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Herbal Chicken Soup in a Pill

by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon

Wu Chi Pai Feng Wan (literally, black chicken, white phoenix pills) is a famous patent remedy in China that has gained world-wide distribution. There is a particular chicken that has black colored bones, meat, and skin ("black chicken" wu chi; the pinyin spelling is wuji), which is used in China as a food and medicine for nourishing yin and blood. It is referred to here as the white phoenix (pai feng; the pinyin spelling is baifeng) because of the paradoxical pure white feather color. The phoenix (Chinese: fenghuang) is a prominent symbol not only in China, but in many parts of the world. It was said that the immortals would eat the eggs of the phoenix to gain their longevity. The black chicken can have feathers of other colors as well, but the ones with white feathers are preferred.

In Chinese folklore, there is a legend that depicts the origins of the black-bone chicken. It is said that the celestial Lu Dongbing (pictured below right, born in 798 A.D.) made pills of immortality on Tiger-nose Peak (below left). Tiger-nose Peak is also known as Two-finger Peak of the Wushan Mountain in Taihe. On the day when the pills of immortality were successfully made, Lu Dongbing invited other celestial beings to the celebration party. When the celestial beings were drinking wine, a pair of wild chickens flew from the forest into the pill-making pool and ate the pills of immortality. The chickens were transformed into a pair of white phoenix. There is a spring on Wushan mountain, known as "pill-making pool." The spring water there is clear and sweet. In summer, visitors would come by and drink the water there. The shallow Spring Pool never overflows and cannot be depleted even when the water is being drunk by many thousands of people. It is thought that the water in this area is one of the things that make the black chicken of such good nutritional and medicinal value.

Tiger-Nose Peak
Tiger-Nose Peak
Lu Dongbing
Lu Dongbing

The biological origins of this unusual black-boned chicken are not known, but the bird is native to South China and adjacent areas of Southeast Asia. Although it has been suggested that Marco Polo saw these chickens during his China journey, the first formal report to the West was recorded in 1575 by Friar Martin de Rada who visited Fukien (1). This chicken is so well-known in Chinese culture that it is also raised in many Chinese provinces, and now even in California and other American states, where it supplies the immigrant Chinese population. Here, these chickens are commonly known as Silkies (or Silkie Bantams) because of their fluffy and soft feathering (see below). They are also distinguished from other chickens by having five rather than four toes.

Silkie Bantams

According to the book Chinese Medicated Diet (2), this chicken is sweet in taste, neutral in nature (not being warming or cooling), and it benefits the kidney and liver. It is used to nourish the yin of the kidney and liver and bring down fevers that are associated with yin deficiency. Examples of medicinal applications include consumptive diseases (e.g., tuberculosis, diabetes), where there is declining body weight accompanied by leakage of fluids (sweating in tuberculosis, urination in diabetes), and other disorders marked by persistent loss of fluids: lingering diarrhea due to spleen qi deficiency, dysentery, excessive menstrual bleeding, and leukorrhea. Black colored foods and herbs have become the subject of Chinese investigations, beginning with work at the Agricultural Academy in Guangdong; in 1988, a "black foods industry" was established in Guangxi (3).

The black chicken is commonly cooked with tang-kuei, peony, and other herbs to treat deficiency-type high fever, or with the astringent ginkgo nuts and lotus seeds to treat leukorrhea and frequent urination marked by cloudy urine. The patent remedy Wu Chi Pai Feng Wan is made by combining the chicken with a large number herbs. The original formulation appeared first in the book written by Teng Hong under the patronage of Zhu Su called Pu Ji Fang (Prescriptions to Universal Relief, 1406 A.D., during the Ming Dynasty). Zhu Su was an expert on medicinal materials that were also used for foods (he had previously written Materia Medica for Survival During Famines). The Pu Ji Fang is an extensive collection with thousands of prescriptions, many of which were later reported by Li Shizhen in the Bencao Gangmu (Great Compendium of Materia Medica, published posthumously in 1596 A.D.); the black chicken pills were also reported in the book Shoushi Baoyuan (Achieving Longevity by Guarding the Source), published around 1615 A.D.

