It is easier to find a Chinese traditional medicine herbal store (中药商店) selling herbs and traditional medicines made from animals and minerals in China than it is try find a store that sells herbs in the US.
In Western Europe and the US, herbal medicines and eating special natural food for healing, health and strength is increasingly appreciated by many people. But in China, traditional herbal remedies have always been commonly used.
These traditional medicines have a long history, and trying herbs and traditional medicines can be an interesting and educational sidelight of your trip to China.
Health food stores in the US sell herbal medicines and herbal substance, and European and American people generally buy these herbs based on their traditional understanding of herbal pharmacology.
Western herbal medicine enthusiasts often discuss the chemical and biological effects of herbs on human bodies or cells. For example, they’ll talk about an herb’s effects on harmful bacteria or viruses. However, natural pharmacology in Chinese traditional medicine is based on different concepts.
There are core traditional ideas that traditional practitioners hold about the need to harmonize Yin and Yang and the various qi in human bodies.
Chinese are adopting Western medicine’s understanding of bacteria and viruses as a cause of illness and disease, and so they may also regard natural medical products for their chemical and biological effects. But the traditional understanding of the body and health is still important to traditional medicine practitioners.
See our pages on the history of Chinese medicine and about the various kinds of therapies.
The Chinese have cultivated and used many kinds of herbs, fruits, and animal products that are uncommon in the West for health and healing. This is partly because different plants and animals live in East Asia.
Chinese herbology and natural pharmacology (中药学; zhōngyào xué) has a long history. The earliest surviving pharmacological texts are dated to about 150 BC, but the most influential text dates from the Ming Dynasty era (1368-1644).
The Recipes for 52 Ailments is a text that was found about 1973 or 1974 in the Mawangdui Tombs that were sealed in 168 BC. This text dates from the time of the Western Han Dynasty (206 - 9 BC).
The Treatise on Cold Injuries 伤寒论 (Shānghán Lùn) is ascribed to Zhang Zhongjing and was published about the year 220 at the end of the Han Dynasty era (206 BC-220 AD).
It is the first known treatise on traditional drug and herbal medicine in the region. The author described mostly herbal remedies, but animal and mineral products are described as well.
What is interesting is that the substances’ effects on the qi and Yin and Yang balances and the Five Phases concepts are explicitly described in a way similar to how Chinese traditional practitioners think nowadays.
The Bencao Gangmu本草纲目 by Li Shizhen (1518–1593) is the most important traditional work on herbs and drugs. It was written in the middle of the Ming Dynasty era (1368-1644). It was important because it was very comprehensive and gave detailed recommendations on pharmacological use. It was also put into print.
The Bencao Gangmu 本草纲目 (lit.: Herbal Essential Details) is usually called Materia Medica in English. He classified and described hundreds of kinds of herbs, medicinal minerals and medicinal animal parts. It is considered the greatest scientific achievement of the Ming era.
Shopping for Traditional Medicines
As a tourist or expat going to traditional herbal and medicine markets in China, you may be surprised about what you can see and about how cheaply you can buy the food and herbal medicines that are on sale.
Traditional medicine shops (中药商店) are common, and there might be one or more on each street in the towns and cities. Little traditional medicine stores are often tucked away in supermarkets.
Here is some helpful advice about buying common herbs and useful terminology.
Be Careful and Learn
Many tourists and expats nowadays have experience using herbs back home, and they know how to use them. If you go shopping, you’ll need to know the Chinese names for the herbs you might want to buy. You might want to write the names on paper.
It might be useful to learn about how Chinese view the effects of the herbs you like and learn about their ideas about improving your health or treating your condition.
But if you go shopping for your health or just for things to eat, here is some advice. Most common herbs are not dangerous, but some herbs and substances may be dangerous for those who don’t know what they are doing.
You’re used to prescription drugs and precise prescriptions, but Chinese medicines are generally natural substances that vary a lot in quality except for maybe prepared powders or pills you can buy in a package. Unless you have an expert traditional doctor advising you, be cautious.
Favorite Chinese Herbs and Their Uses
Here are suggested healthful Chinese food and medicines that you can try that are beneficial but may be expensive and hard to find in the West.
Cinnamon Twigs (桂枝, guìzhī /gway-zhrr/) and Bark (肉桂, ròuguì /roh-gway/)
This favorite spice is easy to find in the natural form. It is also cheap because it comes from a common tree is southern China called the cassia tree. You can add it to cereal.
