Professor Xie Peishan, an expert in the quality control of traditional Chinese herbal medicines and a leading figure in chromatographic fingerprinting technologies for Chinese herbal ingredients, died on March 10, 2022, at his home in Zhuhai, China. He was 88 years old.
Xie was born in January 1934 in Jinan, the capital of Shandong province in eastern China. His birth was a surprise since his parents were told they could not have children. Despondent, Xie’s father suggested he and his wife go to the mountains and forget their sadness. This resulted in Xie’s birth and is reflected in his name. Colloquially, “Xie Peishan” can be read as “thanks to mountain god.”
Xie learned to speak English as a child in school before the Cultural Revolution in China that began in 1966. During and after the Cultural Revolution, however, things and practices deemed “foreign” were prohibited, which was sometimes enforced with incredible violence. However, Xie was afflicted with polio and so walked with a limp, which he believed protected him from the harassment many English-speaking Chinese faced.
Xie graduated from Nanjing Pharmaceutical University (now China Pharmaceutical University) in 1955. Soon after graduating, he was appointed as director of the Second Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where he served from July 1955 to October 2002, a tenure of 47 years. There, he was responsible for the quality control and research of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in the Guangzhou Institute for Drug Control. Xie was also a member of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia Commission (6th-9th commissions), where he was influential in promoting the concept of chromatographic fingerprinting methodologies. At that time, this was in stark contrast to the typical Western approach of quantitating single active compounds that dominated pharmacopeias worldwide. These methodologies led to the development of full-spectrum botanical reference standards for the quality control of herbal ingredients, a concept that has been difficult for the West to embrace but more fully honors the quality control needs of TCM ingredients and herbal medicines in general. This approach to herbal ingredient quality control has greatly informed and influences the work of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) today.
In the early 1980s, he identified adulteration of a patented drug product that was sold internationally, and he was one of the earliest analysts to recognize the adulteration of Ginkgo biloba (Ginkgoaceae) extracts with pure flavonoids. Many of these extracts originated in China, and this type of adulteration is still widespread today.
Throughout his life, Xie received many awards from the government in recognition of his work including the Outstanding Researchers of Traditional Chinese Medicine award, Experts with Outstanding Contributions in Guangdong Province, Combination of Chinese and Western Medicine in Guangdong Province, and the Outstanding Scientific and Technological Research of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Guangdong Province. He also received the Chinese Pharmacopoeia Development Excellence Achievement Award and was acknowledged as an expert in TCM by the Chinese state department, among numerous other accolades
According to the Guangzhou Institute for Drug Control, Xie published more than 100 papers in domestic and international scientific journals and authored or edited five textbooks. He won five provincial/ministerial-level scientific and technological progress awards and three national-level scientific and technological progress awards. Among these were the Science and Technology Progress Awards of the State Science and Technology Commission, one in 1988 for the development and research of Huatuo Zaizao pill, an officially approved herbal drug for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease; another in 1990 for his establishment of quality control protocols for imported medicinal materials; and another in 1996 for his work in optimizing the stability and dosage form of ginsenosides in Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng, Araliaceae) root-royal jelly preparations, among others.
Those who knew Xie acknowledged his expertise. Whenever he came into a room, people would often go out of their way to pay respects to him. He was gracious and kind when greeting people but, at the same time, demanded scientific rigor from students and associates. One student noted that he made her cry her first day of learning from him. She later realized that his scientific rigor and demands made her a better scientist.
According to Eike Reich, PhD, of Muttenz, Switzerland-based CAMAG, the world’s leader in producing high-performance thin-layer chromatography (HPTLC) technology: “Professor Xie was an inspiring visionary [who aimed to describe] the complexity of Chinese herbal medicines with chromatographic fingerprints. In that context, he significantly shaped the evolution of HPTLC, setting benchmarks with his publications. His thoughts and approaches always extended beyond what was commercially available and, thus, became part of the future that we are building upon today. For this, we are all indebted to Professor Xie” (email, March 20, 2022).
