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Book Review: Ten Key Formula Families in Chinese Medicine. Huang Huang

by Scott R. Smith

Paperback book, 337 pp
Eastland Press, Inc., 2009
Price: £29.99
ISBN: 9780939616688

When it comes to the study and effective application of Chinese herbal medicine, correctly interpreting classical herbal literature is no easy task. Most textbooks on the subject present an herbal formula monograph that identifies, among many things, the formula name, ingredients, source text, signs and symptoms for which the formula is indicated, and formula composition. Formulas are also organized in chapters based on what disorder category the formulas treat; such as formulas that tonify, and formulas that expel parasites – none of these are organized by a specific herb family per se. This is where Dr. Huang Huang’s Ten Key Formula Families in Chinese Medicine is somewhat different. For Dr. Huang, this book is not one that “…discusses the definition of formulas, but one that describes formula presentations.” In his book, Dr. Huang states that formula families versus formula categories are used to provide a strong foundation in the basic principles of Chinese herbal medicine’s pattern recognition.

Dr. Huang’s book is a compilation of 64 main formulas divided into 10 key formula families based on a single herb and its role in overall formula function. The 10 formula families that are explained, analyzed and compared are:

1. Cinnamon twig (gui zhi)
2. Ephedra (ma huang)
3. Bupleurum (chai hu)
4. Rhei Radix et Rhizoma (da huang)
5. Astragalus (huang qi)
6. Gypsum fibrosum (shi gao)
7. Coptis Rhizoma (huang lian)
8. Dry ginger root (gan jiang)
9. Aconite (zhi fu zi)
10. Pinelliae Rhizoma preparatum (zhi ban xia)

Dr. Huang’s book places heavy emphasis on a formula’s presentation. A formula presentation is composed of signs and symptoms that establish support for a formula’s suitability. Dr. Huang’s explanations are “…objective and practical…,” and support additional analysis of classical formulas. In this book, classic formulas are grouped according to indications which Dr. Huang believes will help “…aid the reader’s understanding and memory….”

Previously published in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, this is the first English translation of Ten Key Formula Families in Chinese Medicine. Because this book has been translated by one of Dr. Huang’s student’s, Michael Max, this English edition includes Max’s personal introspection to aid Dr. Huang’s explanations and offer clarification to the English reader. A professor at the Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Dr. Huang speaks less with Chinese medical terminology and more about specific symptoms, tongue presentation and body type. For example: aconite (zhi fu zi) presentation, coptis rhizome (huang lian) tongue, and so forth. As Max comments, “Dr. Huang’s methods of clinical reasoning and treatment are not considered to be mainstream.”

Each chapter highlights a specific formula family starting with a brief description of the herb (including which part is used), smell, taste and geographic location. Next is the herbs presentation, herb constitution, defining the associated body type, and the formula family for which it is indicated. The author makes it clear that body type is simply part of the picture and formulas are not recommended to be used solely on this information alone. Dr. Huang also feels that being able to differentiate body types is something “extremely important, and is not something that can be neglected.”

“Formulas address two aspects, the first being the illness itself, the second being a person’s constitutional nature.” Dr. Huang explains that no matter what the disease is termed, it’s the presentation that remains unchanged or stable. “The human organism and its constitutional predilections and responses to disease have not changed.”Following each presentation comes “clinical usage and pharmacological analysis of the individual herbs….” Each chapter has the authors experience interwoven including insightful, personal stories, case histories, successes, failures, advice, recommendations, and cautions. Along with modifications and related formulas, the reader will find when appropriate, ancient sayings dispersed throughout the text to aid memorization. Chapters on a specific formula family will often revisit another to compare and contrast presentations and uses. Traditional uses are also discussed often quoting classics like the Devine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica (Shen Nong ben cao jing). Dr. Huang also shares experience from other famous modern doctors.

By sharing other modern doctors’ clinical experience and insight, you will learn about situations where herbal medicine is combined with Western medicine with great effect. Not only does a formula have a long history of effectiveness but is able to be the primary treatment in modern times such as an epidemic of encephalitis B in 1954 being treated with bai hu tang as the “primary method of treatment.” Chinese medicine is often combined with Western medicine to elevate a disorders cure rate.

No chapter is complete without discussing modern pharmacological reports and research based on a specific chemical in the herb, its pharmacological activity, current clinical use, and important points of differentiation.

Appendix 1 is categorized by “presentations for which the formulas have proven useful.”
Western medical disease classifications are used but not listed alphabetically. It’s a small complaint but it would have been useful to have the disease categories eliminated and have everything listed alphabetically. The reason is that someone may not think to look for sciatica under Neuropsycological Diseases, which also contains sleep walking. Alphabetizing allows quick ease of reference. Appendix 2 titled “Basic Formulary for Important Symptoms” serves as a good example. It is in this way that it is organized that makes it easy to locate formulas used to address specific symptoms.

Important to keep in mind is that this book is aimed at beginners in Chinese medicine. The information within offers a new angle and perspective different from the usual textbooks, translations of classical literature with commentary, and class notes. To some, reading a book organized by formula presentations may be a new concept. To me this book was a refreshing new perspective. This is the perfect book to deepen your knowledge from the wisdom of a senior practitioner and these types of books are much needed in English.

Ten Key Formula Families in Chinese Medicine is an effectively written book that raises many good points and allows time for the author to present evidence to support his points. This is a book where the defined problem, identified causes, and planned points of attack, are sorted out by the provided necessary background information with specific solutions. Readers are constantly reminded by Dr. Huang that, “A central tenet of practicing Chinese medicine is to treat according to the presentation.” The author has done a fine job in carrying out the overall mission of this book which is to have the reader understand and become proficient with Chinese formulas; utilize methods of comparing and contrasting; master herbal formula presentations and pulse and tongue indication;, and to clearly differentiate commonly used prescriptions.


Scott R. Smith is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist (Dipl. OM, NCCAOM) practicing in Rapid City, SD. He can be emailed at

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