In the Western world, Wāng Áng 汪昂 (1615–1695) has remained little known author in the history of Chinese medicine. During his life, he was not well known even in China. He was not seen as one of the great scholars of his time, as he was mostly self-taught in the classics and most of his writings were collections and reorganizations of classical ideas. He based his medical works heavily on authors like Lǐ Dōng-Yuán 李東垣 (aka. Lǐ Gǎo 李杲 1180–1251), Lǐ Shízhēn 李時珍 (1518–1593) and Han-dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) texts like Huángdì Nèijīng Sùwèn 黃帝內經素問 and Huángdì bāshíyī Nánjīng 黃帝八十一難經 . Maybe it was his lack of higher education that made his works more easy accessible to the general public, lay practitioners and students of medicine.
In the history of medicine, Wāng Áng is often listed as a doctor, even though he wasn’t actually a practicing doctor, but a writer. Earlier in his life, he wrote commentaries and critiques of Confucian philosophy and later in his medical writings, he collected ideas from old texts, uniting ideas from different schools of thought and made his own synthesis based on them. He also made some poetic notions to ease remembering the herbal formulas.
His works became important later on and had an impact on the growing interest in channel tropism and classifications of herbs. In the modern times, his ideas might be criticized as too holistic, based on cosmological correspondences of colors, shapes, etc. instead of a time-tested actual record of medical properties.
Personally, I find it interesting to note how similar ideas were promoted in Europe around the same time. For example, Paracelsus (1493–1541), who has sometimes viewed as the father of toxicology, wrote lengthily about correspondences. Botanist William Cole (1626–1662) promoted the idea of divine signatures. These ideas probably had a role to play in thinking of Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843) and the birth of homeopathy, where “like cures like” (similia similibus curentur).
In this article, I translate a part of a chapter from his most famous herbal book, Běncǎo bèiyào 本草備要. The chapter is Yàoxìng zǒngyí 藥性總義 or The Summary of Herb Properties. The chapter also represents the development and impact of earlier writings like Sùwèn 素問 (especially chapters 4, 5 and 22). As there have been some different and possibly confusing translations of tastes and their functions, I also try to provide some alternative meanings for the Chinese characters to broaden their meanings. These different meanings should be kept in mind while reading the translation. The term yào 藥 is translated here as medicine and herb. The concept yào also includes all the ingredients that is seen having any health related properties, like food, plants, minerals and animal products. Even modern medicines can be classified as yào.
When the medicine is sour, it belongs to the wood and goes to the liver.
The bitter belongs to the fire and goes to the heart.
The sweet belongs to the earth and goes to the spleen.
The pungent* belongs to the metal and goes to the lung.
The salty belongs to the water and goes to the kidneys.
These are the nourishment with the five tastes.
* 辛 mean pungent, stinging, hot and bitter taste. Some times it is translated as spicy and aromatic in Western texts.
The green medicines belong to the wood and go to the liver.
The red ones belong to the fire and go to the heart.
The yellow ones belong to the earth and go to the spleen.
The white ones belong to the metal and go to the lungs.
The black ones belong in the water and go to the kidneys.
This is the nourishment with the five colors.
Sour medications can retain1 and gather2.
Bitter can drain3, dry4 and harden5.
Sweet can supplement6, harmonize7 and slow down8.
Pungent can spread9, soften10 and force movement11.
Salty can reduce12 and soften nodules13.
Bland taste can facilitate urination14 and eliminate dampness15.
This is the usage of the five flavors.
All medicines have either cold, hot, warm or cool qi.
They are sour, bitter, sweet, pungent or salty in taste.
Qi is yang, taste is yin.
Strong qi is yang within yang, and mild [qi] is yin within yang.
Strong flavor is yin within yin, and mild [flavor] is yang within yin.
Mildness of qi causes release and dispersion; strong [qi] causes heat or warming.
The intensity of the taste discharges, lowers and drains. The mildness [of taste] opens.
Pungent and sweet disperse and are yang.
Sour and bitter can induce emesis or purgation and are yin.
Salty taste can cause emesis or purgation and is yin.
Bland taste can remove dampness and is yang.
Light and clear lifts and floats being yang.
Heavy and turbid sinks and descends being yin.
Yangqi produces the upper openings.
Yinqi produces the lower openings.
Clear yang spreads to the couli.
