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Utilization of traditional medicine in China


State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine
Department of Science and Technology
Dong Xin Road
Beijing 100027


The utilization of Traditional Chinese Medicine in providing health care and prevention of diseases dates back to thousands of years. The Chinese Materia Medica upon which the therapeutic system is based provides a well integrated mechanism in the utilization and development of Traditional Chinese medicine and modern medicine. The present status in the utilization and development of the Chinese Materia Medica is highlighted. The experience of China in the cultivation of medicinal plants for drug production is discussed from socio-economic perspectives. The merits in the use of traditional Chinese medicine against modern medicine in the treatment and prevention of important and complicated diseases are stressed. Current developments in the Chinese Materia Medica include the application of new technologies in research, production, standardization, quality control, conservation and sustainable use of traditional Chinese medicinal resources.


The science of Chinese Materia Medica is a summary of experience of the Chinese labouring people of many centuries in their struggle against diseases, which takes an important role in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and has made great contributions to the development of both Chinese and world medicine. It has been widely popular in China and elsewhere for thousands of years.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, the Chinese government has formulated some policy and adopted important measures to protect and promote the development of Chinese Materia Medica. Especially, in recent ten years, our government has attached great importance to the development of traditional Chinese Materia Medica, and pointed out that traditional Chinese herbal medicine and modern medicine are of the same importance. Indeed, the development of Chinese Materia Medica has been listed in the state constitution.

In 1986, the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine was set up under the leadership of the State Council.

In 1988, the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Materia Medica was set up, in order to strengthen the administration of both traditional Chinese medicine and herbal medicine. It undertakes the tasks of health care, education, scientific research, international exchanges and cooperations, as well as the plantation, processing, manufacture and selling of the medicinal herbs.

At present, there are 530,000 Medical and technical personnel in traditional Chinese medicinal field; 480,000 technical personnel and workers engaged in manufacturing, and managing the medicinal herbs. There are more than 2,000 hospitals of traditional Chinese medicine, and 170,000 beds within the hospitals. Practitioners of Chinese medicine have the same right to make diagnosis and prescription, just like the doctors of modern medicine. Their work has a legal status. In the rural areas, there are 1,300,000 village doctors who have received Medical training, and can prevent and treat diseases of the peasants with acupuncture and herbal medicine. A medical network has been formed in counties, villages and towns. In China, there are more than 160 scientific research institutions of traditional Chinese Materia Medica, forming a scientific research system. There are more than 2,000 factories for manufacturing medicinal herbs, producing more than 4,000 kinds of ready-made Chinese herbal medicine every year. Thirty thousand enterprises of Chinese herbal medicine exist at present, forming a network of selling in the whole country.. The State has set up 28 colleges of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The average number of students in each college is about 2,000. More than 80,000 qualified personnel of traditional Chinese medicine have been trained since the founding of new China.

The development of traditional Chinese medicine and drugs has exploited the rich resources of medicine in China, improved the health care of the people in our country, and created considerable economic benefits to the society.

The research and exploitation of the resources of medicinal herbs

China is very rich in medicinal herbs. According to a general survey in China in recent years, it was found that, there are more than 5,000 kinds of herbs after investigating the variety, ecological environment and reserves. The State offers a land of 5,000,000 ha for planting the medicinal herbs every year, giving an output of about 250,000,000 kg per year. At present, there are 10,000 farms producing medicinal herbs and nearly 10,000 technical administrative personnel. A lot of patients in China prefer to receive traditional Chinese medicine and herbal medicine treatment. The total sales of Chinese medicinal herbs and western drugs are almost the same.

Chinese people can choose either traditional Chinese medicine, or modern medicine in preventing and treating diseases. This is a good advantage in improving the health care of the people in our country. In addition, as a newly developed industry, the production of herbs can create considerable economic benefits, and produce drugs for export. Up to now, China has established trade relations with more than 100 countries and regions. The average export exceeds 300,000,000 U.S. dollars every year.

The exploitation of traditional Chinese medicine resources extends beyond the development of the economy, and includes the advancement of medical science, and promotion of the people's health. Thousands of years practice have shown that, the correct application of natural medicines from plants, animals and minerals does not only cure many commonly and frequently encountered diseases, but can also be effective on some very complicated, and serious diseases. For example, in the treatment of malignant tumours, cardiovascular diseases, and cerebrovascular hepatitis, traditional Chinese medicine is superior to Western medicine in some aspects. Traditional Chinese medicine also has better curative effects in treating diseases related to gynaecology, neurology, ophthalmology, dermatology and gastrointestinal disorders. Regarding diseases which have no effective treatment today, e.g. viral infections, immunopathy and functional diseases, traditional Chinese medicine often works. Moreover, traditional Chinese medicine is famous for its simple treating methods with less toxicity and side effects. Today, it is well established that drug-induced diseases do occur. Such cases are rare in traditional Chinese medicine, making it superior to orthodox western medicine.

