Tea as Medicine

April 25, 2020 1 Comment

Tea as Medicine

"Because of its well-known health benefits, more and more people are choosing to drink tea, but unfortunately, they aren’t choosing the correct way to drink it. Tea just started to get popular in recent years. I worry that ten  years from now, tea drinkers may be experiencing negative health impacts rather than benefits.

I’m not going to talk about chemicals and other harmful things related to tea growing, as you probably got the general idea from the first chapter about the tea business. Instead, I am now going to talk about how the method of drinking tea can either make you healthy or make you sick, depending on how you go about it.
In ancient Chinese medicine, there is a very important theory:

“上公治未病, 中工治已病, 下工治末病。”
“If a doctor can make sure you are always healthy, and before you get sick he has already treated the illness, this type of doctor is the best;
If the doctor cannot tell before you get sick, but can heal you when you get sick, this is the middle level doctor;
If the doctor can only treat you when you already have a terrible disease, this is the worst type of doctor.”

In ancient Chinese history, there is a very good story that can explain this theory more deeply: Bian Que (Chinese: 扁鹊; pinyin: Bian Què) (also pronounced Pien Chueh, or Wade–Giles: Pien Ch’iao; died 310 BC) was, according to legend, the earliest known Chinese physician. His real name was said to be Qin Yueren (秦越人), but his medical skills were so amazing that people gave him the same name as the legendary doctor Bian Que from the time of the Yellow Emperor. He was a native of the State of Qi.
One famous legend tells of how once when Bian Que was in the State of Cai, he saw the lord of the state at the time and told him that he had a disease, which Bian Que claimed was only in his skin. The lord brushed this aside as at that time he felt no symptoms, and told his attendants that Bian Que was just trying to profit from the fears of others. Bian Que is said to have visited the lord many times thereafter, telling him each time how this sickness was becoming progressively worse, each time spreading into more of his body, from his skin to his blood and to his organs. The last time Bian Que went to see the lord, he looked in from afar, and rushed out of the palace. When an attendant of the lord asked him why he had done this, he replied that the disease was in the marrow and was incurable. The lord was said to have died soon after.

Another important Chinese medicine theory is that medicine and foods are from the same origin: food is medicine, and medicine is the food. When human beings eat food, they also get energy from the food that prevents disease. Having a good diet is the basic and most important way to stay healthy.
The practice of drinking tea has a long history in China. Shennong (Chinese: 神农), whose name means the Divine Farmer -- and who is considered to be the ancient Chinese Father of Agriculture, is honored with the discovery of tea.
According to legend, one fall afternoon, Shennong decided to take a rest under a Camellia tree and boiled some water to drink. Dried leaves from the tree above floated down into the pot of boiling water and infused the water, creating a pot of tea, marking the first ever infusion of the tea leaf. Intrigued by the delightful fragrance, Shennong took a sip and found it refreshing.
Since Shennong’s discovery, tea has been grown and enjoyed throughout the world.
In the beginning, tea was used in ritual offerings. Then, tea leaves were eaten as a vegetable, or used in medicine. Until the Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago, tea was a new drink.
The Compendium of Materia Medica, also known by the Chinese name Ben Cao Gang Mu (Chinese: 本草纲目), is a Chinese materia medica work written by Li Shi Zhen during the Ming Dynasty. It is a work epitomizing the materia medica known at the time. The Compendium of Material Medical is regarded as the most complete and comprehensive medical book ever written in the history of traditional Chinese medicine. It lists all the plants, animals, minerals, and other items that were believed to have medicinal properties. This book also contains entries on tea:

“ 茶主治瘘疮,利小便,去痰热,止渴,令人少睡。”
“Tea can treat hemorrhoids; good for urination; cooling the heat from inflammation; reducing thirst and helping to sleep less.”