Wu Chi Fai Peng Wan

The formula was later revised by many doctors. By 1984, it was reported that there were 36 kinds of Wu Chi Pai Feng Wan manufactured in Chinese patent medicine factories, containing from 11 to 39 ingredients (4), though the exact number of ingredients in any product could not be known precisely due to proprietary secrets about the products. The official Chinese pharmacopoeia (5) version of Wu Chi Pai Feng Wan is the following (percentages are sometimes rounded):

Black chicken: 640 grams Dioscorea 128 grams; 5%
(whole bird minus feathers, claws, intestines); 25% Euryale: 64 grams; 2.5%
Rehmannia: 512 grams Turtle shell: 64 grams; 2.5%
(half raw, half cooked); 20% Asparagus: 64 grams; 2.5%
Deer antler: 176 grams Cnidium: 64 grams; 2.5%
(83% antler, 27% antler gelatin); 7% Oyster shell: 48 grams; 1.8%
Tang-kuei: 144 grams; 5.6% Mantis egg case: 48 grams; 1.8%
Peony: 128 grams; 5% Astragalus: 32 grams; 1.2%
Cyperus: 128 grams; 5% Licorice: 32 grams; 1.2%
Ginseng: 128 grams; 5% Stellaria: 26 grams; 1.0%
Salvia: 128 grams; 5% Honey, as binder; variable

Some of the ingredients are ground to powder: rehmannia, cnidium, deer antler gelatin, stellaria, euryale, dioscorea, and salvia; the others, including the chicken, are ground up and extracted together in rice wine. The infused wine is then dried to yield a powder which is mixed with the other crude herb powders and formed into pills with honey.

The product most commonly available in the U.S. is made at the Da Ren Tang factory in Tianjin. It is preferred partly because of the easy-to-swallow small pills, compared to other brands that have one very large pill for each dose (which must be cut up and chewed; if it dries out due to long storage, it is must be boiled in water to make a tea). In the Da Ren Tang product, there are 50 tiny pills encased in a wax-covered plastic ball (used to preserve freshness), with 6 grams of material per ball. The intended use is to consume the contents of one ball each time, twice daily. A package contains 10 balls, or a 5 day supply. The labeled ingredients, which have always been limited, have been whittled down over the years in attempts to avoid problems with the U.S. FDA on import (recent batches list only honey, tang-kuei, ginseng, rehmannia, and cyperus, with no mention of chicken; they are boxed without the usual descriptive package insert). Nonetheless, the product has not changed-as the labels would otherwise seem to indicate-since the factory first introduced the product thirty years ago.

The ancient Wuji Baifeng Wan formulation, which is very similar to the current Pharmacopoeia version, is an extension of a much older and shorter prescription, Mantis Formula (Sangpiaoxiao Tang), made with mantis egg case, deer antler, astragalus, ginseng, oyster shell, licorice, and ginger (6) and recorded in the Qianjin Yifang (Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Gold) by Sun Simiao (682 A.D.). It should be noted that there is a significantly different formulation (7) with the same name that was recorded several centuries later in the Bencao Yan Yi (1116 A.D.), and should not be confused with the one that eventually gave rise to the black chicken formulation. The earlier Mantis Formula is used to reinforce the kidney, nourish the essence, and consolidate the essence (the latter function accomplished with the astringent herbs mantis and oyster shell). Mantis has the basic properties of the formula: it supplements the kidneys, nourishes the essence, and inhibits urinary secretion and leukorrhea. Replacing ginger (which has a warming and spicy quality not desired in the treatment of disorders with fever and sweating) with the moistening Tang-kuei Four Combination (Si Wu Tang), a famous blood-nourishing and blood-vitalizing prescription of the Hejiju Fang (ca. 1080 A.D.), one gets a version of the herbal formula combined with black chicken to yield Wuji Baifeng Wan.

