Some background information

Ginseng Press was founded to help preserve and disseminate some valuable ancient Chinese knowledge, primarily about health and well-being. Below is a brief overview of the development and principles of this body of knowledge.

Early observations

Over 5000 years ago, as a way of coping with nature, the ancient Chinese studied the world around them and faithfully handed down their observations from generation to generation. Through countless years of studying plants, animals, the weather, the planets, natural disasters, illnesses, emotions and other things, they discovered some fundamental truths:

  • everything in nature has its own pattern;
  • many patterns repeat in cycles;
  • some patterns and cycles affect other patterns and cycles, creating relationships.

Over time, laws were deduced from these observations to explain how nature works.

The laws of nature

The Law of Yin and Yang

The simplest law is the Law of Yin and Yang. It states that most things have two opposite sides that alternate, balance each other and complement each other: day and night, up and down, hot and cold, light and dark, and so on. These concepts are symbolized in the yin and yang symbol.

Yin and yang symbol

If yin and yang — the two opposites — are in balance, things go smoothly; if they aren’t, problems develop. For instance, if it’s very cold, we can put on warm clothing; if we don’t, we risk frostbite.

The Law of Yin and Yang also tells us that every argument has two sides, every intended effect has a side effect, what goes up must come down, and so on.

The Law of Five Elements

Many things in nature have similar characteristics, which allows them to be classified into categories. There are five of them. The categories are named after natural elements that are chosen for their principal characteristic: wood is flexible, fire is hot, earth is moist, metal is hard, and water is cold. The categories are usually called elements.

Everything that shares the characteristic of an element is classified as belonging to that element. So, for example, hot weather, joy, and activity (both physical and mental, represented by the heart and the mind, respectively), are all associated with heat (or warmth), so they belong to the Fire element.

Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Property flexible hot moist hard cold
Colour green red yellow white blue
Season spring summer late summer autumn winter
Weather factor wind heat dampness dryness cold
Flavour sour bitter sweet pungent salty
Emotion anger joy worry grief fear
Main organ liver heart, mind stomach lungs kidneys

Just like yin and yang, the five elements alternate (i.e., they cycle), balance each other and complement each other. When they’re in balance, things go smoothly; if one or several elements are out of balance, problems develop. For example, eating too much of one kind of food is likely to cause illness.

Additionally, the Law of Five Elements adds relationships. There are relationships within an element: the Wood element, for example, shows that spring is windy; wind and sour foods affect the liver; the liver is at its most active in spring.

There are also relationships between the elements. The outer arrows show how the elements increase each other. The inner arrows show how they decrease each other.

This has countless uses in medicine, nutrition, even cooking. For example, if something is too sweet, we can add something sour to tone down the sweetness. If coffee is too bitter, a few grains of salt take the edge off the bitterness.

Five Elements relationships

When the laws of nature were combined with the observations, the ancient Chinese sciences – including medicine — were born.

Chinese medicine

Symptoms and illnesses are caused by one or several organs being out of balance, which means that they are working either too hard (yang) or not hard enough (yin). The main causes of these imbalances are exposure to excessive weather conditions (too much heat, wind, etc.), or an unbalanced diet.

Like everything else in nature, symptoms and illnesses are also classified according to the Law of Five Elements. Heart problems, for example, belong to the Fire element, since the heart belongs to Fire. If the heart is working too hard, the condition is called Excessive Fire; if the heart is sluggish, it’s a case of Deficient Fire.

The goal of Chinese medicine is to bring the organs back into balance. Deficient Fire, for example, is treated with food or herbs that increase Fire, whereas Excessive Fire is treated by increasing Water, which decreases Fire (as shown in the Five Element diagram above).

Prevention is also central to Chinese medicine. Eating according to the season, local climate and one’s own body is the single most important thing we can do to remain healthy.

Modern developments

When the first Westerners settled in China in the 1880s, a wave of westernization swept China. This affected Chinese medicine as well. Chiang Kai-shek, who led China from 1925 to 1949, further encouraged westernization and promoted Western medicine over Chinese medicine during his rule.

Mao Zedong, who ruled from 1949 to 1976, rejected westernization and encouraged modernizing what was typically Chinese. He strongly promoted Chinese medicine, but prohibited teaching concepts that he considered to be a threat to communism (such as the idea that everything is cyclical).

The roots of Chinese medicine could thus no longer be taught and were soon forgotten.

Yet they survived. Some of the practitioners resisted the early westernization of Chinese medicine and continued to teach the ancient knowledge to their students under Chiang Kai-shek. These students could not pass on their knowledge during the Mao era, but were free to do so afterward.

By that time, very few of these practitioners were left, as old age had taken its toll. Still, a few were able to transmit the ancient knowledge to a handful of younger students and practitioners.

One of these is Dr. Thomas Zhang, who co-founded Ginseng Press with writer Ariel Frailich. More information can be found in About Ginseng Press.