So from the traditional Chinese medical point of view, tea is not just a tasty beverage, it is also a food, and one that can treat disease and maintain health, so it’s also an important medicine. To drink tea is not as simple as drinking a bottle of Coca Cola or a cup of coffee. When you should drink tea, how to drink tea, and what types of tea you should drink at which specific time all depend on your body. This is also why the Chinese created the six major varieties of tea: black tea, green tea, yellow tea, white tea, oolong tea, and dark tea.
Tea leaves have been artificially transformed into different varieties, and those different varieties connect with the basic five elements in Chinese medical theory: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. In traditional Chinese philosophy, we believe in Yin and Yang. Yin created the five elements on earth, and it provides the most basic balance for everything on earth.
Yin and Yang, which are often shortened to “yin-yang” or “YinYang” describe how apparently opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Many tangible dualities (such as light and dark, fire and water, and male and female) are thought of as physical manifestations of the duality of yin and yang. This duality lies at the origins of many branches of classical Chinese science and philosophy, as well as being a primary guideline of traditional Chinese medicine and a central principle of different forms of Chinese martial arts and exercise, such as Bagua Zhang, Taiji (t’ai chi), and Qigong (Chi Kung), as well as in the book of the Yi Jing(易经).

The Yin and Yang of Tea

Yin and yang can be thought of as complementary (rather than opposing) forces that interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts. Everything has both yin and yang aspects (for instance, shadow cannot exist without light). Either of the two major aspects may manifest more strongly in a particular object, depending on the criterion of the observation.
So according to this theory, the tea is a leaf created by nature and belongs to Yang, and it must be brewed with water so that nutrition can be released. Water belongs to Yin, so tea and water together are perfect examples of Yin and Yang theory; besides Yin and Yang, the different varieties of tea also include the five elements. Different elements can treat different diseases, and different diseases have different causes, but all belong to Yin and Yang. If Yang becomes unbalanced, the body will manifest disease, but if the body can balance Yin and Yang, it can be healthy. Tea became an important medicine for adjusting the balance of Yin and Yang in the body to keep you healthy.

So let’s look at how traditional Chinese medicine analyzes the body, and then we can tell how to drink tea in a manner that supports health. As mentioned above, if a doctor can make sure you are always healthy, and has treated the illness before you get sick, this type of doctor is best. Who can take such good care of you and watch your health so carefully at all times? The answer is you. Only you can feel your own body and intimately know what is happening in your body at any given time, so if you know which time your body needs what kind of food, in traditional Chinese medicine it is believed you will be able to serve as the highest level of doctor for yourself.
Based on this theory, let’s first talk about the meaning of Yin Yang for a person’s health. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that everything relates to Yin and Yang, and everything works within the Yin Yang system. Yin Yang has two faces, and is divided into two parts. These two parts are part of Taiji
(Chinese: 太极). In the ancient Chinese book Zhou Bi Suan Jing (Chinese: 《周髀算 经》), which contains details about the lunar calendar, there is a precise description of the meaning of “Ji (极)”:
“阴阳之数,日月之法,十九岁为一章。 四章为一部,七十六岁。二十蔀为 一遂,遂千五百二十岁。 三遂为一首,首四千五百六十岁。七首为一极,极三 万一千九百二十岁。生数皆终,万物复始。天以更元,作纪历。”

The important thing mentioned in this passage is: Yin and Yang correspond to exact numbers, and the calendar represents a very strict Law. Zhang (章), Bu (蔀), Sui (遂), Shou (首), and Ji (极) are the five major parts in the lunar calendar. Zhang means 19 years old, and the name of the number 19 is Zhang, and the Chinese character “Zhang(章)” has the meaning of law. So being the law, you cannot freely add whatever you want or subtract whatever you feel like. It is a very strict law you have to follow and it is the most basic number. So follow this law: four Zhang become a Bu (蔀); twenty Bu become a Sui (遂); three Sui become a Shou (首); and seven Shou become Ji (极). So that means thirty-one thousand nine hundred and twenty years will become a Ji (极). When thirty-one thousand nine hundred and twenty years have gone by, the world will undergo a big change – the end of everything and the start of everything.

