Traditional Chinese Medicine and Aromatherapy



Laurel Redmon



Aromatherapy is one of the most exciting and burgeoning modes of herbalism today. It strikes me as a truly global discipline, different parts of the world contributing varied uses and methods of application for essential oils.


Arriving at the study of aromatherapy by way of herbalism, I have always enjoyed a fondness for the actual aromatic plants that produce essential oils. Looking at the aromatic plants seems like a good way to deepen understanding of and appreciation for essential oils. Studying herbs, from a traditional Chinese standpoint especially, can provide a wealth of ideas in terms of plant actions and treatment theory.


Chinese Medicine and Aromatic Plant Use


In Chinese medical theory, a logical, codified system exists for diagnosis and treatment of disease. Qi, Yin and Yang form the base of this system, Yin and Yang manifesting pathologically in concepts of cold and hot, deficiency and excess, damp and dry. “Qi” can be loosely translated in some contexts as “life force”, or in others as “energy”. Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, encompasses a comprehensive medical theory as well as an extensive pharmacopoeia which is organized into 24 categories by action. Each herb is explained through its energetics as well as its actions and the particular organ/s it affects. According to Chinese herbal energetics, some herbs have ascending actions, while some descend; some invigorate while others sedate. Some herbs move to the body’s surface, or the extremities, while others penetrate deeply to affect organ functioning or even the most fundamental kidney Qi: that which provides us with vitality and ensures proper function of all other organs.


Many of the best-loved essential oils have source plants, or Asian variants, in the Chinese pharmacopoeia. It must be stressed that many ideas presented here are correlations between different species of plants within the same family. They share many compounds, but percentages and actual constituents vary. While aromatherapy may be unknown by name in China, centuries of using essential oils and aromatic plants provides us with a wealth of aromatic practice and tradition.


The following list gives an idea of just how many essential-oil producing plants are used in Chinese herbalism. Bear in mind that this list represents only the plants (as well as a few relatives) that produce oils used commonly in Western aromatherapy. There are many other aromatic plants and substances employed in TCM, especially in the Artemesia and Umbelliferae plant families. The plants below are catalogued in the order in which they appear in the 24 categories of the pharmacopeia, a well-organized arrangement that aids memorization.


Gui Zhi, Rou Gui, / Cinnamonum cassia (Cassia)

Sheng Jiang / Zingiber officianale (Ginger)

Bo He / Mentha hypocalx (Mint)

Jin Yin Hua/ Loniceria japonica (Honeysuckle)

Song Jie/ Pinus tabulaeformis (Pine)

Zi Hua Di Ding/ Viola yedoensis ( Viola/ Violet)

Huo Xiang/ Pogostemon cablin (Patchouli)

Bai Dou Kou/ Amomum cardamomum (Cardamon)

Chen Pi/ Citrus reticulata (Mandarin)

Tan Xiang/ Santalum album (Sandalwood)

Xie Bai/ Allium macrostemon (Garlic)

Mei Gui Hua/ Rosa rugosa (Rose)

Ce Bai Ye, Bai Zi Ren / Biota orientalis (Arborvitae/ Cypress)

Ai Ye/ Artemesia argyi (Mugwort)

Ru Xiang/ Boswellia carterii (Frankincense)

Mo Yao/ Commiphora myrrha (Myrrh)

Ding Xiang/ Eugenia carophyllata (Clove)

Xiao Hui Xiang/ Foeniculum vulgare (Fennel)

Hu Jiao/ Piper nigrum (Black Pepper)

Dang Gui/ Angelica sinesis (Angelica)

An Xi Xiang/ Styrax benzoin (Benzoin)

Bing Pian/ Dryobalanops aromatica (Borneol)

Zhang Nao/ Cinnamomum camphora (Camphor)


Several Aromatic Herbs


According to the Chinese, cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata) act upon the kidneys, spleen and stomach. The function of the stomach is thought of similarly in both Chinese and Western medicine, while Chinese theories on the kidneys and spleen transcend the anatomical and physiological functions assigned to these organs in the West. Clove is said to warm the spleen and kidneys, and would be indicated in many “cold” or “deficient” genitourinary complaints, such as clear vaginal discharge or impotence. These pathologies would fall under the domain of the kidney. Other complaints, such as bloating, indigestion and diarrhea, could be helped by the clove’s warming action on the spleen.