It is known both in the West and East for its health benefits. In the West, it is thought to reduce blood sugar, triglyceride level, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes.
It is thought to be good for helping people with diabetes; and it is also a mild antibiotic and might have anticancer effects. In Chinese medicine, it is thought to encourage generation of qi and blood.
Ginger (姜, jiāng /jyang/)
This common herb is used a lot in Chinese cooking. In the West, it is reputed to have anticancer effects. It is thought to be good for colds or the flu and have other healthful properties. In Chinese medicine, it is thought to increase the Yang.
Ginseng (人参, rénshēn /rnn-shnn/)
This favorite of Chinese herbology shouldn’t be used regularly because it is hard on the body, but it strengthens health and stamina.
It is thought to increase the Yang and qi in the body, and thus it is good for older men. It comes either as whole roots or sliced roots at markets. Of all the common Chinese herbs, it is about the most expensive.
Goji Berries or Wolfberries (枸杞子, gǒuqǐzi /goh-chee-dz/)
This small fruit is becoming known in the West as good for athletes and as an antioxident, but it has long been used for traditional medicine.
In the West, it is recommended as a nutritious fruit that has a lot of healthful benefits and increases strength and stamina. It doesn’t have known side affects. It can be commonly eaten like other kinds of berries.
Fresh or dried Goji Berries are difficult to find in the US, but they are commonly eaten as a food in China. People often use it to make certain kinds of soups.
The Ningxia area that is relatively close to Xi’an is known for good quality berries and is a major center for the production of the berry.
However, be careful about pesticides. These delicate berries should taste very good and sweet, not bitter from too much synthetic chemicals
In traditional medicine, it is thought to enhance the kidney and lung Yin and improve vision. It is thought to be mainly a woman’s supplemental herb, though in West male athletes eat it as a supplement.
Hawthorn Berries (山楂, shānzhā /shan-jaa/)
This is a tart fruit that looks and tastes much like a crab apple, but the benefit for stamina, health, and the heart is amazing. It is known as a good food to eat for those with problems with weak hearts, poor circulation or angina. It helps the circulation, and strengthens the cardiovascular system.
However, if you are already taking drugs, there could be adverse side affects. It is a natural food with a healthful punch. But experiment with how it affects your body by trying just a few berries at first. You’ll know you’re taking too much if you heart rate increases too much.
In Chinese medicine, it is said to help move the qi.
Licorice (甘草, gāncǎo /gan-tsaoww/)
This sweet herb is used to flavor and sweeten candy in the West. Its Chinese name means “sweet grass.” It is thought to be good for sore throats. It helps to get rid of mucus and increases blood pressure. Chinese think that it restores the Yang balance and increases qi.
Traditional Medicinal Animals
Mostly plants are used in traditional Chinese medicine, but some animal parts are also used.
Some endangered animals are on the list of remedies of traditional medicine, and there is a lot of controversy about this. Most people have heard that rhinoceros horn, bear parts and tiger parts are sought after, and in the country, there are now farms for these animals.
But here are two common animals you can eat that are reputed to medicinal.
Seahorses (海马, hǎimǎ /heye-maa/)
You’ll likely find dried seahorses in the larger shops and markets. It is thought to be a male aphrodisiac, so men especially like it. It is thought to fortify the Yang and help old people.
Pregnant women should avoid this food.
Hai Shen (海参, hǎishēn /heye-shnn/)
It is a tubular sea animal. It is thought to increase the Yang, but it isn’t a very powerful food substance, so it can be eaten in larger portions in a meal. If you haven’t tried this before, try a little at first and see if you like it.
Learning More about Traditional Herbal Medicine
You can explore medicine shops and markets on your own.
For example, there is a well known herbal medicine market in Xi’an called the Xi’an Wanshou Road Chinese Medicine Market (西安万寿路药才市场). It is on the way to the Terracotta Warriors. Peasants and wholesalers sell bags and bags, and boxes and boxes, of interesting herbs, medicines and medicinal foods. It may be an interesting side trip.
While in Shanghai, you can visit the Traditional Chinese Medicine Museum.
Check out our Traditional Medicinal Cuisine page for recipes and ideas about eating healthy the traditional Chinese way.
For an educational tour of traditional medicine establishments and to meet experts, book our Chinese Traditional Medicine Tour. All our tours can be customized to include a trip to a Chinese medicine retailer or practitioner.