Compared to the collection of herbs derived from blending Tang-kuei Four Combination and Mantis Formula, Wu Chi Pai Feng Wan includes two extra herbs (euryale and dioscorea) for astringing the essence and alleviating discharge (e.g., leukorrhea, excessive urination) and two additional herbs that together help in promoting blood circulation (cyperus, to invigorate the qi, and salvia, to invigorate the blood; together, these herbs have a property similar to cnidium). The unique aspect of the Pharmacopoeia formulation comes from four ingredients-black chicken, stellaria, turtle shell, and asparagus-for addressing heat associated yin and blood deficiency. This is the defining aspect of the combination compared to the Mantis Formula, which did not specifically address this deficiency-heat disorder.

According to the modern Pharmacopoeia, Wu Chi Pai Feng Wan is indicated for "deficiency of both qi and blood, marked by emaciation and feebleness, aching and limpness of loins and knees, disorders of menstruation with abnormal uterine bleeding, and excessive leukorrhea." According to Thousand Formulas and Thousand Herbs of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the formula is used "to reinforce qi and nourish blood; used for deficiency of blood in women, manifesting in leukorrhea, weakness after giving birth, and edema in the limbs." The latter symptom, which might be accompanied by turbid urine, could be the result of nephritis.

The main herbs of the official Pharmacopoeia pill are tonics for blood, yin, and essence: rehmannia, deer antler, tang-kuei, peony, cnidium, asparagus, and turtle shell, making up nearly 50% of the formulation. These directly complement the traditionally-recognized liver/kidney tonic properties of the black chicken that comprises another 25% of the formula. The manifestations of the deficiency to be treated, as described in the Pharmacopoeia, may seem severe (emaciation, feebleness, limpness), but this non-toxic prescription can still be used as a general tonic for treating blood and yin deficiency syndromes and for alleviating menstrual disorders, especially when these conditions are complicated by deficiency heat and/or discharge.

Although female disorders (e.g., menstrual irregularities, leukorrhea, post-partum weakness) are commonly mentioned in relation to Wu Chi Pai Feng Wan (which is listed in patent medicine catalogues in the section on gynecological diseases), the formula can also be used for non gynecological problems in women and for some disorders in men that are based on yin and blood deficiency, especially when complicated by deficiency heat. The main herbs of the pill are suited for inclusion in treatments for menopausal syndrome, for some serious bone marrow ailments, such as leukemia and idiopathic thrombocytic purpura (ITP), and for chronic liver diseases.

A problem with using the modern Wu Chi Pai Feng Wan products is that one never knows with certainty which version of the formula is actually being supplied. While all the formulations nourish the kidney and liver, the secondary focus of the formula may be somewhat different than the original or the official combination. For example, the Shanghai Number 3 Traditional Chinese Medicine Pharmaceutical Works produced a version with ginseng, tang-kuei, cnidium, peony, dipsacus, moutan, eucommia, and 26 other undisclosed herbs (4). It was shown to benefit persons with ITP. In an article on patent formulas published in 1986 (8), Wu Chi Pai Feng Wan was mentioned as a treatment for blood-deficiency type menorrhagia. The 25 ingredients listed (the factory producing it was not stated) included the following that are not in the official version: leonurus (leaf), dipsacus, piper, corydalis, scute, hoelen, gelatin, atractylodes, cardamon, cynanchum, lycium fruit, codonopsis (in addition to, rather than replacing, ginseng). The herbs for deficiency heat, such as asparagus, raw rehmannia, and stellaria, were missing, as were the astringents, mantis, oyster shell, dioscorea, and euryale.

A few years ago, the Tianjin factory included a fuller listing of ingredients than it does now, but even then there were only 10 ingredients mentioned, including the chicken, with percentages adjusted to yield 100. In addition to the 50 small pills per dose form, the factory also produces the large boluses used one at a time, and bottles of coated "condensed" pills, to be taken 5 at a time. One cannot be sure that each of these products from the same factory is derived from the same formulation. Beijing Tong Ren Tang manufactures a version of the pill that is sometimes imported into the U.S. There is one large honey pill per wax-covered ball, and the package insert indicates only 7 of the ingredients, plus honey, with percentages adding up to yield 100. It is especially indicated for gynecological disorders, such as irregular menstruation, excessive menstrual bleeding, painful menstruation, and weakness following childbirth.

