Sino-German TCM Academy 中德中医研究学院
Sino-German TCM Academy中德中医研究学院



Chinese Medicated Diet A Historical Perspective

Dr.Wu Boping

Chinese medicated diet is not a simple combination of food and Chinese herbs, but a special highly finished diet made from Chinese herbs, food and condiments under the theoretical guidance of diet preparation based on differentiation of symptoms and signs of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It has not only the efficiency of medicine but also the delicacy of food, and can be used to prevent and cure disease, build up one's health and prolong one's life.

Ancient Writings

Chinese medicated diet has a long history. The ancient legend "Shennong Tastes a Hundred Grasses" shows that early in remote antiquity the Chinese nation began to explore the function of food and medicaments, hence the saying "Traditional Chinese medicine and diet both originate from the practice and experience in daily life." In the Zhou Dynasty, one thousand or more years B.C., there were four kinds of royal doctors. One type, the dietetic doctor, was in charge of the emperor's health care and health preservation, and was responsible for preparing diets for him. In The Yellow Emperor's Internal Classic, a medical classic on TCM which appeared approximately in the Warring States Period, several medicated diet prescriptions were recorded. Shennong's Herbal Classic, published approximately in the Qin and Han Periods, is the extant earliest monograph on materia medica. Many sorts of medicaments, both herbs and food, were recorded, such as Chinese-date, sesame seed, Chinese Yam, grape, walnut kernel, lily bulb, fresh ginger, Job's-tears seed, etc.

English Name Latin Name
Chinese Date Fructus Ziziphi Jujubae
sesame seed Semen Sesami
Chinese Yam Rhizoma Dioscoreae
grape Vitis
walnut kernel Semen Juglandis
lily bulb Bulbus Lilii
fresh ginger Rhizoma Zingiberis Recens
Job's-tears seeds Semen Coicis

In the book Treatise on Febrile and Miscellaneous Diseases written by Zhang Zhongjing, a noted medical man, in the East Han Dynasty, some important medicated diet recipes were recorded. These include recipes such as Soup of Chinese Angelica root, Fresh Ginger and Mutton (Danggui Sheng jiang Yangrou Tang), Soup of Lily bulb and Yolk (Baihe Jizihuang Tang), Decoction of Pigskin (Zhufu Tang), etc., all of which now still have important values.

Sun Simiao, a well-known doctor in the Tang Dynasty, listed and discussed such questions as the dietetic treatment for senile health care and health preservation in his books Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Gold for Emergencies and A Supplement to Essential Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Gold for Emergencies. These two books were substantial in medicated diet prescriptions. According to history books, up to the period of the Sui and Tang Dynasties more than sixty kinds of books on dietetic treatment had been published. Unfortunately, most of them are lost. The book Dietotherapy of Materia Medica by Meng Xian in the Tang Dynasty has had a great influence on later generations. It is the earliest monograph on dietetic treatment still in existence.

In the Song Dynasty, Wang Huaiyin and some others wrote Peaceful Holy Benevolent Prescriptions, in which they discussed medicated diet treatment for many diseases. A Book on How to Help the Old to Preserve Health and Our Kith and Kin to Prolong their Lives by Chen Zhi is an extant early monograph on gerontology in China. Of all the prescriptions recorded in it, 70% are about medicated diet. It is emphasized in this book that "dietetic therapy should go first for any senile diseases, and then followed by medicine if they are not cured."

In Principles of Correct Diet, a monograph on medicated diet, by Hu Sihui, a royal doctor in the Yuan Dynasty, oceans of medicated diet prescriptions and dietetic drugs were recorded. In addition, some dietary contraindications such as in pregnancy, for wet nurses, for drinking, etc., were also discussed in this book. 

In the Ming Dynasty, Li Shizhen collected and recorded in his Compendium of Materia Medica many medicated diet prescriptions. Dozens of these were about medicated gruel alone and another large number touched on nothing other than medicated wine. In Eight Essays on Life Preservation, a monograph on preserving health in the Ming Dynasty, many medicated diets on health care and preserving health were recorded too.

