How are Chinese medicinal materials classified?

There are thousands of Chinese medicinal materials, which have been identified and classified by differing methods that span ancient and modern times. What are these methods?

By natural properties Many of the oldest herbal classics categorise medicinal materials according to their origins and attributes. For instance, Tao Hong Jing’s Annotations of Materia Medica classifies 730 medicinal materials into seven categories, namely jade and stone, plants, insects and animals, fruits, vegetables, cereals and materials that are not used.

By the strength of their curative properties The landmark text on Chinese herbology, Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic, classifies medicinal materials as being high-grade, medium and low-grade according to their nature and effects.

According to their channels and meridians Medicinal materials are also classified according to the channels and meridians which they are applied to.

Modern methods of classification

According to the number of strokes in the first character of the material’s name

Names of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia (first edition 1995) categorises materials in this way for easy search and reference.

According to the effects of each medicinal material

Classification according to their effects and the conditions they treat allows materials of different natures to be easily cross-referenced. The categories named under this method are diaphoretics, antipyretics, purgatives, antirheumatics, damp-resolving drugs, diuretics, cold-dispelling drugs, carminatives, digestives, anthelmintics, hemostatics, blood-activating and stasis-removing drugs, sedatives, anticonvulsives, resuscitatives, tonifying drugs, astringents, emetics, antipruritics, insecticidal and detoxifying drugs, and anti-gangrene drugs.

According to the part of the source which is used

This allows easier comparison between medicinal materials based on their external appearance and features. The categories named under this method are roots and rhizomes, stems, bark, leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds, whole plants and resin, mushrooms and mould, animals, minerals and others.

In addition, modern methods of classification include categorising medicinal materials by their chemical constituents and active components, or by their position in the natural taxonomical hierarchy.