In response to the poor disclosure on the patent packages, and uncertainty about the product's nature (warming or cooling) or its suitability for addressing syndromes secondary to deficiency, such as heat, blood stasis, or discharge of fluids, the Institute for Traditional Medicine arranged production of its own Wuji Baifeng Wan formulation (Pine Mountain brand). The manufacturing is done at a factory that produces black chicken products, but a new prescription (which is fully revealed below) is made:

wuji Wu-chi 25%
shudi Rehmannia 10%
lurong Deer antler 10%
danggui Tang-kuei 10%
baishao Peony 10%
renshen Ginseng 10%
xiangfuzi Cyperus 10%
danshen Salvia 9%
shanyao Dioscorea 6%

The number of ingredients has been kept small so that an adequate dose of each of these key components is obtained with just a few tablets (each tablet is 525 mg of the extract). Astringent herbs are not included; instead, the formulation is focused on tonification of yin, blood, and essence, with cyperus and salvia to promote circulation of qi and blood. Typical uses of this version would be to help alleviate anemia and other blood deficiency syndromes, to enhance immune functions, alleviate chronic cough with night sweating, and regulate menstruation. This preparation could be combined with others that are readily available to address conditions such as persistent uterine bleeding or leukorrhea that are often indications for use of the Chinese patents.


  1. Anderson EN, The Food of China, 1988 Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.
  2. Zhang Enquin (ed. in chief), Chinese Medicated Diet, 1988 Publishing House of Shanghai College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai.
  3. Huang Yaowen and Huang Chungyi, Foods in black color as medicine, 2001 IFT Annual Meeting, June 23-June 27; New Orleans, LA
  4. Yao Naizhong, "Treatment of 110 cases with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura by traditional Chinese herbs," in International Conference on Traditional Chinese Medicine and Pharmacology (proceedings), 1987 China Academic Publishers, Beijing.
  5. Pharmacopoeia Commission of PRC, Pharmacopoeia of the PRC, (English edition) 1988 People's Medical Publishing House, Beijing.
  6. Huang Bingshan and Wang Yuxia, Thousand Formulas and Thousand Herbs of Traditional Chinese Medicine, vol. 2, 1993 Heilongjiang Education Press, Harbin.
  7. Bensky D and Barolet R, Chinese Herbal Medicine: Formulas and Strategies, 1990 rev. ed., Eastland Press, Seattle, WA.
  8. Zhang Jia Jun, "Patent medications," Journal of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, 1986; (3-4); see number 4, page 70.
  9. Koketsu M and Toyosaki T, Nutritive constituents of Silky fowl eggs: comparison with hen eggs of White Leghorn origin, Animal Science Journal 2004; 75(1): 67-69.

APPENDIX: Article on the Black Chicken

The following article was based on one published originally in The People's Daily (Overseas Edition), Feburary 13, 1987.

The black-boned chicken originated and has been raised for years in China. Several types of this bird, varying in feather color and some other characteristics due to the geographical isolation, can be found throughout the country. One of the major types, named the Taihe black-boned chicken, is raised in Taihe County, east of Wushan Mountain in Jiangxi. The original Taihe black-boned chicken has ten apparent characteristics:

  1. Silky Feathers. The chicken is covered with white silky feathers, except the wing of the cock or hen and the tail of the cock have a little flat feather.
  2. Tasseled Head. There is a pinch of vertical white tassel on peak of the head, especially a cock.
  3. Duplicate Crown. The crown of the chicken has the nickname of phoenix crown, the crown of a cock is mostly like a rose, while that of a hen like strawberry or mulberry.
  4. Green Ear. The ear is mostly peacock green, bronze for a small part. Peacock green is most common for the black chicken with an age of 60-150 days, over the age of 150 days, the peacock green will be gradually replaced by purplish red.
  5. Beard. The lower jaw has comparatively long tiny hair, similar to beard.
  6. Hairy Legs. The two legs are covered with a handful of feather, or known as "putting on trousers."
  7. Five Talons. Each leg has five talons.
  8. Black Skin. The whole skin, eyes, mouth, talons are black.
  9. Black Bone. The bone and marrow are light black, the periosteum is black.
  10. Black Meat. The whole meat, internal organs, and abdominal fat are black, the heart and leg meat are light black.

