We all have first aid kits. But instead of Tylenol and Neosporin, in China you’ll find bundles of dried leaves, some crushed bones and maybe a thick black syrup made from herbs.
At least, 20 years ago that was the case.
Today, just like in the West, we keep our medicine in bottles, conveniently packaged and processed into pills. But we still use our traditional recipes, many of them straight from the ancient and revered text, “The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine.”
With this list you can build your very own Chinese first aid kid, without having to chew on dried sea horses or grind deer antlers at home.
Wild Jujube Seed to Tackle Insomnia
There’s a wide range of Chinese herbal remedies to treat insomnia, so there’s no need to resort to sleeping pills. The most popular organic cure is wild jujube seed (酸枣仁 suānzǎorén).
“A weak body constitution can result in a deficiency of kidney yin,” Bai Daifu—my family doctor—explains. “The water of the kidney cannot rise up to nourish the heart heat, which then increases, and disturbs your spirit and affects sleep. Wild jujube seed will help you to feel tranquil and reduce excitement. It is a very natural way to relax.”
Wild jujube seed is available from any Chinese pharmacy, and200gwill cost about 40 RMB. Cook the seeds in a dry skillet for 20 minutes, and then crush them into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Mix with warm water, and drink the concoction for a good night’s sleep.
Wild Jujube Seed Pill (酸枣仁汤丸 suānzǎorén tāngwán) is a popular readymade version of this ancient remedy. It mixes in herbs like Oriental arborvitae seed and cortex albizziae, which also work on calming the nerves, with the wild jujube seed and costs just 8 RMB for a box.
Bai Daifu recommends this for occasional sleeplessness, but for habitual insomnia he suggests finding a good TCM doctor of your own. “Insomnia is caused by many complex elements, such as stress, digestive system disorder, over-thinking, over-working or a long-term chronic illness,” he says. But for a relaxing night of healing sleep? Try some wild jujube seed. “Your sleep situation will improve, day by day.”
Niuhuang Jiedu Wan for Constipation and Excessive Internal Fire
Excessive internal fire, or shanghuo (上火), is a big problem. It can lead to troublesome toothaches, headaches, sore throats, dry eyes, insomnia and an explosive temper.
According to Bai Daifu, “Shanghuo means the imbalance of the yin, or negative power, and yang, or positive power, inside the body. When there’s more yang than there is yin, you will suffer from it.”
A familiar remedy is Niuhuang Jiedu Wan (牛黄解毒丸). The main ingredient in these pills is ox gallstone (牛黄 niúhuáng), which is reputed to baihuo (败火, reduce internal heat), as well as to detoxify, tranquilize and reduce over-excitement. The 20,000 RMB a kilo price tag might scare some people off, but an 8 RMB box of pills should be all you need.
An embarrassing but related problem caused by excessive fire is constipation. “The roots of constipation are complex,” says Bai Daifu. “If you suffer from constipation and other shanghuo symptoms you can take Niuhuang Jiedu Wan as well. Don’t take it for too long… one or two days will be enough.”
Banlangen Tea for Colds, the Flu, and SARS
In times of flu, all of China resorts to one old, familiar vaccine: banlangen (板蓝根, indigowoad root). During high-profile outbreaks—like SARS, H1N1 or the plague—demand will explode and you’ll be unable to find this anywhere.
The remedy has been around at least since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and appeared in the early medical reference book “Qian Jin Fang” (千金方, “Invaluable Prescriptions for Ready Reference”), which suggested using banlangen to clear out toxins, cool the blood, and destroy bacteria and viruses. Ever since then, it’s been a standard drug in times of pestilence.
During SARS, TCM doctors across China recommended drinking banlangen tea (板蓝根冲剂 bǎnlán’gēn chōngjì)to ward off the disease, as well as colds and the flu. (Not just humans—even chickens and pigs were fed doses of banlan’gen to keep them healthy.)
Bai Daifu believes every family should keep a box at home, but warns that it’s “a cool tonic tea, so don’t drink it too much—it could cause stomach pains.”
You can buy a 10-bag box of the tea at any local pharmacy for about 7 RMB. My personal suggestion is to use two bags in one mug—I like a stronger brew. The taste isn’t too bad, but I still suggest you hold your nose and drink it quickly.
