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Herbal Pearls: Traditional Chinese Folk Wisdom

Herbal Pearls: Traditional Chinese Folk Wisdom collected by Miao Wen-wei, translated by Yue Chong-xi, and edited and annotated by Steven Foster. Eureka Springs, AR: Boian Books, LLC; 2008. Paperback; 184 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0978601423. $19.95. Available in ABC’s online store.

Herbal Pearls is a fun and helpful book for those involved with Chinese herbs, but it is definitely not a book of wisdom, as the subtitle implies. The stories usually start with “Once upon a time…” or with a place designation, such as “In the south part of the Yangtze River…” and then launch into a somewhat complex story. Typically, the stories relate very petty—and often mean—aspects of human nature, which is why you won’t find much true or meaningful “wisdom” here; these are not like fables or parables—couched in terms of the “moral of the story”—but sketches leading up to a brief description of the herb and its name, how the herb came to be known for having a certain therapeutic property, or both.

These folk stories were collected by Miao Wen-wei from the years 1934 to 1980 from traditional doctors and others in the central coastal region of China’s Jiangsu, Anhui, and Zhejiang provinces. The China Society for Folk Literature and Art published this collection in 1981, and in the 1990s, it was translated into English by Yue Chong-xi.

Many years ago, after several visits to China, I became interested in such stories and tried to track them down. They were usually to be found in oral tradition rather than writing, though some efforts to record them took place after the revolution, and the stories were mainly limited to those regions that were known to be the best or original sources of an herb. No one seemed to know when the stories arose or who had authored them, and often there were 2 or 3 competing stories explaining the herb’s name or property. I suspect that most of the stories that come to us today, such as in this collection, probably arose during the latter half of the Qing Dynasty period (1644–1912).

This book offers a collection of 53 stories about herbs. For those not familiar with Chinese medicine, “herbs” refer also to mineral and animal substances used in the medical tradition, so there is a story about cinnabar (a mercury compound), one about poisonous animals (3 examples given), and another about animal droppings (3 examples given: rabbit, bat, and silkworm, in case you are wondering!). Before each story, Steven Foster has added a paragraph of background information, such as botanical aspects of the herb as well as medicinal uses known today, usually stated in more general terminology than is found in Chinese medicine books.

To give an example of a story in Herbal Pearls, here is a summary of the book’s entry on how the Chinese herb Bupleurum (Bupleurum spp., Apiaceae) received its name:

The authors state that the genus Bupleurum has 180 species, of which 42 are in China, though 22 of those are rare. The story focuses on Bupleurum chinense, widespread throughout central and northern China. We learn it is used to “enhance the effects of other herbs, reduce fever and enhance vital energy, dispersing congestion in the liver” etc. After letting the reader know that this famous herb is available wherever Chinese herbs are sold, the story—collected in 1952 from an oral tale of northern China—is presented.

It opens with “In ancient times…” and gives a brief explanation of the Confucian civil service examination system in China. One of the persons who passed the exams with honors was a Mr. Hu. This part of the story is given because it explains his full name: since he passed the examination for state or provincial officials, he earned the title Jin Shi, and so he was called Hu Jin Shi. He had a long-term servant at his estate who became ill with alternating chills and fever. Mr. Hu, annoyed that the sick man was no longer a reliable worker and worried that the disease might be contagious, treated him cruelly and sent him away. Mr. Hu told his servant he could only come back when he was well again and able to work, which Hu presumed would never occur. The poor servant became so weakened he could not even make it to a nearby pond to get some water to drink. He lay down and eventually dug up some roots within reach, which he ate as his only source of food. A few days later he was better and returned to work for mean Mr. Hu. A while after that, Mr. Hu’s only son came down with a serious illness, one with symptoms just like his servant had experienced. So when Hu remembered how his servant had a similar illness and recovered, he asked the servant what herb he had taken to cure the disease. The servant said he didn’t take any herbs, but upon being pressed further, he reported eating some roots where he had fallen down and told Hu it was the herb that was used for “making fires.” A tea from these roots cured the son. The word for fire wood is chai, and Hu Jin Shi named it also after himself, so the herb is to this day called “firewood Hu” or Chai Hu.

The reader gets a sense of several different aspects of Chinese culture from these stories—not usually the finer parts of that culture, but for those who haven’t spent time in rural areas of China, the tales can be quite revealing. One receives a little bit of herbal lore in the stories (not very much, but, as in the case above, some common use of the herb [to aid chills and fever] and the part of the herb used [the root] is indicated).

Probably the best way to utilize this collection is to read one story at a time and spread it over a couple of months—a story a day—rather than plowing through one story after another. In general, each story (with the added introduction) is about 3 pages, so it only takes a few minutes to read one. As such, it is a fine waiting room book for clinicians who prescribe Chinese herbs. But don’t leave it on a book shelf collecting dust when you’re done.

I can recommend this book to persons who are studying Chinese herbs at any level, whether specializing in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or just expanding knowledge of herbalism into the realm of Eastern traditions. It offers a different angle on medicinal herbs than the stilted view sometimes created by TCM textbooks, where the herb information is far removed from its original context. Special thanks to Yue Chong-xi and Steven Foster for bringing these stories to the Englishspeaking world.

—Subhuti Dharmananda, PhD, Founder and Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, OR