When every single “Ji “ has come, it is the end of time for everything, meaning all life will be over, and then there will be a new start for everything, starting a new cycle. So everything will have an ending, but this end is not forever, and this happens over and over. This theory exactly matches ancient Indian philosophy: Creation, Process, Destruction, and Emptiness. The universe is actually developing through these four steps and has never stopped. When everything grows to the point that it is too big to continue, it will be destroyed, and then there will be
emptiness. This transformation is called predestined fate, and after that there will be a new beginning to life, creating yet another new predestined fate.
So it doesn’t matter if you are referring to ancient Chinese or Indian thought, they both mention an important part which is the ending, which in Chinese is called “Ji(极).” So Ji is when everything comes to an end. If everything ends, then how to have another new beginning? At this point, the ancient Chinese found that if you want “Ji(极)” to become another new “Ji(极),” there must be something greater than “Ji(极).” It is like the fact that children cannot give birth to children
– only a mother can bear children. So “mother” is the higher level above “Ji(极),” and it is called Tai(太). This is where the term Taiji (太极) came from.

So what is Taiji (太极)? Taiji is unceasing, never ending, and only life that has Taiji can begin over and over; only through Taiji can the universe continue developing.
In the ancient Chinese Bei Zhou (北周) dynasty, Dun Yi(敦颐)created an illustration of Taiji which is just an empty circle. It is the perfect picture to describe the meaning of Taiji. Unfortunately nowadays, lots of people think the picture of Yin Yang represents Taiji.

Taiji Yinyang Symbol

Life was created from Taiji. But everything must be in balance to ensure the Taiji system works smoothly and goes round to begin again. Yin Yang is the perfect sign for this balance. The ancient book of Chinese philosophy called the Xi Ci (系辞) clearly describes how life connects with Taiji and Yin Yang:

系辞》曰:“生生之谓易”又曰:“易有太极,是生两仪,两仪生四象, 四象生八卦,八卦定吉凶,吉凶生大业。”
This description means: “Everything is about Yi (易). Yi is Taiji, and from Taiji comes two parts (Yin and Yang). These two parts have four seasons, and these four seasons have eight symbols. The eight symbols decide good or evil, and good or evil will decide the greater image of life.”

So this is really amazing knowledge from the ancient Chinese on how to analyze life: life comes from splitting, not from building. Yin and Yang come from the splitting of Taiji, the four seasons come from the splitting of Yin and Yang, and the eight symbols come from splitting the four seasons. So to answer the basic question of how to keep healthy, ancient Chinese medicine derives its prescription from the theory above: if the big image of life is decided by eight symbols, the eight symbols come from the four seasons, and the four seasons originally come from Taiji, that means life must follow the earth’s changes exactly so that you can be included into Taiji, and extend your life as long as possible. This has also been conceived of as human beings and nature in accordance.

So how can we follow nature to stay healthy? The four seasons are the most basic signs nature offers human beings, so following the four seasons and doing exactly what nature is doing can help you create a good life. The seasons come from Yin and Yang, so looking at how Yin and Yang fit into the four seasons will help you to understand how to follow nature.
Over the course of a year, Yin and Yang are growing during spring and summer. In Chinese medicine, Yang starts growing when, for example, the days get longer and the temperature goes up. What about Yin? Yin is the physical things we can see, like the trees growing new branches and flowers coming into bloom. Yang is the energy, Yin is the physical things, and because of the growing Yang energy, the physical things that are Yin also start growing. Also over the course of a year, Yin and Yang withdraw to gather energy during autumn and winter. When Yang stops growing, then Yin starts to withdraw and collect energy. Because there is none of the Yang energy that is necessary for physical things to grow and survive, these things withdraw during autumn and winter and keep their energy inside.
So this perfectly explains why in spring and summer the weather is hot, which is because of the Yang energy coming out. In autumn and winter, the hot energy is conserved inside and doesn’t come out, so the weather grows cold. So hot and cold are deeply connected to the growth and hiding of Yin Yang. This also means that in spring and summer we use Yang, and in autumn and winter we conserve Yang. Your body being healthy or not in spring or summer depends on whether you properly hid your Yang in autumn and winter. In spring and summer you need to use lots of Yang, so you will draw from the Yang you kept hidden in winter. The reverse happens during the opposite part of the year, and in this way, of balance of Yin and Yang is maintained."

- The Wild Truth of Tea

Now, you understand what is Yin and Yang and why we should use tea as medicine. It's the time for you to explore more:

1 Response

Victor Leung
Victor Leung

April 28, 2020

Since I am a tai chi practitioner for many years, I can relate to this article. Thanks for sharing.

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