Turbid yin passes to the five zang-organs.
Clear yang strengthens the four limbs.
Turbid yin passes through six fu.
This is yin and yang.
All light and hollow medicines are floating and rising.
The thick and concrete sink and lower.
The mildness of flavors lifts and gives birth. It is like spring.
The mildness of qi descends and gathers. It is like autumn.
The strength of qi floats and grows. It’s like summer.
The strength of taste sinks and stores. It’s like winter.
The harmony of flavors transforms and completes. It’s like earth.
The strong qi and mild flavor is floating and rising.
The strong flavor and mild qi is sinking and lowering.
When qi and flavor are both strong, they can float and sink at the same time.
When qi and taste are both mild, they can cause rising and falling at the same time.
Salty does not lift up.
Pungent and sweet do not lower.
Cold does not float.
Hot does not sink.
This is the right way of ascending and lowering, floating and sinking.
Lǐ Shízhēn says:
That which is rising, lead it with salty and cold to sink into the lower burner.
That which is sinking, lead it with wines to float up, all the way to mountain top.
Just as from the root things rise, from the branches things fall. Young rise upward – ripe [fruits] fall
downwards. Just like ascending and descending in things, it is the same in men.
All medicinal plants have their roots in the soil.
Their upper part lift and rise up, while the lower part go down and make it sink.
The seedling [rises] from the root and the tips of the roots go down into the ground.
The branches of the medicinal plant reach four borders.
The peel reaches the skin.
The heart and sprouts of the plant go into the zàng and fǔ organs.
When the substance is light, it lifts and goes to the heart and lungs.
Heavy ones go down and go to the liver and kidneys.
The hollow ones bring to the surface, and the heavy ones go inside and sink in.
Dry and dusty go to the area of qì. Soft and moist go to the area of blood.
This is the way of up and down, internal and external. Everything is the same everywhere.
All herbs with color green, sour taste and having qi of rancid smell naturally belong to the wood. They enter foot jueyin ie. liver and foot shaoyang ie. gallbladder meridians. (The liver and gallbladder are biǎo-lǐ/external-internal. The gallbladder is jiǎmù – 1st heavenly stem wood; the liver is yǐmù – 2nd heavenly stem wood.)
Those with red color, bitter taste and having qi of burnt smell naturally belong to the fire. They enter hand shaoyin ie. heart and hand taiyang ie. small intestine meridians. (The heart and small intestine are biǎo-lǐ. The small intestine is the 3rd heavenly stem fire and the heart is 4th heavenly stem fire.)
Those with yellow color, sweet taste and having qi of sweet smell naturally belong to the earth. They enter foot taiyin ie. spleen/pancreas and foot yangming ie. stomach meridians. (The spleen and stomach are biǎo-lǐ. The stomach is the 5th heavenly stem earth and the spleen is 6th heavenly stem earth.)
Those with white color, pungent/spicy taste and having qi of fishy smell naturally belong to the metal. They enter hand taiyin ie. lung and hand yangming ie. large intestine meridians. (The lung and large intestine are biǎo-lǐ. The large intestine is the 7th heavenly stem metal and the lung is 8th heavenly stem metal.)
Those with black color, salty taste and having qi of rotten smell naturally belong to the water. They enter foot shaoyin ie. kidney and foot taiyang ie. bladder meridians. (The kidneys and bladder are biǎo-lǐ. The bladder is the 9th heavenly stem water and the kidneys are 10th heavenly stem water.)
Every zang-organ match one fu-organ. All fu-organs belong to yang and therefore they are 1st, 3rd , 5th, 7th and 9th heavenly stems. Every zang-organ belong to yin and therefore they are 2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th and 10th heavenly stems.
Among the 12 meridians, there are also hand jueyin xinbao/pericardium and hand shaoyang sanjiao/triple heater which cannot be controlled [directly with medicines]. These meridians connect to foot jueyin and shaoyang. Jueyin masters and controls blood. Herbs that enter liver channel and area of blood, also enter to the pericardium. The shaoyang controls qi. The herbs that enter the gallbladder and area of qi, also enter to the triple heater. Mingmen is the ministerial fire. That which scatters and moves to the gall bladder, triple heater and pericardium also enter to the mingmen and also enter three heaters. Various herbs enter to several meridians.
