Color Significance in Oriental Herbs
By Hun Young Cho
Translated by Kihyon Kim
From "Oriental Medicine, A Modern Interpretation"

The Reason for adding Color to the Qi-Taste Theory:
Color is observed greatly in the study of syndromes. A commonly used phrase in Oriental diagnosis is "Observing the shape and watching the color." In the study of herbal properties, however, color is not emphasized as much. Accordingly, among the herbal properties, one usually speaks of Qi and Taste, but I have felt a great need for the observation of color in the study of herbal properties. As a result of having always paid attention to the observation of color, I have found some things which will not only be referred to in the current study of herbal properties, but the observation of color will eventually become one of the most important topics in the study of herbology. Thus, I am adding color to the Qi-Taste Theory and will discuss this theory in this next section.
Even in modern chemical experiments, a great importance is put on the observation of color. Looking at phenomena in nature, the reason for colors varying in all matters is that their properties and constituents are all different. Even in the same plant, the changing of pigment in relation to the light, nutrition and seasons is due to the changes in its constituents. Accordingly, there is also a change in the properties.
The Relationship between Herbal Properties and Color:
1. Yellow colored herbs and the Spleen
"Spleen controls muscles"
The following substances have been used effectively on the site of inflammation long before the invention of iodine tincture (anti-inflammatory). Even now, these substances are used as a folk medicine when iodine tincture is not available.
a. Rhubarb (Da Huang) is ground with vinegar and rubbed on the site of inflammation.
b. Ox gallstone is ground and rubbed on the site of inflammation.
c. Raw rehmannia root (Sheng Di Huang) is pounded and attached to the site of inflammation.
d. Gardenia fruit (Zhi Zi) is soaked and pounded in vinegar and attached to the site of inflammation.
e. Egg yolk is attached to the site of inflammation.
These substances all have some effects in reducing inflammation and we can discover a similarity in the color. The sites of inflammation where the medicines were attached all become deep yellow in color so that one cannot in any way differentiate whether iodine tincture was rubbed or raw rehmannia root was attached or ox gallstone or rhubarb was rubbed. Accordingly, we can infer that there is an inseparable relationship between the property that disperses inflammation of the skin and the deep yellow color. There are more remedies aside from the above examples. Coptis, which is yellow, is used as an eyewash for the inflammation of the eyelid. Turmeric, which is also yellow, is held in the mouth for swelling and pain of the gum. Scutellaria is cooked and drunk for the swelling and pain of throat. These remedies all have a common color pigment and are used effectively for eliminating inflammation.
2. White colored herbs and the Lungs
As cough medicine, pinellia, white atractylodes, morus bark, apricot seed, lily, ophiopogon, platycodon, glehnia, fritillary and coix are most important. All of these herbs are white colored. As discussed in the Zang-Fu chapter, the color white is related to the Lungs. Herbs that stop cough and dispel phlegm generally contain white color. So we can infer the relationship between herbal properties which act on the Lungs and the color white.
3. Black colored herbs and the Kidneys
a. Cooked rehmannia (Shu Di Huang)
"Fills the bone, produces Essence and Blood -- treats Five strains and Seven injuries in man; injury to Middle and bleeding during pregnancy, irregular menstruation and all diseases after pregnancy in woman." (Li Shi Zhen)
"Tonifies Blood and Qi, tonifies Kidney Water and True Yin." (Yuan Su)
b. Scrophularia (Xuan Shen)
"The King herb for the Kidney channel." (Yuan Su)
"Tonifies Kidney Qi and brightens eyes." (Ben Jing)
"Tonifies Yin, descends Fire, promote urination and eliminates Blood stagnation." (Li Shi Zhen)
c. Cistanche (Rou Cong Rong)
"Treats Five Strains and Seven Injuries, Cold and Heat pain in the male genitals, strengthens Yin and augments Vital Qi." (Ben Jing)
"Used for impotence and blood in urine in man and infertility, leukorrhea and genital pain in woman." (Da Ming)
"Patients with deficiency of the Fire in the Gate of Life can be tonified with this herb; it is a Kidney channel Blood level herb." (Wang Hao Gu)
"Supports Ministerial Fire, tonifies Essence and stimulates Yang. It can treat infertility due to Blood Deficiency in women." (Zhang Jing Yue)
d. Black Ink (an herbal product, not something you find in a pen)
"Stops bleeding, treats post-delivery vertigo due to Blood Deficiency, metrorrhagia and sudden blood in stool - grind with vinegar and take it." (Kai Bao)
"Promotes urination and menstruation." (Li Shi Zhen)
Grinding and drinking black ink at the time of vomiting of blood or blood in the stool has a miraculous effect. The carbon has the power to absorb toxins, so it is also used widely for colonics. However, this is a chemical explanation. Speaking in terms of color, black ink has the color of the Water Element and the Kidney is the organ of the Water Element. Heart is the organ of the Fire Element and blood belongs to the Heart. Thus, by the basic principle of Water controlling Fire, black colored carbon can be interpreted as having the property to stop bleeding.