In recent years, important progress has been made in the research of Chinese Materia medica. This has been accomplished due to the application of new technologies in herbal research. For the study of effectively active elements of Chinese Materia medica, according to imperfect statistics, more than 150 commonly used monomers of Chinese Materia Medica have been thoroughly studied in chemical and pharmacological aspects, etc., with modern methods. Over 500 active monomers have been separated from Chinese Materia medica. It is found that there exist a batch of highly active elements. For instance, Qinghaosu is extracted from Qinghao (Herba Artemisiae Chinghao) with anti-malarial effect. This is an important breakthrough in the history of anti-malarial medicine after the discovery of quinine. The research on active elements of Chinese Materia medica has demonstrated both the Material base of efficacy of Chinese Materia medica, and has discovered its new efficacy and usefulness. Thus the research on the making of new medicines in China have been pushed forward.

Centering on commonly-seen, frequently-encountered, and complicated and difficult diseases in China, research on complex prescription of Chinese Materia Medica (mutual combination of a group of medicines) has been launched. Its clinical results have been proved with experimental medicinal efficacy. The complex prescription of Chinese Materia Medica is one of the characteristics of prescribing traditional Chinese medicine. Its scientific essence is based on systematic regulation. Through scientific grouping and combining, it has such advantage as organic regulation, activation of human recovery ability, and comparing with monomer medicine. The application of isotope, electronic mirror, biochemistry, immunology, technology of tissue culture, etc. to it, has promoted further explanation of its function and theory. By taking a medicine apart to analyse, it is found that in some complex prescriptions, among different flavor of herbs, there is function of cooperation and resistance to some degree.

Owing to various kinds of herbal medicine in China, wide-scale production in many places, a long history of application and many different habits it has been reported that there has existed some confusion on the history of Chinese Materia Medica. Plants with the same name have been referred to as different herbs, while the same herbs have been assigned different names. In 1985 the state issued 'Administrative Law of Medicines' and 'Administrative Measures of Examination and Approval of New Medicines' to strengthen the administrative work of Chinese Materia medica. This is a new requirement for management and research of Chinese Materia medica. Meanwhile the appraisal and research of Chinese Materia Medica have also been deepened and widened. In the past, the main ways of appraisal were based on properties of herbs and experience. At present, modern technology has been adopted and includes: microscope appraisal, thin layer chromatogram, thin colorimeter, thin luminosity chromatogram, the combination of the chromatography and gas chromatography-mass spectrometer, and the highly effective liquid chromatography. These methods have solved the quality appraisal problem, ensuring the correctness and efficacy in clinical application of the medicines.

With the gradual change of the focal point of health work from treatment to prevention, the scope for exploiting and broadening the use of Chinese Material Medica has also constantly become wide, and increasingly more penetrating to many aspects of daily life, such as health care food, health care drinks, cosmetology, cosmetics, medicinal food, natural pigment, natural sweet and bitter pharmaceutical preparations. On the whole, with the constantly rising of living standard of the people, the trend of thought "That Mankind Wants to Go Back to Nature" becomes more realised. For the development of these fields, the Chinese Materia Medica has very great potency.

Some aspects need more attention in order to exploit herbal medicinal resources, and at the same time, to protect and put the resources to rational use. The State Council of the Chinese government has issued some regulations to manage and protect national wild medicinal resources. Chinese Materia Medica protection stations have been set up in the main production areas of certain medicinal materials that are managed by law. Meanwhile, numerous scientific research personnel are using scientific ways and means to constantly raise the quantity and quality of the specific resources.

However, the task confronting the medical workers, e.g., in controlling the population, and making it fit the rate of the development of the resources, the economy and the society is very hard. China needs to continuously improve the quality of population, and raise its health level; to prevent diseases, especially those serious ones such as: cardiovascular, cerebro vascular, malignant tumour, respiratory, infectious, parasitic, and endemic diseases. Attention should also be paid to senile health, as one of the important social problems, especially the aging trend of the population structure. These concern not only the national economy, the people's livelihood, but also reproduction of the coming generations, and the flourishing of the country. We believe that traditional Chinese medicine will definitely make greater contributions to the health of the world peoples.

The policy of the country to open up to the outside world has provided a wide scope for international exchange and cooperation in the field of traditional Chinese medicine. China is a developing country. It has traditional friendship, and friendly cooperation with many other developing countries. We would like to carry out various forms of cooperation and exchange with those countries or scholars who are interested in traditional medicinal plants, and make joint effects to promote the mankind in developing and putting traditional medicinal plants to rational use.