Pao Zhi: The Alchemical Art of Processing Chinese Herbs


The art of processing Chinese medicinal herbs and other substances according to traditional specifications is called pao zhi. The extensive use of pao zhi is distinctive and unique to Chinese herbal medicine. Many of the pao zhi techniques have been used for thousands of years and are well established.

Traditionally, pao zhi methods use the application of heat and water, such as soaking, boiling, steaming, and stir-frying. And pao zhi techniques have regional variations as well, depending on climate, soil conditions, and country of origin.

One of the principal reasons for using pao zhi is to reduce toxicity or side effects of herbs and other substances. A dramatic example of this can be seen in the case of Aconite. Largely regarded as a poison in the West, Aconite has been used internally in herbal formulations in China for at least 1800 years, with great success, despite the fact that the fresh plant is deadly poisonous if ingested. Over 40 different methods of applying pao zhi to Aconite have been documented in Chinese historical texts, resulting in its use in the treatment of a variety of conditions.

Soaking or frying an herb in a carrier substance like alcohol, vinegar, honey, brine, or clay, can neutralize toxicity, change the temperature of an herb from cool to warm, or direct the medicinal effects to a specific organ or area of the body. For example, soaking Angelica Dang Gui in wine, increases its blood moving effect. Frying Amomum Sha Ren (cardamom) in salt directs its action to the Kidneys.

Many herbal medicines are also processed to facilitate storage, so that they last longer and can be transported more easily and without degrading. In the case of Ginseng, the red form of it ( Hong Shen) is steamed following harvest, while the white form (Bai Ren Shen) is simply dried after harvest. These methods allow the herb to stay potent for a long time.

Happy Chinese New Year! February 5, 2019 is the beginning of the Year of the Earth Pig. The Pig was reportedly the 12th and last animal to arrive at the Jade Emperor’s birthday party, earning the distinction of being the last animal in the 12-year Chinese zodiac. Next year marks the beginning of a new 12-year cycle with the Rat.

Also, Happy Valentine’s Day! In honor of love I want to share my favorite love poem by Derek Walcott called “ Love After Love”. It is more a poem of self-love rather than romantic love, but seems appropriate and timely nonetheless.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.