e. Iron
"Its color is black and belongs to the Water Element. Its property can suppress the Wood Element, thus it is suitable for treating epilepsy." (Li Shi Zhen)
"Kidney tonics should not be stored in iron containers." (Li Shi Zhen)
f. Magnetite
"Nourishes Kidney Qi and fills up Essence and Marrow: It can be used for all patients with deafness and dizziness due to Kidney Deficiency." (Zong Shi)
"Magnetite has black color of Water Element and enters Kidneys; that is the reason for using it to treat all conditions of the Kidneys." (Li Shi Zhen)
4. Blue-Green colored herbs and the Liver
a. Green tangerine peel (Qing Pi)
"Its sour taste enters the Liver. It eliminates hypochondriac pain and relieves stagnated anger. It eliminates Hernial disorders and has the function of decongesting the Liver." (Zhang Jing Yue)
"It enters Jueyin (Liver) and Shaoyang (Gall Bladder) channels and treats diseases of Liver and Gall Bladder." (Yuan Su)
"Green tangerine peel is a conductant herb for the Liver channel." (Li Dong Yuan)
b. Sweet wormwood (Qing Hao)
"Because it received the Qi of Spring-Wood (Liver) and Shaoyang (Gall Bladder) energy, its treatment symptoms are all Shaoyang and Jueyin diseases in the Blood Level." (Li Shi Zhen)
"It treats chill and fever of malaria." (Li Shi Zhen)
"It treats the Blood Level diseases of Liver, Kidney and Triple Burner." (Zhang Jing Yue)
c. Prunella Spike (Xia Ku Cao)
"It is said in the Materia Medica that prunella can best treat scrofula, disperses Knotted Qi and has the effect of tonifying the blood vessels of the Jueyin, but there is no discussion on its ability to eliminate the Cold and Heat." (Zhu Dan Xi)
"It is able to clear Liver Fire and Blood Heat. Thus, it treats red eyes, cataract and pterygium. It can suppress the Liver and improve hearing and vision." (Zhang Jing Yue)
Those enumerated here are especially notable ones; all medicines from the plants have a blue-green color to some extent.
d. Copper (Zi Ran Tong)
"This is the consolidated liquid of copper. It has a sour taste and is slightly toxic and enters the Liver and Gall Bladder. Therefore, it eliminates the Wind-Phlegm through vomiting or diarrhea, brightens the eyes, and eliminates Childhood Nutritional Impairment." (Li Shi Zhen)
e. Azurite (Gong Qing)
"It has blue-green color and governs the Liver." (Han Bao Sheng)
"It treats glaucoma and deafness. It brightens the eyes, benefits the nine orifices, opens the Blood vessels, nourishes the Spirit and augments the Liver Qi." Ben Jing
f. Scorpion (Quan Xie)
"It has a blue-green color which belongs to Wood Element and is a Liver channel herb. Thus, it treats Wind stroke and all types of disorders due to Wind. It opens Wind-Phlegm obstruction, deviation of eyes and mouth, hemiplegia, difficult speech, malaria, deafness, Hernial disorders, wind boil, urticaria, Wind-Phlegm in infants, and epileptic seizure. This too is an important herb in the treatment of Wind." (Zhang Jing Yue)
"Treats all diseases of Jueyin. It treats dizziness and convulsion due to Wind, chills and fever of malaria, tinnitus, deafness - these symptoms all belong to the category of Jueyin- Wind-Wood. Thus, Li Dong Yuan has said, "Hernial disorders and leukorrhea both belong to Wind and scorpion is an important medicine to treat Wind." (Li Shi Zhen)
5. Red colored herbs and the Heart
a. Salvia (Dan Shen)
"It is red in color and has a bitter taste, neutral temperature and descending property. It is Yang within Yin and enters the Heart and Pericardium channels. It is a Blood Level herb for those two channels. Si Wu Tang (Four Substance Decoction) treats all women's diseases, whether they are before or after delivery or whether menstrual flow is excessive or deficient. These disorders can all be treated equally effectively with a decoction of salvia alone. Salvia breaks up stagnated Blood, produces new Blood, calms the fetus, facilitates the removal of a dead fetus, stops metrorrhagia and leukorrhea and regulates channels. It is very effective and is in the category of Chinese angelica, rehmannia, cnidium and peony." (Li Shi Zhen)