The white silky feathers are a unique feature of the Taihe chicken when compared to the other black-boned birds. Currently, a number of Taihe black-boned chickens, including 100,000 commercial stock and 200,000 breeding stock, are raised at the Wushan Farm, founded in 1959.

The Taihe chicken has been known since ancient China. The famous medicinal book written during the Ming Dynasty titled Bencao Gangmu (Great Compendium of Materia Medica) says that the Taihe old chicken is a tonic and nourishing food to treat women's diseases, enrich the blood, and build up the health. The Taihe chicken won special favor and was named "Wushan Chicken" by Emperor Qian Long, who reigned from 1735-1795. Taihe chicken also has been distinguished and admired abroad. In 1911, the Taihe chicken, a show bird with its petite and dainty body appearance won a gold prize at the Panama Pacific and International Fair.

The Taihe chicken has great fame, but what are its benefits to human beings? Lab tests show that the Taihe chicken contains certain hormones, blue pigment, and amino acids which can increase blood cells and hemoglobin. Abundant clinical experience has indicated that Taihe chicken has a particular effectiveness for treating women's disorders, such as infertility, excessive uterine bleeding, habitual miscarriage, bloody leukorrhoea, and post-partum disorders. In addition, it is considered valuable in treating several pulmonary problems, including tuberculosis, and being useful in some cases of heart disease. and persistent fatigue. The eggs of Taihe birds can be used to treat severe headaches, headache after parturition, faintness, asthma and nephritis. The eggs are also an ideal nutritive, especially for old people; it is useful for those who have cardiovascular disorders since the cholesterol content is lower and free amino acids are higher than that of other kinds of birds. Taihe chicken is also favored as food. It's muscle fiber is fine and tender. Chicken soup made with this bird is tasty and refreshing, and its special flavor makes it a unique dish at a banquet.

The Taihe chicken is used as an ingredient of Chinese-made medicines. For instance, Taihe chicken is a major ingredient in Wuji Baifeng Wan made by the famous Beijing Tong Ren Tang Pharmacy (the oldest medicines factory in China, dating back over 300 years). If cooked with some medicinal herbs, the soup will become a valuable medical dish.

Why does the Taihe chicken have such outstanding medical and nutritional value? Research conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences shows that it is due to the peculiar natural conditions in Wushan, especially due to Wushan spring water which contains various minerals. There is a local saying that it is impossible to raise Wushan chicken without Wushan water. Taihe chicken is a treasure of the Taihe People. For many years the Taihe people have made many kinds of products and benefited from Taihe chicken. They made a series of tonic liquors and nourishing foods, such as Wuji Shenjijing (refinement of black chicken with ginseng and lycium fruit) and Taihe Wuji Bujiu (black-bone chicken tonic liquor; one of the four famous national gift liquors). The latter product is made with tang-kuei, codonopsis, and 14 other traditional Chinese medicinal herbs that are steeped in liquor for three to four months, then stored for six months.

As an update to this story, a recent study was done on the nutritional content of the black chicken eggs (9). According to the authors, the ratio of egg yolk weight to whole egg weight of Silky fowl egg was significantly larger than that of egg yolk of hen egg. The amount of cholesterol of Silky fowl eggs were significantly (P < 0.01) less than those of hen eggs. The amount of vitamins (B2, B6, D and E), calcium, and potassium in Silky fowl eggs were significantly higher than those of hen eggs. The contents of unsaturated fatty acids were significantly larger than in hen eggs.

October 2005