Monographs on medicated diet treatment in the Qing Dynasty varied in characteristics. In Recipe of Suixiju by Wang Shixiong, over 300 species belonging to 7 phyla of medicated food and drink were introduced. In Analysis of Food and Drink for Treatment of Disease by Zhang Mu, more medicated foods were touched upon. In Cookbook of Suiuyuan cooking principles and methods were dealt with, while in Common Saying for Senile Health Preservation, also known as Jottings on Health Preservation, by Cao Tingdong, about 100 medicated gruel prescriptions for gerontology were listed.

Contemporary Sources

Now because of the development of the economy and the continuous rising of people's living standard, the people more and more value a medicated diet. A number of works about medicated diet with distinctive traditional features have been collated and published one after another. For example, in 1984, the collated Dietotherapy of Materia Medica was published; the original version of this document appeared in the Tang Dynasty and was lost long ago. Contemporary authors, Xie Haizhou, Ma Jixing and others compiled this publication, from information that was recorded and preserved in some medical works. Some other books have been republished in recent years. These include Principles of Correct Diet by Hu Sihui from the Yuan Dynasty, Recipe of Suixiju by Wang Shixiong from the Qing Dynasty, Analysis of Food and Drink for Treatment of Diseases by Zhang Mu also from the Qing Dynasty, and many more. The re-publishing of these books will play an important role in carrying on the experiences in ancient medicated diet.

In the past ten years or so, many monographs and popular scientific works on medicated diet have come out. Chinese Medicinal Food and Simple Recipes by Ye Juquan, a notable old doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, was published in 1973, in which 183 kinds of Chinese medicinal food and 901 simple prescriptions are recorded. Other notable more recent publications include:

  • Science of Chinese Medicated Diet, by Peng Mingquan
  • Science of Chinese Dietetic Treatment, by Qian Bowen
  • Popular Medicated Diets, by Peng Mingquan and Yang Fan
  • Menu of Medicated Diet for Nourishment and Health Care, by Yu Chang fang
  • A Practical Nutriology of Traditional Chinese Medicine, by Jiang Chao
  • A series on Chinese Dietetic Treatment Science, by Xie Yongxin and Lei Zaiquan

Many other recent monographs address medicated gruel, and medicated wine. All of these texts have pushed forward on a large scale the popularization and development of medicated diet treatment. A Growing Industry and Field At present, medicated diet has begun to be valued in trades of both food and drink. Some Chinese medical units have developed scientific research on medicated diet; some hospitals have established departments of dietetic therapy or outpatient service of dietetic therapy; and medicated diet dining-halls have been set up in some cities. Tongrentang Hospital in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, for example, set up such a dining hall in 1980 with 96 kinds of medicated diet recipes. Qilu Medicated Diet Restaurant started business in Jinan, Shandong in 1986. Medicated diet has been developing greatly in its method of delivery. For example, medicated diet is now available in cans, as medicated sweets and so on. Salutary food and drinks have now been produced on the basis of achievements in scientific research for the purpose of curing diseases of all of sorts. There is medicated food suitable for patients suffering from diabetes, obesity and angiocardiopathy to name a few. Health-care food and drinks have been formulated for people in specific professions and at different stages of the life course. For example, there are health-giving preparations suitable for athletes, actors, actresses and miners as well as health-care food or medicated diets suitable for the promotion of children's health and growth or for prolonging life of the elderly. Chinese medicated diet has begun to go abroad. Health care beverages, medicated diet in cans and medicated wine made from traditional Chinese medicine are sold at international markets. In China and some other countries, restaurants have been set up to serve medicated food and drink. Personnel of academic, industrial and commercial circles abroad have paid close attention to Chinese medicated diet "special health giving food formulations" hoping to develop academic exchanges as well technical and economic cooperation with China in this area. These factors all point to the conclusion that Chinese medicated diet will make important contributions to the health of people all over the world. 


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