"It nourishes and regulates Blood, produces new Blood and moves stagnated Blood. Thus, it can calm the fetus, facilitate removal of a dead fetus, and stop metrorrhagia and leukorrhea. It regulates imbalances in the channels. It is a Blood Level medicine of the Heart, Spleen, Liver and Kidney." (Zhang Jing Yue)
"It nourishes the Spirit, settles the Will, stops irritability due to pathogens in the Blood, eliminates pus, stops pain, produces new flesh and makes muscles grow." (Da Ming)
b. Carthamus (Hong Hua)
"It breaks up stagnated Blood in large doses, but nourishes Blood in small doses." (Zhu Dan Xi)
"It enters the Heart and nourishes the Blood, assists Chinese angelica and governs new Blood. (Zhang Yuan Su)
"It has a pungent, sweet, bitter taste and warm temperature. It is a Blood Level herb of the Liver channel." (Wang Hao Gu)
"It activates Blood, moistens dryness, stops pain, dispels swelling and opens channels." (Li Shi Zhen)
c. Rubia root (Qian Cao Gen)
"It has red color, warm temperature and slightly sour and salty tastes. It enters the Nutritive Level due to the red color, and moves stagnation due to its warm temperature. Also, it enters the Liver due to its sour taste and goes into the Blood due to its salty taste. It is a Blood Level herb of the Pericardium and Liver channels. It circulates and activates the Blood." (Li Shi Zhen)
"It has a bitter taste, thus it is able to move stagnated Blood and it has a cool temperature, thus it is able to stop bleeding. It treats vomiting of blood and nose bleeding due to excess strain and continuous metrorrhagia. It also opens stagnation in the channels." (Zhang Jing Yue)
d. Sappan wood (Su Mu)
"It is a Blood Level herb of the three Yin channels (Heart, Liver and Spleen). It harmonizes Blood when used in a small amount, but breaks up Blood when used in large amounts." (Li Shi Zhen)
"Indications for sappan wood include irregular menstruation in women, epigastric pain, Blood and Qi stagnation in the abdomen, distention and discomfort due to Blood stagnation after delivery. Also, it disperses carbuncle and dead Blood, it eliminates pus, stops pain and eliminates blood stagnation due to trauma." (Zhang Jing Yue)
e. Cinnabar (Zhu Sha)
"It has a red color and governs Heart." (Han Bao Sheng)
"It is the main herb for the Blood Level of the Heart channel." (Wang Hao Gu)
"Its color belongs to the Fire Element. It enters the Heart and can calm the Spirit and goes into the Blood Vessels." (Zhang Jing Yue)
The relationship between the yellow colored herbs and the Spleen was not exemplified, but there is a definite correlation between the yellow color and the herbal properties. Han Bao Sheng has said, "realgar belongs to the Earth Element. Thus, it has a yellow color and controls the Spleen." Polygonatum has a yellow color and Li Shi Zhen has said, "it received pure Qi of Wu Ji (Spleen-Earth), thus it is a superior herb for tonifying the Spleen. Earth is also the mother of all things." On the property of chicken, Li Shi Zhen said, "the yellow rooster belongs to the Earth Element so it is suitable for the Spleen and Stomach." Also, tonics generally contain a yellow color - ginseng contains a yellow color and so does licorice, astragalus and white atractylodes.
With the above-mentioned examples, though vague, one can guess that there is a certain relationship between the color and property of an herb. As we advance this study, I firmly believe that we can make herbology even more complete. Among the above examples, there might be points that differ from practice, but the purpose of recording them here is to show proof that among the practitioners of herbology up to now, there have been many who observed the color. Among them were Li Shi Zhen, Han Bao Sheng and Zhang Jing Yue.