Loquat Ointment for Sore Throats
While it’s named after a Chinese fruit tree, Chuanbei Pipa Gao (川贝枇杷膏, loquat ointment) is actually a combination of wildly diverse ingredients, including loquat leaf, tremella fungi, apricot seed, Sichuan fritillary bulb, the outer peel of a tangerine, Chinese white olives, honey and licorice root. All mixed together into one sticky, black and fragrant cream, it’s sweet, cooling and feels like it could soothe a fire-burnt throat. It’s especially popular with children, who consider it a fruity dessert.
At just 35 RMB a bottle, Bai Daifu recommends the ointment thoroughly. “The herbs are good for nourishing your lung meridian, stopping coughs, and quieting the nerves,” he told me. “For people who suffer from chronic bronchitis, Chuanbei Pipa Gao is a good tonic. And even for people who are suffering from a cold, or in the early stages of a cough, it is a good drug.”
Its roots lie in the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911): a famous late-1600s doctor, Ye Tianshi, created this formula to help a government official’s mother, who suffered from a painful long-term cough. Taking his magic medicine, she quickly recovered and lived to 84—a remarkable age at the time. Hundreds of years later, loquat ointment remains a popular choice for soothing throats and lungs.
Red Flower Oil for Muscle Pain
Almost every household in China contains a bottle of the TCM-favorite, red flower oil (正红花油 Zhènghóng huāyóu). It’s used for reliving the pains of muscle tension, bone injuries and hemostasis swelling and is preferred over Tiger Balm (虎标万金油 hǔbiāo wànjīnyóu), which seems to be a standard choice in the West.
While red flower oil won’t actually heal any of these problems completely, it definitely offers relief. Bai Daifu explains, “Any external application is only a facile solution to the problem. But it could make the patient feel better—that’s enough for a family first aid kit.”
Ironically, red flower oil doesn’t actually have any red flowers in it, but is a combination of turpentine, wintergreen oil and frankincense.
Zhao Wei, an experienced pharmacist at Beijing’s Lingzhitang Pharmacy, notes how popular it is. “We sell hundreds of bottles of it. Every month we sell out,” she says. At about 15 RMB, it’s well worth keeping a bottle around.
Chinese Giant Hyssop for Stomach Woes
Chinese giant hyssop has an incredibly strong odor. Believe me, it’s not appealing. But it still remains one of the most common Chinese medicines for troublesome stomachs and people often store it for their emergency needs.
In pill form, usually the Huoxiang Zhengqi Wan (藿香正气丸), giant hyssop maintains a regular, healthy gastrointestinal system, reducing dampness and soothing the digestive process. It is often used to cope with hot summer discomforts, such as summer colds, headaches, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and heat-stroke.
Bai Daifu explains, “It also regulates the functions of the spleen and stomach. For many problems, such as stomach flu, acute enteritis, diarrhea and vomiting, this medicine is the first choice.”
Screw off the cap of this 8 RMB bottle and, woo-hoo, you’ll smell the hyssop! If the tiny pills are too difficult to swallow—usually one dose is a full capful of about 60—pick up Huoxiang Zhengqi Shui (藿香正气水). It’s the same thing, just in liquid form.
Watermelon Frost for Ulcers, and Other Mouth and Throat Problems
Bai Daifu often includes this remedy in patients’ prescriptions. “In China,” he says, “watermelon frost has been used for oral and throat problems for centuries. It’s cheap and simple; it works very well for things like bleeding gums, bitter mouth, pharyngitis and tongue ulcers. Every family should have at least one box at home.”
Originally written about in the Qing Dynasty book “Treatment For Ulcers,” by famed Chinese doctor Gu Shicheng, watermelon frost tablets (西瓜霜含片 Xīguā shuāng hánpiàn) are quite literally made from the frost layer of a watermelon.
Traditionally, watermelon frost was produced by slicing a watermelon at the top, hollowing out the inside, and filling it with mirabilite, a sulfate mineral. After several months stored in an earthen vat, a downy white crystalline appears; this is the watermelon frost. The process has been shortened by the pharmaceutical companies, but the theory behind it remains the same.
Unlike most of the remedies above, this lovely pink tablet actually tastes nice. Don’t chew on it—just leave it in your mouth and let it melt gradually. While it heals your oral woes, it’ll even make your breath smell nice, fresh and watermelon-y.
Note: consult your own doctor before taking any of these, especially if you’re pregnant, or suffer from high blood pressure, hepatitis, diabetes, kidney disease or heart disease.
- He’s suffering from insomnia.
- You could use a watermelon tablet.