A Student's Encyclopedia of Chinese Herbologyby Henry C. Lu
Who discovered Chinese herbs? Chinese legend had it that many millenniums before Christ, there lived five great emperors in China, the Emperor of Fire who had invented fire for heating and cooking, the Emperor of Fishing and Hunting who had taught the Chinese people how to fish and hunt and to raise livestock, the Emperor of Nine Needles who had invented nine kinds of needles for use in acupuncture, the Emperor of Cookery who had taught the Chinese people how to cook foods and prepare meals, and the Emperor of Agriculture who had taught them how to cultivate land and raise crops. It was the Emperor of Agriculture who had directed the Chinese people to collect herbs and use them to heal ailments.
A Chinese classic entitled, the Huai Nan Taoist written jointly by a number of authors and published in the West Han Dynasty (209 25 B.C.) stated, "The Emperor of Agriculture had tasted one hundred medicinal plants to determine their effects and drunk water from fountains to see if it was sweet or bitter, in order that the people would avoid those which were bad and take those which were good for them. In the middle of doing this, the Emperor of Agriculture had been poisoned seventy times each day."
Thus, Chinese herbs have been used for treatment of diseases for thousands of years in China; it dates back to the very ancient period of Chinese history when the Chinese people were still living in the Stone Ages.
The use of natural plants for the treatment of diseases was originated from the necessity of life, because the Chinese people, while living in the primitive environments, had to cope with many problems of life, including the attack of diseases, such as cold, stomachache, and burns or injuries, etc.
It is commonly believed among the Chinese people that herbs were initially discovered in China in the process of gathering plants for eating as foods; when a given plant had proven good and eatable, it became a food; when it had proven harmful to their health, it came to be known as poison, when a plant had proven effective for the treatment of disease, it came to be known as a herb. Thus, there were three types of plants, foods, poisons, and herbs, but the distinction among them had not always been clear cut, as some foods could also be used as herbs and vice versa, and some poisons could also be used as herbs and vice versa. This is why there is a popular Chinese expression, "Foods and herbs are interchangeable", and there is also a Chinese saying, "Poisonous plants are herbs".
The medicinal plants that were first discovered and used as herbs were mostly related to the diseases of the digestive system such as Dahuang (rhubarb, radix et rhizoma rhei) which is an effective laxative and lilu (black false hellebore, rhizoma et radix veratri) which can induce vomiting. Another category of plants discovered at earlier stages were poisons for animals, such as chicken poison (monkshood, radix aconiti praeparata, fuzi), fish poison (yuanhua, flos genkwa or daphnis genkwae), and wolf poison (langdu, radix euphorbiae fischerianae). But although such herbs were believed to have been discovered first, they were by no means considered as most important herbs as time went on, because the Chinese had gradually come to realize that the most important herbs were those which could assist the body in a positive way and such herbs have been called herbal tonics ever since, and they may also be called immunogenic herbs to enhance the body's immune system.
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