoretic, anti-inflammatory etc., Holmes is able to go further than more traditional classifiers such as Bensky and Gamble in discussing in physiological terms the body systems and tissues which a herb acts upon. It is Holmes' contention that this re-interpretation of Chinese herbal medicine is necessary if it is to evolve successfully as an understandable and usable system in the West: 'Releasing Chinese herbs from their traditional context immediately makes them available to Western practitioners, who think in terms of disorders of the body systems rather than imbalances among body energies and qualities.' For those trained in the traditional diagnostics of Chinese medicine, it is precisely those subtle imbalances which are important. Perhaps the author has medical herbalists in mind? Nevertheless, it is from the comparison of different cultures, by seeing things from more than one point of view, that the greatest understanding can sometimes be obtained.
The work is divided into three parts. Part One, which takes up the first hundred pages or so of Vol. 1, gives a historical summary of herbal traditions in China, Ancient Greece, Europe and North America, leading to an explanation of the fourfold remedy action mentioned above. There is much thought-provoking discussion here. Holmes presents a convincing case for re-defining the terms of Chinese medicine. He is at pains to explain that the framework he uses to classify the herbs allows scientific analysis to help in the explanation of how a herb works, without reducing the explanation simply to the level of active chemical constituents: 'it is how we use scientific information, rather than the information itself, that is crucial in letting Chinese medicine 'breathe', rather than suffocating it beneath blankets of reductionist speculation.'
Part Two, which occupies the rest of Vol. 1 and the beginning of Vol. 2, is the materia medica itself. It is organised according to body systems; 'Remedies for the Nose, Throat and Eyes,' 'Remedies for the Respiratory System,' etc. I have to say, incidentally, that Holmes' use of the word 'remedy' rather than 'herb' grated on me to begin with, suggesting perhaps that herbs are used individually in Chinese medicine. However, as Holmes points out in Part One, many herbs are drawn from several botanical sources, (twenty species of astragalus and five of a different genus altogether being used for huang qi, for example.) So perhaps a different term is justified! Nevertheless, there is no mention in the materia medica of therapeutic combinations of herbs.
Each section is sub-divided into herbs which restore, relax, stimulate or sedate. Prefacing each section is a useful introduction explaining what these terms mean in relation to the particular body system. For each herb is given its botanical source(s), pharmaceutical, Chinese and other names, habit (habitat and brief description,) part used, information about toxicity and constituents, qualities in both Chinese and Western terms, and tropism (body systems affected. Obviously, in many cases, not just the main one under which the herb is listed.) There then follow 'Actions and Indications', the real nitty gritty of what the herb does in physiological terms. These are useful and informative. The terms are those of Western herbalism, informed by scientific research: but the information is given in such a way as to complement rather than replace the traditional energetic description of the herb, which follows. 'Preparation' includes information on use and dosage, and cautions. The entry for each herb concludes with 'Notes', under which heading there is a plethora of information. I like the style of these notes: they are written with the love and fascination for individual herbs which is a characteristic of the better Western herbals and which often seems lacking in Chinese equivalents.
Often the division of the materia medica according to what body systems are affected does not result in much re-classification at all, as traditional treatment principles and physiological body systems frequently overlap. Some sections, though, result in a definite change. The section on 'Remedies for the Musculoskeletal System', for example, gives us a mixture of kidney yang tonics, wind cold and wind damp herbs and blood moving herbs. It is also interesting to have a section on the nervous system, not traditionally addressed as such under the Chinese treatment principle classification.
Part Three, occupying the remainder of Vol.2, consists mainly of an exhaustive series of cross-indices, under scientific, pharmaceutical Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and English herb names. Since people are often inconsistent in their use of herbal nomenclature where there is a need to be precise, this is a valuable tool to have. EJOM will certainly be putting it to good use! Throughout the text, though, the author refers to herbs in Latin-Pinyin combination thus: 'Eucommia du zhong'. That is the way they appear in the index to the book, so if you are only familiar with the Pinyin names you will have to do some cross-referencing to look herbs up, which is irritating. There are also several glossaries, including a useful one of herbal medicinal terms (used a lot in the text,) and a comprehensive bibliography.
For any herbalist who works within the traditional framework of TCM, Jade Remedies is not a substitute for the Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica of Bensky and Gamble, (Eastland Press, 1986 and 1993). However, unless we wish to view our practice of herbal medicine as depending upon a static body of knowledge interpreted in an unchanging way, this book is an exciting challenge. To use it does not require us to throw TCM out of the window. It should enhance our understanding of the herbs we use and help us to use them more effectively. I only wish the proof readers had made a better job with some of the spelling.
Simon Fielding Simon Fielding lives in Leicester, where he practises Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture. He is a member of the EJOM Editorial Team.