This text constitutes the companion volume to Chinese Herbal Medicines: Comparisons and Characteristics. It offers ‘a new approach to formula study’, in which the author lays out the basics of composition strategy in order to teach readers how to create their own formulas. The pages of this book are replete with the author’s encyclopaedic knowledge of her subject, developed during her years of study and teaching in Beijing. Like Comparisons and Characteristics, the obvious skill and dexterity with which Yang deals with such a complex subject make this book an excellent tool for students and more experienced practitioners alike.
The author starts her exposition from the very beginning, transmitting the ground-rules that will make this book a useful primer for students. In part one, Yang details the seven relationships between herbs (mutual accentuation, mutual enhancement etc.), and covers the subjects of formula composition, formula structure, dosages, methods of administration, treatment strategies and contraindications (amongst others). The sections on treating special groups of patients (e.g. women, children, the elderly) and combining Western medicine with Chinese herbs are particularly useful. Such information highlights the utility of this text as a clinical manual that transmits practical, clinically-tested knowledge.
In part two, formulas are grouped according to pattern, such as ‘External Syndrome and Formula Composition’ (ma huang tang, yin qiao san etc.) or ‘Internal Heat Syndrome and Formula Composition’ (bai hu tang etc.). This text does not simply give classical formulas for each pattern, however, but describes appropriate principles of treatment and herbs which fulfil the functions of chief, deputy, assistant or envoy. Only after these principles have been laid out are they illustrated by way of classical formulas. In the author’s opinion this method emphasises learning the essential skills of formula composition, rather than leaving them as ‘background information’ - to be considered only after the memorisation of classical prescriptions.
Although the information in this book is clearly authentic, other than a nod to the source texts of classical formulas and their authors, the text floats relatively free of linguistic or historical considerations. Only the names of classical formulas and their source texts are rendered in Chinese script, and most terminology is translated into English without pinyin as a reference. As such the text might frustrate readers who wish to look beneath translations and textual assertions for their linguistic or historical veracity.
The author is now based in the Netherlands, but her approach is clearly Chinese – her enthusiastic preface likens a well-composed formula to ‘a military troop with herbs as its soldiers. When well coordinated with smart strategies, they bring glorious triumphs.’ As such, the text is explicitly based on the modern TCM model, and is relatively unfettered by the contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in Chinese medicine. The place of this book within the expanding English language literature on Chinese medicine is perhaps indicated in the smallprint of the ‘Notes on using this book’, in which the disclaimer is offered that it ‘is intended to introduce a new method … not meant to be a substitute for books that follow the classical style of teaching formula composition … Indeed, these two methods of studying Chinese herbal formulas may enhance and enrich each other.’ Personally speaking, I find both of Yang’s texts fulfil a very useful function: they document a modern, practical and clinically relevant perspective on the practice of Chinese herbal medicine, as well as functioning as a step-down transformer from the more dense texts such as Eastland Press’ Formulas & Strategies (from which, thankfully, Yang has adopted translations and terminology). Thus the clarity and economy of Yang’s presentation of her subject, shorn of historical and linguistic controversy, constitutes one of its strengths.
As is the wont of Churchill Livingstone, flow diagrams make their obligatory regular appearance, mostly usefully employed at the end of each chapter to render aetiology and pathology into graphic form. As also happens, however, the illustrators seem occasionally to become overenthusiastic with the clipart – so that at the end of Part One various concepts described in the text are translated into geometric shapes, arrows and stars (apparently as some sort of key), puzzlingly never to be seen again in the text. Such editorial judgements do not, however, detract from the overall quality of the book.
The clarity of Yang’s fresh approach to the study of Chinese herbal medicine should be applauded. She has successfully managed to synthesise a huge amount of clinical knowledge and teaching experience into a text with great clinical utility. I thoroughly recommend it, and its companion volume, to students and practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine.