Tonic Herbalism


In the Far East, all philosophy, art and science are traditionally based on the fundamental idea that there is an intrinsic source of all things. The Chinese call this source Dao, or the Way.

Everything comes from Dao and returns to Dao. Dao is the beginning and end of all things. Dao is the unnamable origin.

The entire universe is governed by the laws of Dao, and thus all of nature is united, forming one complete whole.  The human body, mind, and spirit form one complete whole within themselves and with the environment and the universe.

Virtually all aspects of health, healing, and sickness are rooted in the union of the body and the psyche. In the East, it is taught that by cultivating one’s body, one can influence the quality of thought and intuitive experience, which can lead to a truly successful, joyous, enlightened life. Inversely, cultivating the various aspects of one’s psyche can and does have profound influence upon one’s physical nature.

No form of health care is complete unless it recognizes and utilizes this principle of the unity of physical and psychic energy, because in fact there is no real distinction between them. Therefore, Chinese tonic herbalism, as a health art, is in no way limited to the physical body. The goal of Chinese tonic herbalism is not really to influence a singular change in just one aspect of a person’s physical life.

The real goal, and the purpose of using the tonics is to establish a new level of well being, a new level of health and happiness that forms the foundation for true spiritual discovery, and growth.

In the Daoist tradition, which forms the foundation of the traditional Oriental healing and health-promoting arts, there are said to be Three Treasures that in effect constitute our life. These are known as Jing, Qi (pronounced chee) and Shen.

The ultimate goal of all of the Oriental healing and health-promoting arts is to cultivate, balance and expand the Three Treasures.  There are no exact translations for the terms Jing, Qi and Shen into English. They are generally translated, though, as Essence, Vitality and Spirit.

The Three Treasures may be described by comparing them to a burning candle. Jing is like the wax and wick, which are the substantial parts of the candle. The flame of the lit candle is likened to Qi, for this is the energetic activity of the candle. The radiance given off by the flaming candle is Shen. The larger the candle and the better the quality of the wax and wick, the steadier will be its flame and the longer the candle will last. The greater and steadier the flame, the steadier the light given off and the greater the light.

The Superior Herbalism

Chinese herbalism has traditionally been divided into three fundamental levels. These three levels were first described in the original classic of Chinese herbalism, attributed to the emperor Shen Nong approximately three thousand years ago. The following section of that classic explains the three levels of herbalism practiced in the Orient since that time:

The Superior Class of herbs are the rulers. They control the maintenance of life and correspond to Heaven. These herb foods are not medicines so the taking of these herb foods in larger amounts or over a long period of time is not harmful. This would be the class of herbs used if one wishes to prolong the years of life without aging.

The General Class of herbs are the ministers. They control the preservation of the human nature and correspond to Man. They can be used for their medicinal effectiveness or for prevention of disease. The choice of herbs used in this class needs to be considered carefully.  It is highly recommended that a diagnosis of the individual be made by a trained professional and the herbal formula.

The Inferior Class of herbs are the assistants. They control the curing of illnesses and correspond to Earth. They possess a markedly medicinal effectiveness and must not be taken over a long period of time since side effects will likely result.

Of the several thousand herbs used in the Chinese herbal system, there is an elite group of less than a hundred herbs known as the ‘Superior Herbs,’ also known as the ‘tonics.’ The most famous and important herbs associated with Asian herbalism all fall into this ‘superior herb, or ‘tonic’ category.’

These Superior Herbs are not considered to be ‘medicinal’ in the usual sense of the word. They are not used to treat specific diseases or disorders. The tonics are used to promote over-all well being, to enhance the body’s energy, and to regulate the bodily and psychic functioning, to protect the body and mind so as to create what the Chinese call ‘radiant health.’

Only herbs that meet specific qualifications, according to Master Herbalist, Ron Teeguarden, are ranked as a superior herb in the Chinese herbal system. For an herb to be recognized as a tonic herb (another name for a superior herb), that herb must have been found over many centuries to meet six specific qualifications:

  • A tonic herb must contain at least one of the Three Treasures in such abundance that it can contribute to the building and maintenance of that Treasure in one who consumes it. Some of the tonic herbs contain just one of the Treasures, some contain two and some contain all three.
  • A tonic herb must aid in the attainment of a long life.
  • A tonic herb must have broad and profound health-promoting actions that result in a radiantly healthy life.
  • A tonic herb must have no negative side-effects when used reasonably, and therefore may be taken continuously over a long period of time if desired, yielding cumulative, long-term benefits. This emphasis on safety is in accordance with the first law of Chinese herbalism—‘Do no harm.’
  • A tonic herb must help balance our emotional and psychic energy so as to help improve one’s state of spiritual and emotional well being and happiness.
  • A tonic herb must taste good enough to be consumed easily and must be easily digestible and assimilable when prepared correctly. Most of the herbs in the tonic category do taste good and in fact, any of the tonic herbs may be used in healthy cooking. Many are used commonly in a healthy Chinese diet. The tonic herbs are considered to be a major food group in the Chinese diet.

The tonic herbs are defined as herbs which promote a long, healthy, vibrant, happy life, without any unwanted side effects even when taken over a long period of time. These great tonic herbs are super-foods which have the capacity to promote health and well being beyond that of other nutritional supplements. Thousands of years of experience has taught that regular consumption of the tonics can and will provide a type of nutrition that is truly empowering.