Aromatherapy literature mentions clove essential oil as an aphrodisiac: in Chinese terms, such herbs are thought of as “warmers of kidney fire”. Clove fits in to the treatment of stomach ailments as a regulator of Qi, which might be thought of as a “carminative” in occidental terms. The stomach has a naturally descending course of movement, and when this movement becomes disrupted, or reversed, as in the case of vomiting, Qi- regulating herbs are prescribed. This could indicate the value of clove essential oil in treating hiccoughs, nausea, belching and vomiting, as well as many genitourinary ailments, particularly those of a chronic nature. In practice, herb and essential oil uses are not identical: with a dose of caution, herb uses can provide avenues for essential oil exploration.


An Asian variety of the Arborvitae, a member of the Cupressaceae family related to the plant Cupressus sempervirens which produces cypress oil used in aromatherapy, provides two herbs, each placed in different therapeutic categories. Bai Zi Ren, the seed of Biota orientalis, is thought to nourish the heart. Heart disharmonies or deficiencies give rise to symptoms such as insomnia, heart palpitations, anxiety or psychosis. There may be some application of cypress essential oil in treating these symptoms: Jeanne Rose mentions its usefulness in smoothing transitions and for the loss of friends, both of which could cause heart disharmonies of a physical or emotional nature. The leaf of the arborvitae, Ce Bai Ye, may be more pertinent in the cypress essential oil correlation. Its main actions are to arrest bleeding and to cool. These two functions often work hand in hand, for instance in the treatment of gastrointestinal or respiratory bleeding and infections. Ce Bai Ye is also used externally for trauma with bleeding , to promote healing, and to lessen the pain of burns. These indications tie in well with suggested uses for cypress oil in aromatherapy, for instance wound healing, respiratory infections, and as an astringent for conditions such as hemorrhoids.


As a rule, Chinese medicine categorizes pathologies according to temperature. Redness, swelling, and yellow phlegm or discharge all indicate a hot condition, which would point to a treatment with cooling herbs and oils. Cupressus sempervirens is an example of such an herb.


Frankincense, or Ru Xiang, has its place in the “Invigorate Blood” category of the pharmacopoeia. Herbs in this class are used primarily for physical trauma – they are the “first aid” or “kung fu” herbs. Chinese theory states that injuries resulting in swelling or contusions need to have the stagnation of energy and blood broken in order to heal. These herbs help to move the blood, to decrease bruising and swelling, and promote regeneration.


Beyond its functions of reducing swelling and pain, as well as “generating flesh”, frankincense is also said to move Qi and blood in both the trunk and extremities. It can “invigorate the channels”, meaning that it can travel superficially, and to the extremities. This makes frankincense useful in relaxing tight muscles and sinews, as well as guiding the actions of other herbs to the extremities. Its circulation-enhancing effects extend to the torso in the treatment of angina or chest pain. The herb’s alignment with the heart and liver make it useful in lowering anxiety and irritation, emotions governed by these respective organs. Centuries of use by many different cultures of this resin in a spiritual context would seem to support this. Frankincense essential oil is known in aromatherapy as a bronchodilator, able to restore lung capacity and lead to a more calm, balanced state.


Sandalwood, another highly regarded aromatic plant with a history of spiritual use, is placed in the “Regulate Qi” category, along with rose. The sandalwood used by the Chinese is the familiar Santalum album, while the rose species used commonly is Rosa rugosa, as opposed to aromatherapy’s Rosa centifoliaand Rosa damascena.


Sandalwood acts on the lungs, according to Chinese medicine, and its energetics are warm, spicy and aromatic. This can be contrasted to rose, which acts upon the liver and heart, possessing sweet, bitter and warm energetics. The energetics of an herb help to determine the most appropriate treatment: while bitter herbs soothe the liver, sweet flavors nourish the spleen. Spicy and aromatic flavors are said to travel to the lungs, aiding them in their function of spreading the body’s Qi appropriately. Too much spiciness and warmth can aggravate an already angry liver, while too much bitterness and cold can damage an already spleen-deficient individual.