Summary of reinforcing and reducing [methods] of the five elements 五臟補瀉之義
Liver suffers from irritation* (blood dries and suffers from irritation). It is important to use sweet taste to loosen it. Liver wants to spread (as the wood likes orderly and freely reaching movement). Or hastily use bitter to scatter it. Bitter can reinforce the movement. Sour can drain it. (Scattering is to tonify [movement] and astringent is to drain it down.)
* 急 means impatience, irritation, anxiousness, restlessness and hastiness. It also mean pressingly important or have to do something.
Heart suffers from [too much] softness. (Softness can dissipate it). It is important to use sour to gather it. Heart likes flexibility. Quickly use salty to flex it. Salty refills it. (Water can conquer fire and fire descends to join the kidneys and reinforce it by helping to it be in proper state.) Sweet can drain it.
Spleen suffers from dampness. One needs to use bitter to dry it. Spleen likes slowness. (Easiness and calmness.) You need to eat sweet to loosen it. Sweet reinforces and bitter drains it.
The lungs suffer from rising rebellious qi. (When fire increases it hurts metal.) Quickly eat bitter to drain it. Lungs like to gather so it is important to eat sour to gather. Sour can nourish it, pungent can drain it.
The kidneys suffer from dryness. Quickly eat pungent to moisten it. The kidneys like hardness, so it is important to eat bitter to harden it. Bitter can fill it, salty can drain it.
This is the correct way of filling and draining five zang-organs.
Indications of six excess and healing them 六淫主治之義
When there is excess of wind inside, heal it with pungent and cool. Assist with bitter and sweet. Sweet loosens and bitter scatters it. (Wind belongs to the wood, pungent is metal and metal can conquer wood. So heal with pungent and cool. In too much pungent there is a fear of injuring the true qi, therefore you need to assist with bitter and sweet. Bitter overcomes pungent and sweet tonifies qi. Wood has nature of quickness and sweetness can slow it. Wood likes to flow freely and pungent can [help to] scatter it.)
When there is excess heat inside, heal it with salty and cold. Assist with bitter and sweet. Sour gathers it, bitter scatters it. (Water overcomes fire. So heal by salty and cold. Sweet overcomes salty. This is why assisting with [sweet] to prevents excess [of salty]. You need to use sweet and bitter to prevent excess of salty as it also drains hot qi and assists true [qi]. In excess heat the sour gathers it. In fire stagnation the bitter sends it out.)
When there is excess damp inside, heal it with bitter and hot. Assist with sweet and bland. Bitter dries it and bland leaks it out. (Dampness is the earth qi, bitter and hot can dry it. Bland taste benefit the orifices and went out the dampness. Use sour to as wood can manage [proper function of] earth.)
When there is excess of fire inside, heal it with salty and cold. Assist with bitter and pungent. Sour gathers it. (Ministerial fire respects fire and can be treated with salty and cold. Pungent can provide moisture and sour can astringe it. Bitter can leak the heat otherwise it can ascend due to its nature.)
Where there is excess dryness inside, heal it with bitter and warm. Assist with sweet and pungent. Bitter can lower it. (Dryness belongs to metal and bitter belongs to fire. Fire overcomes metal. Therefore can be healed with bitter and warm. Sweet can soften/relax, pungent can moisten and bitter can lower. This is why they are assisting.)
Where there is excess cold inside, heal it with sweet and hot. Assist with bitter and pungent. With salty pours it down, with pungent moisten it and with bitter harden it. (Earth can control water. Hot can overcome cold. Bitter and pungent are both hot. In cold disease where there is heat, salty drains it. When there is dryness inside, pungent can moisten it. Bitter can drain heat and firm the kidneys. Draining the center can reinforce.)
This is how six excess can be healed, each with proper method. Therefore the nature of herbs should be clearly understood and their use be justifiable.
The five zang-organs of man correspond to five phases/elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Child and mother produce each other. The classics* says: In depletion reinforce the mother, in repletion drain the child.
*Nánjīng chapter 69.
It* also says: A child can cause the repletion of the mother. The kidneys are the mother of the liver. The heart is the child of the liver. So what enters the liver also enters the kidneys and heart. The liver is the mother of the heart. The spleen/pancreas is the child of the heart. So what enters the heart also enters the liver and spleen. The heart is the mother of the spleen and the lungs are the children of the spleen. So what enters the spleen also enters the heart and lungs. The spleen is the mother of the lungs, the kidneys are the children of the lungs. So what enters the lungs also enters the spleen and kidneys. The lungs are the mother of the kidneys and the liver is the child of the kidneys. So what enters the kidneys also enters the lungs and liver. This is the mutual generation of the five phases/elements and the true meaning of the relationship between child and mother.
