Chinese Medical Glossary

The terminology of Traditional Chinese Medicine evolved to express the concepts of a 5000 year old system, and is intrinsic to – yet not limited by – its structure.

That structure uses a vernacular that is picturesque, evocative, and no less precise for all that.  The language is inseparable from the practice; therefore formulations that are authentically constructed have taken into account a formal set of Treatment Principles unique to TCM.  At Qi Formularie, our methods are informed by these Principles, and we list them here for your information, education, or amusement.


Point zero of any discussion regarding Chinese Medicine.  Qi has no exact translation; it is most usually translated as ‘energy’ or ‘life-force’.

Qi is the instrinsic, motivating principle of all things; and of each thing, being, and component individually. Every individual thing can be defined, simply, by its Qi.  That of the body is ‘righteous Qi’, but we speak also of the special Qi of individual parts, such as Heart Qi or Skin Qi.

Essentially, Qi is the ancient Eastern understanding of the same dynamic recognized by modern physics as molecular and atomic activity.  We think the closest translation is ‘life’.


A concept of Chinese Medicine derived from and inseparable from Eastern philosophy, Yin is represented by the dark half of the well-known symbol: a swirled-together circle of equal parts black and white.

In perpetual dynamic with Yang, it conceptualizes the constant interplay of apparently opposing forces that create both the movement and the balance of the universe (our world) and each person and thing within it.

In herbalism and Skin Care, Yin represents such qualities as moisture, cooling, softness, interior, nurturing, night and calmness.  Yin-tonifying herbs are hydrating, cooling, nutritive and nurturing.


Represented by the light half of the familiar symbol, shown in its ebb and flow with Yin to signify the dynamic of forces that creates the harmony and cycles of nature, the body, and the universe.

Yang is the active, warm, motivating principle to Yin’s still quiescence.   Yang-tonifying herbs are brightening, revitalizing and enlivening.   They can be drying, and in such case where this is undesired are balanced by inclusion of Yin substances in order to harness the desired effects while neutralizing those not wanted.

Yang refers to such qualities as brightness, movement, and liveliness. Where Yin is the deep, supportive substance of skin, Yang is its luminous “life”, showing through. Together they create the indefinable ‘glow from within’ that manifests ideal health and balance.


To tighten; by contracting and skin or tissue, holding fluid within.

Astringing stops the outward movement or loss of a substance – particularly a fluid –  by ‘locking’ or contracting it back into the tissue.  It is generally a temporary effect but can be protective and when applied specifically to skin care creates a look of evenness and smoothness.

This effect is sought usually either to minimize the appearance of pores and congestion or to minimize blood vessels and redness.


To stop itching, irritation, redness or pain.  The Chinese call this action, more properly, ‘quieting’.

 This treatment principle refers to the mind, emotional and spiritual levels as well, since Chinese Medical theory declines wholly to differentiate among these aspects.  Most calming herbs are very Yin in nature.  This is understandable given Yin’s attributes of coolness, moisture and rest.

This effect is also associated with ‘harmonizing’, returning things to their proper places and interactive functions.  As applied to skin care, calming results in the evening out of the complexion interns of color, texture and sensation.


To remove heat. To ‘clear’ in Chinese therapeutics technically implies to clear heat.

 Clearing is differentiated from ‘cooling’ in that it actually means to remove the heat altogether, not just to balance out the effect of it with its opposite.  It is used in cases of excess heat, rather than deficient Yin.  Chinese medicinals with heat-clearing properties generally have what we understand to be antibiotic effects.

Clearing is the equivalent of drinking cold water to deactivate the source of excess heat within the system and thus in the complexion, vs. splashing cold water directly on the skin to add Yin in order to balance out the warmth of  too much Yang.  The principle of clearing removes excess heat at its source.  It is a deeper action, and takes longer to accomplish.


To counteract heat in the system or skin; as usually indicated by redness, soreness, and feelings of warmth.

The action of cooling slows down chaotic movement of Qi and other substances such as blood.  It also removes soreness associated with excessive heat.  This gives it a generally calming effect as well; and removes redness in the skin.

Cooling herbs are necessarily Yin in nature, as it is this quality which balances out the heat (an expression of Yang) by neutralizing it with its opposite.


To smooth out; even out the action of, unify. 