Essential oil of sandalwood would be an excellent choice for nearly any chest pain according to Chinese medicine, be it originating from the lungs or the heart. Angina pain is often explained as “Qi and blood stagnation”, and sandalwood’s regulating and dispersing actions can help these problems. Sandalwood inhaled enhances the flow and depth of the breath – this action has indicated its use for monks, asthmatics and depressives. A rub of sandalwood oil diluted into a carrier could calm nearly any trunk pain associated with the obstruction of Qi: indigestion as well as angina pain, in addition to many respiratory ailments, as aromatherapy literature suggests. I recommend a very sparing use of this essential oil, owing to its endangered status.


Rosa rugosa, or Mei Gui Hua, while not the same species as the plants which yield the valuable rose essential oil of aromatherapy, deserves attention in my opinion due to the fascinating indications with which it is attributed. While the constituents of this plant are sure to differ from the roses which are distilled and so coveted by aromatherapists, its aroma can attest to the similarity of their compounds.


The Chinese rose acts upon the organs/meridians of the spleen and liver. One of its most common uses is in the Chinese pathology of “liver attacking the spleen”, a common diagnosis. This pathology manifests in nausea, a bitter taste in the mouth, and fatigue. The “general” of the body, the liver in a governmental analogy, can become overactive and “insult” the spleen, which is already prone to deficiency, manifesting in poor memory/concentration, loose stools and fatigue. Rose can help re-establish harmony between these two organs. Its action can result in decreased digestive upsets, increased energy and mood, as well as improved menstrual symptoms. The liver, responsible for the storage of blood, governs the menstrual cycle closely. Depression, epigastric or flank fullness, breast tenderness and menstrual cramps all fall under the heading of “liver Qi stagnation”. Rose can help to regulate the Qi of the liver, relieving many menstrual complaints. Modern medical research has also pointed to the cholagogic actions of the rose.


Chinese use of Essential Oils


External use of essential oils is a well-established tradition among the Chinese. Some favorite essential oils in the many balms, liniments and plasters are cajeput (Melaleuca cajeputi), camphor (Cinnamomum camphora),cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), clove (Eugenia caryophyllus), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), lavender (Lavendula angustifolia), peppermint (Mentha X piperita) and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). These essential oils are used in generations-old formulas, many guarded by single families, which also employ exotic ingredients such as donkey skin or the mineral gypsum.


It has been difficult to identify the sources of these essential oils, as well as the ingredients of the carrier substances: this information is virtually never supplied in English on the packaging. A highly regarded liniment, Zheng Gui Shui, or “Manipulate Bone Water” lists only “Menthol, 16%” on its ingredient list. I have heard its praises sung in use for both chronic and acute ailments, and considering its efficacy, wish I could trust my nose to sniff out its guarded recipe.


Most balms and liniments have more specific indications than “Manipulate Bone Water”, or at least distinctions are made for traumatic injury versus arthritis, “warm” or “cool” conditions. Pak Fa Yeow, or “White Flower Medicine”, is a popular example of a cooling liniment. Nothing could be more evocative of a Hong Kong tram, the favored mode of transport of those in the know, than the aroma of Pak Fa Yeow. Hong Kong TV ads portray the liniment as a panacea, applied externally for wounds, sore muscles and joints, and inhaled as a remedy for respiratory and digestive upsets, even fainting! These claims can be backed up by its relatively extensive ingredient list. Aiding the active ingredients, wintergreen, camphor and menthol, are modest “inactive ingredients”: eucalyptus, peppermint, and lavender. All of these essential oils have properties that correspond to theoretical treatment principles of Chinese medicine.


Rheumatoid arthritis, an auto immune inflammation and degeneration of the joints, is attributed to the “pernicious influences” of heat, wind, and dampness. These principles, which can be readily observed in our environment, are thought to reside within the body as well, disharmony or disease being readily transposed onto this framework. Just as the earth can become saturated with water, giving rise to floods, dampness in the body can manifest in various swellings, edema, or excessive phlegm.