* Nánjīng chapter 75.
Sour damages muscles (astringents contract the muscles). Pungent overcomes sour.
Bitter damages qi (bitter can leak out qi). Salty overcomes bitter.
Sweet damages flesh. Sour overcomes sweet.
Pungent damages skin and body hair (scatters and disperses còulǐ). Bitter overcomes pungent.
Salty harms blood (salty can leak fluids*). Sweet overcomes salty.
This is the meaning of restrictions on five phases.
* 滲泄 might also be seen as two words. They could mean soak and leak. In connection with the blood and veins, this leaking and soaking might be understood as swelling. When too much salt is consumed, the body retains heightened sodium levels. This leads to an increased amount of fluid outside of the cells and causes swelling. Also if one has venous insufficiency where the valves of the veins are weakened, the blood flow back to the heart becomes inhibited. This eventually causes the (lower) extremities to become swollen and enlarged. Similar swelling can also be caused by vascular diseases. In TCM the veins are connected to the heart, which is controlled by the kidneys associated with the salty taste. However, this expression is usually translated as causing diuresis, which might be incorrect translation. There is also the matter of salty taste itself. It does not mean salt, but the taste which can be found in many foods and herbs.
Sour affects the muscles. When the muscles have disease, one should not eat too much sour. The muscles receive the sour and [the sour] can produce muscular spasm and stiffness.
Bitter affects the bones. When the bones have disease, one should not eat too much bitter. The bones receive bitter and fullness of yin produces heaviness and makes harder to move.
Sweet affects the flesh. When the flesh have disease, one should not eat too much sweet. The flesh receives sweet and obstructs the movement of qi and the abdomen becomes greatly swollen.
Pungent affects the qi. When the qi has disease, one should not eat too much pungent. The qi receives pungent and scatters [the qi] giving rise to the emptiness [syndromes].
Salty affects the blood. When the blood has disease one should not eat too much salty. The blood receives salty and it coagulates, becoming uneven* and the mouth becomes dry. (Salty can leak fluids – jīn yè)
* See 澀 sè explained in connection with properties of different tastes.
These are the prohibitions of the five diseases.
From eating too much salty, the blood vessels coagulate, weep (alternative character for choppy) and [there is] discoloration. (The blood vessels correspond the blood. The heart is in connection with the blood vessels. Water overcomes fire.)
From eating too much bitter, the skin withers and the body hair fall. (The lungs are in connection with the skin and body hair. Fire overcomes metal.)
From eating too much pungent, the muscles contract and the nails wither. (The liver is in connection with muscles. The nails are surplus of muscles. It is the metal conquering wood and pushing down the livers joyful distribution [of qi]. Even as pungent can supplement the liver too much causes harm.)
From eating too much sour, the flesh thickens and the lips peel. (The spleen is in connection with the flesh and flower in the lips. Wood overcomes earth. To thicken means the limbs and skin thickens.)
From eating too much sweet, the bones becomes diseased and the hair fall off. (The kidneys are in connection with the bones and they flower in the hair. Earth overcomes water.)
These are the damages caused by the five flavors.
Herbs have [their] substances. They have a shape, nature, qi and material substance. They enter certain meridians. As they have shapes, they reflect similar things. Liánqiào* resembles heart and enters the heart. Lychee seed resembles kidneys and enter the kidneys.
They have their own nature. If it is like wood, it enters the liver. If it is like water, it enters the kidneys. If it is moist, it enters the blood region. Dry enters the qi.
The origin of heaven is related to the above. The origin of earth is related to the below. This is because the qi seeks what is similar. If qi has sweet smell it enters the spleen. If qi has burnt smell it enters the heart. It is because their substance is similar. When using top of the herbs, it enters the head. The trunk of the herb enters the body. The branches enter the limbs. The bark moves to the skin. If [the herb] has red flowers or the herbs juice resembles the blood it enters the blood.
This is the natural logic and thus the idea can be grasped.
* Forsythia suspensa, which is commonly called weeping forsythia or golden-bell.