Jongwook Jeon
Senior Researcher, Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine

The scale of traditional herbal medicine knowledge in East Asia is enormous. One example that shows us this is the work of Seo Yu-gu (1764–1845), a Confucian scholar of the Joseon dynasty in the nineteenth century. He wrote Imwon-Kyungjeji, an encyclopedia compiling almost all the contemporary East Asian knowledge. This book was nicknamed Britannica of Joseon because it covered the overall knowledge fields of human life—agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, cooking, brewing, construction, civil engineering, crafts, calligraphy, music, commerce, and medicine. Surprisingly, about half of the entire work is about medicinal knowledge, occupying 1.2 million characters of the total 2.5 million characters. This means half of the traditional knowledge in East Asia is related to the treatment of diseases and maintaining human health.

Indeed, it is accurate to say that herbal medicine knowledge constitutes the core body of traditional East Asian knowledge. Books on herbal medicine flooded out from as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) in China, including Shennong Ben C o Jing, a three-volume treatise on herbal treatments. Korea’s oldest book on the subject, Hyangyak-Gugeupbang (Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies), appeared in 1245, during the Koryo dynasty (918–1392 CE). Hyangyak-Gugeupbang introduced the local names of 180 herbs and described their effectiveness on certain diseases. About every two hundred years after Hyangyak-Gugeupbang was published, additional well-documented volumes of herbal knowledge—Hyangyak-Jipseongbang (1431), Dongui-Bogam (1613), and Imwon-Kyungjeji (1840)—were published until the end of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910).

Seo Yu-gu (1764–1845)

Historically, Chinese medicinal knowledge of herbs constantly expanded and overwhelmingly influenced the region, including Korea. But there is some revealing evidence of a reciprocal development of medicinal knowledge systems in East Asia as a whole, rather than a mere one-sided outflow from China.

A Shilla monk, who was a foreign exchange student to China during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), healed a patient’s foot disease using an herbal concoction originally created in his mother country. The event is acknowledged and recorded in a Chinese medical book, and later Hyanggyak-Gugeupbang listed the herb as the Chinese did. The name of this herb is clematis, and the local name is ‘wheel flower’.

Moreover, the scholars who authored Hyangyak-Jipseongbang in the early Joseon period carefully compared the herbs from Korea with those from China. They were eager to match the efficacy and went directly to ask about certification procedures, taking dozens of herbs from Joseon, including clematis. Japan was also willing to compare the quality and efficacy of their medicinal herbs, so they, too, participated in active conversation with national delegations from Joseon and China during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This relationship is comparable in some ways to today’s World Health Organization’s international activities. Considering all these facts, traditional herbal knowledge of East Asia built a practical and universal sharing system among East Asian kingdoms rather than one isolated in a single country.

East Asian Medicinal Knowledge Acts as a Living Practice.

Oriental clinics and alternative medicine are used today in leveraging medicinal knowledge. Many people have confidence in the pharmaceutical use of herbal medicine because of its effectiveness that has derived from experience accumulated over a thousand years.

Moreover traditional knowledge also contributes to the knowledge of modern medicine. Qinghao (Artemisia annua), detected as an anti-malaria medication, is a good example. A modern, large-scale Chinese project to combat malaria met with failure because they were the general method of boiling to extract artemisinin, the active drug in qinghao. They rechecked the ancient texts containing the use of qinghao, and found a record indicating that the plant needed to be used as a raw juice due to the low boiling point of artemisinin. This shows that intangible knowledge of herb processing methods is important and relevant in developing new drugs. Recently, a Korean pharmaceutical company developed new natural drug, which contains three herbs including clematis. This medicine shows high efficacy with arthritis, and clematis has proudly stood in an important role since Shilla monks first announced its use a thousand years ago.

The vitality of traditional medicinal knowledge is amazing. As the two examples show, we are on the verge of an intense interaction between traditional medicinal knowledge and modern scientific knowledge to open up new possibilities and methods.