All of the essential oils in Pak Fa Yeow are especially volatile. Their high rate of evaporation, along with the particular constituents that the oils hold in common cause a cooling sensation when applied to the skin, such as the esters mentyl acetate and mentyl salicylate. It is probable that these oils have a similarly cooling action on the body as a whole. Quickly-evaporating oils tend to possess more drying qualities than more viscous oils. This drying action works along with the cooling properties of these oils to combat the “evil influences” responsible for many of our modern ills: dampness and heat.


Po Sum On, “Protect the Heart Oil”, is an example of a warming liniment. It is considerably thicker and darker in hue than the thin, clear white flower medicine. Its qualities are more tonifying, or nourishing, than Pak Fa Yeow, which is a more stimulating oil, despite its cooling properties. Po Sum On is used to treat angina pain, as its name suggests, but can also be used for osteoarthritis or joint pain of a cold or deficient nature. The main discernible differences in the oil are the inclusion of cinnamon essential oil, warming qualities of which are well-documented in aromatherapy literature, and the viscous nature of its unnamed carrier. Cinnamon, in addition to its warming, diaphoretic properties, is said to “invigorate the channels” in Chinese medicine, which points to its usefulness in circulatory problems, as well as for joint or extremity pain.


Considering essential oils in the context of Chinese herbalism can help broaden our understanding of each oil, while building the credibility aromatherapy deserves as a serious treatment modality but is often not granted. The fact that essential oils are well-suited to sensual, cosmetic, or psychological pursuits should enhance rather than detract from their medicinal applications, which are surely indisputable. Since the publishing of the first book on the therapeutic use of essential oils, Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy, research has plumbed pharmacopoeias of the Egyptian, Arabic, Indian, Greek and Chinese traditions. Contemporary Europeans have conducted laboratory experiments which have supported ancient indications. A merging of traditional knowledge with modern research has made aromatherapy what it has become: we now know which oils posses the most antibacterial and antifungal properties, in addition to the actions of these oils on the psyche.


The holistic approach that aromatherapy has taken considers plants’ actions on the psychological as well as corporeal bodies. The uplifting, calming, sedating and stimulating qualities of essential oils are well-known to aromatherapists. TCM can compliment and enhance our existing knowledge. The potential is there for aromatherapists to understand and utilize Chinese herbal energetics: aromatherapy literature is already approaching many of these Chinese theoretical concepts.



Bensky, Dan & Gamble, Andrew. Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica. Seattle, WA: Eastland Press. 1993.

Cheng, Xinnong. Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion. Beijing: Foreign Language Press. 1993.

Gattefossé, René Maurice. Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy. Saffron Walden, England: C. W. Daniels . 1988.

Holmes, Peter. The Energetics of Western Herbs. Berkeley, CA: NatTrop Publishing. 1993.

Mabberly, D. J. . The Plant Book. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 1997.

Price, Shirley. Aromatherapy Workbook. London: Thorsons. 1993.

Rose, Jeanne. The Aromatherapy Book: Applications and Inhalations. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books. 1992.

____. Guide to [375] Essential Oils. San Francisco: Jeanne Rose Aromatherapy. 1997.

Tierra, Lesley and Michael. Chinese-Planetary Herbal Diagnosis. Michael and Lesley Tierra: Santa Cruz, CA. 1988.

Valnet, Dr. Jean. The Practice of Aromatherapy. Saffron Walden, England: C. W. Daniels. 1991.



Laurel Redmon has studied Acupuncture and Herbalism at Five Branches Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine and now attends the American College of Traditional Medicine in San Francisco this fall. She received a BA in Philosophy from Shimer College in Waukeegan, Illinois (her thesis entitled “The Alchemical Nature of Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants Theory”) and studied Alchemy with Jeremy Naydler in Oxford, England. She was a volunteer worker at NAHA’s first World of Aromatherapy Conference and Trade Show in San Francisco last September and is a member of the Editorial Staff of Scentsitivity. She has spent several years living in Hong Kong and has traveled extensively throughout Asia.


Update 1/1/03

Laurel now runs Red Sage Health in Madison Wisconsin. See her Classical Chinese Formulas here.

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