Xie continued his work late in life. In 2002, at age 68, he partnered with Eric Wong of Nikyang Enterprise Ltd., with the vision of bringing a high level of quality control to the trade of herbal ingredients through automated technology and fingerprinting image analysis.
“Dr. Xie was the first person I met when I returned to China in 1996 from Canada,” Wong wrote (email, March 20, 2022). “As a new university graduate and a descendant of five generations of TCM practitioners, it was [the] ultimate honor to meet such a giant in the TCM field. I still remember that our first meeting lasted for hours discussing TCM modernization, standardization, automation, and digitization. These discussions never ended or cooled until his passing in March.
“Our mutual [research interests] gave us the chance to further pursue our dream, and together, we created a laboratory in Zhuhai (Chromap Ltd.) in 2002,” Wong added. “Since the first day, our focus was to use automated systems to standardize the sample preparation steps of TCM, which Dr. Xie believed is a critical part of TCM standardization that can strengthen TCM quality, efficacy, and their relationship through chromatographic fingerprinting of the broad range of constituents present in an individual herb or formula. Since then, I had the opportunity to travel with Dr. Xie on many occasions and watch his lectures. His charisma and expertly prepared lectures attracted many fans but also stimulated controversy, as [they] went against the prevailing Western opinion of only looking at individual ‘active’ compounds.”
Xie also accepted the natural variability that exists in plants and recognized that this variability needs to be accepted as part of quality control standards. In working with his friend and colleague Professor Liang Yizeng at Central South University in Changsha, China, and the late Foo-Tim Chau in Hong Kong, they related this concept to “fuzzy math.” This stimulated some controversy, as the prevailing Western notion is that medicines need to be exact, something that is relatively easy to achieve with pure synthetic compounds but is more difficult and even often unnecessary for most traditional herbal products. It also led to one of the earliest applications of chemometrics in the analysis of herbal ingredients.
According to Wong: “There are three men who influenced my life the most: my father, Dr. Xie, and my Buddhist teacher. Dr. Xie was my mentor, teacher, business partner, and, most importantly, my best friend. His passing is one of my saddest days. My learning from him will never end or be forgotten.”
More recently, Xie held a position at Macau University of Science and Technology. According to Li Shaoping, PhD, a friend and colleague from the nearby Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences at the University of Macau: “Dr. Xie was the founder and promoter of the use of thin layer chromatography, fingerprinting, and the use of reference extracts for the quality assessment of traditional Chinese medicine. His work was the model used for China’s drug inspection system. He was committed to the quality control and standards of TCM. Dr. Xie has made indelible contributions to the development of TCM; his books are spread all over the world. His death is a great loss to the cause of traditional Chinese medicine. He was also honest and kind all his life, and he is my respected teacher and friend. He will always live in our hearts” (email, April 3, 2022).
For me, words cannot express the depth of love and respect I have for Professor Xie. From our first meeting, we both felt as if it was destiny that we meet. He was not a typical thinker. He was not confined by conventional knowledge. We both shared a desire to see the tools of modern analytical science be used to enhance the understanding of the inherent holism of TCM, not to use science to pick apart the pieces of TCM. For more than 20 years, his friendship and mentorship helped establish practices that inform all that AHP does. His work is a model for others to follow. His chromatography was among the best. The herbal photographs of his wife Yan Yuzhen are among the best. Dr. Xie had a brilliant mind, a great heart, and a great smile. He was a dear friend who I sorely miss, now and forever, and who cannot be replaced. I am simply grateful I had the chance to meet such a man in my life. He was a treasure. Professor Xie Peishan, may you rest in peace.
A pictorial memorial to Xie is available on AHP’s website at: https://herbal-ahp.org/in-memorium-xie-pieshan/.
Roy Upton, RH, DipAyu, is the president of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia.