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Chinese Herbal Medicine Formulas and Strategies

Chinese Herbal Medicine Formulas and Strategies, 2nd edition by Volker Scheid, Dan Bensky, Andrew Ellis and Randall Barolet. Vista, CA: Eastland Press, 2009. Hardcover; 1019 pages. ISBN–13: 978-0939616671. $120.00.

Book reviews often help readers decide whether or not to invest in a book. The subject of this review is an investment both in funds and in time, as it is over a thousand pages, so I will therefore be careful with my enthusiasm.

The first edition of this book came out in 1990 and is on the shelves of thousands of people professionally involved in the field of Chinese medicine. “Formulas and Strategies,” as we came to know that first title, was a welcome addition to the limited range of books available to describe Chinese medicine in English. Within about 3 years, most licensed practitioners of Chinese medicine had purchased the book, and it was adopted by numerous colleges of Chinese medicine as the principal text for studying herbal formulas. Its 3 primary strengths were that it relied on a good collection of Chinese source books that had not been translated; it contained competent and sometimes in-depth analysis of the main formulas, going well beyond other texts; and it included details about ingredients, dosage, and method of preparation. Neither the first nor new edition is the sort of book that one sits down and reads from cover to cover. Instead, it is the type of text one uses to looks up individual formulas or specific topics from appropriate sections.

Who should purchase this second edition? Anyone who purchased the older version and plans to use the book more than once or twice a year will likely find this book worth the investment. There are enough major improvements to make this version a “must have” and not merely a more convenient version. For teachers of Chinese herbal medicine, I have not seen any other text that will be as useful as this one for learning about Chinese herbal medicine through study of formulas. People interested in Chinese herbs but not directly involved in the field, however, will likely find this book extremely challenging, and I don’t advise it unless one has already encountered and become familiar with the Chinese medicine jargon and Chinese naming systems. Without the professional training, it is hazardous to simply pick through the information to focus on indications or applications of formulas that one might then seek to obtain, skipping over the historical and analytical parts.

The reason I consider the new edition to be so important is that it has been completely redone, not just tinkered with to make a few corrections and additions. This edition includes 90 additional principal formulas (a total of 340), all of them easier to locate when scanning the pages or using the indices. While the formulas are still organized according to the standard TCM therapeutic categories, this time they are thankfully presented in the arrangement familiar to practitioners and students. Furthermore, the write-ups for the formulas are far superior. This is said with no disrespect for the work done by the two original authors, Bensky and Barolet, but Scheid and Ellis have helped them to raise this text to a more sophisticated level.

At the beginning of the book, there is more introductory material explaining the categories of therapy, the concepts of Chinese herbalism, and the way in which the information takes on meaning for the practitioner. Those who might simply look up each formula or therapeutic section of interest without reading the introductory chapters will miss out, even with years of experience in this field. While the first edition primarily focused on ancient formulas, the new edition, which has nearly twice as many pages, also brings in a substantial array of formulas described during the past 150 years. This change goes along with a philosophical shift in the field of Chinese medicine as taught in the United States, one which permits greater acceptance of modern influence on the field.

I have picked 2 examples of formula descriptions to show how the second edition overshadows the first: The first formula is Xin Jia Xiang Ru Yin, or Newly Augmented Mosla Drink. This formula is intended to treat symptoms not unlike some of the manifestations of the recent epidemic of H1N1 flu, as well as the increasing incidence of “common cold” that occurs in late summer. The formula is included in the first edition book with the same Chinese name, although there it is called Newly Augmented Elscholtzia Decoction. Elscholtzia is the genus name for one of the herbs that has been used as a source for the Chinese herb Xiang Ru; Mosla is the genus name for another herb also used as a source material. They are closely related plants of the family Lamiaceae (the mints). The material on the market today is primarily from Mosla chinensis, thus the name change reflects today’s greater concern for precisely identifying herb sources. This formula is made by decoction, but the term yin is specifically translated in the new edition as drink, again providing a more precise description of the formula.

The first edition offers a single paragraph on this formula, whereas the second edition runs nearly a page-and-a-half. Practitioners using the first edition would most likely overlook the formula because it is tacked onto the end (along with 4 other formulas) of a primary formula, Xiang Ru San, which gets most of the attention. In the second edition, the formulation is arranged in such a way as to capture the reader’s attention.

The second formula is Bao Chan Wu You Fang, which is similarly featured. This one is not present at all in the first edition, but in the revised edition it has about a page-and-a-half of text devoted to it. The formula is traced back to a book on women’s disorders from 1826, so it is not a new formula. Its English translation grabs attention: “Worry-Free Formula to Protect Birth.” This is of special interest to the large number of women who are delaying child bearing, sometimes relying on expensive fertility methods and worried about potential miscarriage, which is more common with pregnancies later in life. The formula is not only for preventing miscarriage, but, purportedly, it helps correct malpositioned fetus and prevent difficult delivery— factors that put the baby at risk. Practitioners may recognize this formulation, which was sold as a pill called Shi San Tai Bao Wan, used for the same purposes and best known for the claim of correcting the position of the fetus. The utilization of the formula is given in considerable detail, which is important when considering use of herbs during pregnancy.

For those who have peripheral interest in Chinese medicine, a formula that might help with flu and another that might help with pregnancy seem enticing, but it must be remembered that these are but two of several options, which those who are trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine will have the skills to sort through. And, with these 2 examples, I intend to illustrate that practitioners, teachers, and students who stick to the old version of the book are going to miss too much that could be of help. This new edition will be a fine addition to one’s library. As for the old version? Keep it at a second location, as it is still of benefit when you need to check on a well-known traditional formula.

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