Ancient Herbal Practices in the Martial Arts

By Thomas Richard Joiner, Renshi


The blind-eye that’s cast upon the use of herbs by contemporary martial artists — is difficult to understand — when you consider the fact that in generations past some of the greatest figures in martial arts history have been as renowned for their herbal knowledge as they were for their martial abilities. Unlike our martial ancestors, who considered instruction in the use of herbs an important part of advanced training, most contemporary martial arts instructors either marginalize or totally dismiss the importance of teaching the traditional healing art, and as a consequence, the great majority of contemporary martial artists through no fault of their own, lack herbal skills.

            References to the conjoined nature of herbal and martial practices can be found in historical documents such as Yellow Court Canon, an ancient Taoist text written around the 4th century. Among the contents of the ancient Taoist treatise were herbal prescriptions, along with the keys for deciphering long held secret-practices that included internal martial arts. The relationship between herbal and martial practices is also demonstrated in Bubishi the ancient text often referred to as the Bible of Karate. Regrettably, what was considered an integral part of advanced martial arts training as recently as a generation ago today is in danger of becoming a lost art!

            This is in stark contrast to generations past when a fundamental knowledge of the use of herbs was such an important part of advanced training — that anyone who did not possess basic herbal skills could not legitimately lay claim to being a master of the martial arts.

            In addition to having a working-knowledge of how to use a variety of herbal prescriptions to enhance their training, martial artists were also taught how to use herbs to manage injuries. It was a common practice for advanced martial artists to use herbal formulas for treating broken bones, incisions, stab wounds and internal injuries that were a result of blunt force trauma, as well as being familiar with poisons such as Chan Su (toad venom) and Ma Qian (strychnine) that could be used for both healing and killing. Having the ability to identify herbs found growing wild in fields and forests for treating potentially mortal wounds was in some cases a matter of life or death!

            Bound by a strict oath-of-secrecy — information concerning exact ingredients and dosages needed to prepare the coveted elixirs — which had been transmitted by word of mouth from master to student; were jealously guarded secrets that were only divulged to fellow clan-members who had proven their loyalty.

            Even though the blood-oath that was taken under the penalty of death for divulging the secret information to the uninitiated is no longer enforced, an element of secrecy continues to surround some of the legendary prescriptions, and as a consequence, a number of highly-valued recipes created by some of martial art’s most renowned grandmasters were taken to the grave, and much to the detriment of martial arts, have been permanently lost.

            Fortunately, guardians of the time-honored tradition of preserving the ancient herbal treasure have made it possible for contemporary martial artists to gain access to many of the legendary prescriptions that survived over the centuries and have been selflessly passed down one generation to the next. This immense repository of training formulas includes liniments for conditioning the striking appendages, as well as formulas that strengthen the body and extend endurance. The ancient herbal pharmacopoeia also contains formulas that increase flexibility and strengthen the bones, along with prescriptions for treating a wide-range of injuries germane to martial practices.            

             Although a proportionate amount of respect was afforded all of the different prescriptions once their effectiveness had been proven, if the value of one type of formula over another is determined by how frequently it’s used, formulas called Chi Tonics are arguably the most prized prescriptions in the martial artist’s herbal arsenal.

            These powerful elixirs, which have been used extensively throughout the histories of both Karate and Kung Fu, often contain Botanical ingredients like wild-Ginseng and Dang Gui (angelica), as well as more exotic Zoological substances such as Deer’s antler, Gecko Lizard, and Tortoise shell. In addition to their body strengthening Chi invigorating abilities, Chi tonics are also credited with stimulating primordial (sexual) energy.

            Unlike Injury Management Formulas that are taken for a short period of time (over the course of an injury) and discontinued once the injury has healed, Chi tonics were considered an extension of the Karateka/Kung Fu practitioner’s basic nutrition that is taken on a daily basis. The preferred methods for preparing and consuming the herbal elixirs is --

            A popular prescription that is representative of this type of formula is the legendary Shaolin prescription known as Tiger Fighting Elixir.

            A traditional formula, Shaolin Tiger Fighting Elixir was invented by Shaolin monks who used it during advanced martial arts training when great strength and flexibility were required. It was a favorite of the fighting-abbots when the strength of the arms and legs was a major factor. It was believed to be especially useful in areas of training requiring extensive stance work, such as Chi Sao (sticking hands) extended horse-stance, or any of the various forms of standing meditation.

            The Imperial nature of the prescription is demonstrated by the inclusion of precious ingredients like Deer’s horn and wild-Ginseng, which are among the most powerful ingredients in all of Chinese Herbology for increasing the Yang Chi.

            The legendary formula’s ability to increase strength and endurance is likely the reason that it is also frequently mentioned in connection with practices such as holding heavy jars, practicing with weighted weapons and Iron Mountain Chi Kung Training.

            Keeping in mind that the Shaolin Tiger Fighting Elixir is only one of many variations on this type of formula (Chi tonics)… Another compelling argument for the use of these highly coveted prescriptions is illustrated in the life-story of the legendary General Yang Sen, Director of Taiwan’s Sports Federation and Mountain Climbing Association, who lived to the age of 98 and is renowned for his annual 12000 foot climb to the peak of Jade Mountain, a practice that he continued up until the year of his death.