The goal of harmonization is to keep each component in its place and performing its proper function as it coordinates seamlessly with all other constituents – creating a smoothly-flowing wholeHarmonizing herbs typically have a gentle nature and a sweet flavor.  They are used to unify a formula, helping components work together.   They also often have the action of ‘moderating tension’, which means to release what is stuck, to improve flow.

Harmonizing herbs for the skin excel at correcting such things as uneven redness ( a disharmony of heat and coolness),  dry patchy irritation (a disharmony of moisture and/or warmth distribution), and combination skin ( a disharmony of yin and yang, ie oil and dryness).


To add moisture, hydrate what is too dry.

Moistening herbs have the tendency to increase to function of other substances whose action is impeded by excessive dryness.  They are an example of Yin (moisture) catalyzing Yang (movement, activity).   This is the flow and balance so prized in Chinese therapeutics.

They are less Yin generally than nourishing substances because not as rich, and with a more specific function.  In terms of skin care, the principle of moistening adds hydration, ie water to the surface and/or deeper layers of the skin.  Because cellular activity depends upon the conductivity of water, and the healthy ‘glow’ of skin depends upon a protective and diffusive layer of moisture near the surface, maintaining water content of the skin is essential to its integrity and appearance.


To infuse with necessary or highly beneficial substances.

Very similar to ‘supplement’ but with more emphasis on providing what is strictly necessary, on a deeper level both energetically and substantially.

Nourishing medicinals and nutriments tend to be Yin in nature, supporting the skin by supporting the blood vessels and nutritional resources.  Yin has the properties of ‘substance’ and ‘density’.   Maintenance and support are the goals of this principle.  In application to skin care, nourishing gives skin the reserves from which it draws continually to manufacture optimal vitality, or Qi.


To clean.  To remove adulterants or toxins.

Purifying herbs generally have antiseptic properties or known anti-microbial actions and keep toxic organic material from harming the skin and body.  The principle of purification is more superficial that that of clearing (heat).  To purify implies to clean of harmful substances before they are taken into the body deeply enough to take hold and perhaps create damaging heat.

Some herbs in this category also have long use in spiritual rituals.  They are often bitter in flavor, and aromatic.


To heal.

While regenerators are prized medicinally as topical wound treatments, herbs in this category are frequently regarded to be extremely healing and centering on other levels as well.   Two of the most familiar are frankincense and myrrh with their ancient traditions of sacred spiritual use.

Regenerating herbs excel at promoting healing and encouraging new healthy cell growth and turnover in the treatment of damaged, aging, or scarred skin.  In skin care, this effect can help with uneven color associated with past damage as well.  Many regenerating herbs also have an antiseptic component.


To energize harmoniously.

The Chinese therapeutic principle is literally ‘to move’ – with the understanding that movement is intrinsic to, and specifically expresses, Life.  The principle of regulation strictly implies not just movement but that things move smoothly, harmoniously and predictably within the system.  In TCM understanding, the blood with its load of nutrients and oxygen flows with the Qi; so organized movement is essential to health.

Life shows in the skin as vitality, vibrance, youthfulness, and radiance. Regulating the Qi maintains these things in the complexion as well as in the body.


To increase the quantity of.

Supplementing herbs provide or replace Qi, moisture, nutrients and/or energetic properties the skin may need more of.  They infuse additional benefits, actually adding something to the system, as differentiated from ‘tonifying’, which strengthens and maximizes what is already there (see ‘tonify’); or ‘nourishing’, which maintains an optimal level of something necessary.

Supplementing substances tend to be very nutritive and substantial, particularly beneficial for dull, dry, or mature skin.


To increase the power and/or strength of.

The principle of tonification refers to a general and wide-reaching property of increasing strength.  It means to maximize both in terms of quantity and quality – especially the Qi, the essential life-force.

Tonifying herbal formulas are prized for their ability to deeply and lastingly fortify the body’s and skin’s resources.  They are considered the most precious therapeutically.  Many secret elixirs and youth-maintaining formulas of ancient texts owed their powers to the principle of tonification.   Tonified skin is at its best overall, having full use and function of its Qi.


To change, especially to correct the metabolism of water, ie edema.

 Puffiness is water in the body that is remaining where it should not (under the skin, in the tissue). To transform it means to encourage it back into the circulation so it is used where it is needed, not pooled where it is creating imbalance.

Because movement is needed to effect transforming action, many herbals that have this action are quite Yang in nature.   While hydration of the skin is essential, excess fluids impeded Qi movement and create congestion.  This issue is addressed by the treatment principle of transformation.