A Brief History of Chinese Patent Medicine

Did you know that the Chinese have been making herbal formulas in pill form for over 2,000 years?

What are patent medicines?

What are now commonly referred to as “patent” medicines are prepared or manufactured Chinese herbal medicines, such as teapills and tablets, which have been made according to classic herbal formulas created hundreds and in some cases even thousands of years ago.

Ancient history of patent medicines

The earliest records of prepared or patent medicines were discovered in the Wu Shi Er Bing Fang (Formulas for the Treatment of 52 Diseases), a medical book recovered from Ma Wang Dui Tomb Three in Hunan province in 1973. This work was written during the Warring States Period (403 B.C. - 221 B.C.) before the end of the third century B.C. and features a detailed description of more than 250 medicinal substances, including many herbal formulas. The earliest “patents” were a few formulas designed to be administered as “honey pills.” Honey pills are large soft pills made by grinding herbs together into a powder, mixing them with raw honey into a thick paste, and then rolling the mixture into pills. In addition to binding the powder, the honey also acts as a natural preservative. 

There is a great continuity in Chinese medicine, as some of the patent medicines still in use today date back to formulas created almost two thousand years ago by Zhang Zhong-jing (c. 150 A.D. - 219 AD). Zhang Zhong-jing wrote the great Chinese herbal classics the Shang Han Lun (Discussion of Cold Induced Disorders) and the Jin Gui Yao Lue (Essentials from the Golden Cabinet), in the late Han dynasty (206 B.C. -  220 A.D.) For example, the extremely popular formula Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan still used today for low back pain and urinary disturbances comes from the Jin Gui Yao Lue. Almost a thousand years later, another of the most widely used patent formulas today, a variation of Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan known as Liu Wei Di Huang Wan, was developed by Qian Yi (c. 1032-1113 A.D.) and published in the Xiao Er Yao Zheng Zhi Jue (Craft of Medical Treatment for Childhood Disease Patterns) in 1119 A.D. by Qian Yi's student. Not only have the formulas Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan and Liu Wei Di Huang Wan been in constant use for over a thousand years, but they were originally developed to be administered in pill form.

Patent medicines in China today

Fast forward hundreds of years to China today, and you will find that making medicines by hand is no longer common. Today’s patent medicines and the pharmaceutical factories they are manufactured in are highly monitored and regulated by the Chinese government. The formulas for prepared medicines have been recorded in specific and highly detailed monographs in the official Chinese Herbal Pharmacopoeia. Each monograph specifies the ingredients, manufacturing process, and quality control protocols, (including testing for active ingredient markers), that must be followed in order to legally manufacture any given formula. This also includes how the herbs should be processed (honey-fried, fried with vinegar, etc.) and when they should be added to the herbal tea. To sell a product as a patent medicine in China today means that the manufacturing and quality control of the formula must follow the exact detailed monograph and use only the Pharmacopoeia sanctioned list of ingredients, with no variations.

Why are they called “patent” medicines?

Because Chinese laws did not protect inventions as patents do in the United States, creators of prepared herbal medicines had to get a bit creative to protect their inventions. This often included adding secret ingredients into a formula, but not listing the herbal ingredients on their labels. Some companies took this to such an extreme that they would have several different groups in the manufacturing process responsible for specific secret ingredients in a formula, with only the owner being privileged to know the complete ingredients list. Having secret ingredients was the ancient Chinese method for “patenting” their invention so that competitors could not copy their remedies.

Status as Medicine

Chinese patent formulas are prescribed and dispensed as medicine in China and are often manufactured in the same production facilities as western pharmaceutical medicines. In many countries around the world traditional medicines are officially recognized as medicine, and Chinese herbal medicines are currently regulated and dispensed in hospitals and pharmacies in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and Japan. In the United States, Chinese herbal products are regulated by the FDA as “dietary supplements” and their manufacture, quality control, and identification of the herbal ingredients are only held to a slightly higher standard than food.