            The celebrated General attributed his reputation as a fierce-fighter as well as his well publicized life-long sexual capabilities to his adherence to Taoist principles, and more significantly to a daily regimen that included Kung Fu training and the regular use of Chinese herbal Chi tonics

For those who may be interested, the following is a complete list of the ingredients in the legendary Tiger Fighting Elixir as well as an analysis of how the herbs function.












Make a medicinal wine by adding the herbs to one half gallon of rice wine or vodka. 


Ninety days or longer, 365 days is preferred.


Take one tablespoon to 1 Chinese teacup (1 shot-glass full) daily, this can be diluted with water or drunk straight-up.


Increases the vital energy (chi), in addition to strengthening the sinews (ligaments and tendons) muscles and joints.


Grams           Chinese Herb                         Botanical Name                     Common Name                     

12                  Ba Ji Tian                              Morindae Radix                                Morinda

12                  Du Zhong                               Eucommiae Cortex                          Eucommia

12                  Fu Ling                                 Poriae                                              Hoelen

3                    Lu Rong                               Cervi Cornu Parvum                           Deer Horn

12                  Mai Men Dong                       Ophiopogonis Tuber                          Ophiopogon

12                  Mu Gua                                Chaenomelis Fructus                        Chinese Quince

6                    Mu Xiang                              Saussureae Radix                             Costus Root

12                  Niu Xi                                    Achyranthis Radix                            Achyranthes

3                    Ren Shen                             Ginseng Radix                                  Ginseng Root

12                  Rou Cong Rong                     Cistanchis Herba                              Broomrape

12                  Sha Yuan Zi                          Astragali Semen                               Flattened Milkvetch Seed

12                  She Chuang Zi                      Cnidii Monnieri Fructus                      Cnidium Fruit

12                  Suan Zao Ren                        Zizyphi Spinosi Semen                    Jujube Seed

12                  Sha Ren                                Amoni Semen                                 Cardamon

12                  Tian Men Dong                      Asparagi Radix                                Shiny Asparagus

6                    Yuan Chih                            Polygalae Radix                               Polygala


Ren Shen and Lu Rong powerfully tonify Yang Chi while strengthening the entire body. The Chi is further fortified and the Kidneys nourished by the inclusion of Rou Cong Rong, She Chuang Zi, and Ba Ji Tian. Du Zhong, Niu Xi, and Mu Gua unblock the meridians allowing more efficient flow of Chi to strengthen the lower extremities (sinews and bones). Yuan Chih and Suan Zao Ren calm the spirit and nourish the Heart. Tian Men Dong, and Sha Yuan Zi, benefits the Liver and Kidneys, and Suo Sha, Fu Ling, Mu Xiang, and Mai Men Dong promote digestion and assimilation of the other herbs in the formula.




             In our on-going discussion about the enduring practice of using herbs in martial arts training, future articles will feature information about formulas used by martial artists for treating potentially mortal wounds, as well as the minor bumps and bruises that are an unavoidable consequence of the rigorous daily training required to perfect our art. Subsequent discussions will also include information about formulas that increase flexibility, iron palm and hand conditioning liniments, and internal formulas that toughen the skin, harden the bones and promote Chi circulation in the upper extremities.

            In the meantime, anyone wishing to discuss this article, the Tiger Fighting Elixir or Chi Tonics in general, or having questions should feel free to contact me via email.






Thomas Richard Joiner, Renshi

Chinese Goju Martial Arts







Thomas Richard Joiner, author of the Warrior as Healer, Blending Botany and Budo, and Chinese Herbal Medicine Made Easy, is a Renshi, fourth-degree black belt and certified instructor in Chinese Goju Martial Arts and Tien Tao Chi Kung, as well as a graduate of the Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine New York City. He has conducted advanced study in traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture at the Academy of Chinese Culture and Health Sciences in Oakland, CA and the Institute of Chinese Herbology in Berkeley, CA. Thomas’s martial arts education includes training in Wing Chun Gung Fu with Sifu Ralph Rodriquez, Sifu Lee Moy Shan and the late Grandmaster Moy Yat. In addition he has studied Taoist Esoteric Yoga Micro-cosmic orbit meditation, Iron shirt Chi Kung and Seminal Ovarian Kung Fu with Mantak Chia, as well as training in Chinese Goju Martial Arts under Grandmaster/Shidoshi Ron Van Clief. 

            Sensei Joiner’s books provide extensive insights into the centuries-old practice of incorporating herbs into your martial arts training as well as making available prescriptions for many of the legendary and most highly regarded formulas used in Asian Martial Arts.  

            Sensei Joiner has been a practicing Chinese Herbalist for nearly two decades, and is the founder of an online mail order company Treasures From the Sea of Chi which specializes in traditional Chinese herbal formulas used in martial arts training. If you would like more information on ancient herbal practices used in the martial arts, Sensei Joiner can be reached at his company email: