Comparative Guts

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1400-1600 CE

Images of
the digestive organs in Korea

James Flowers

James Flowers
Brain Pool Program
National Research Foundation
Kyung Hee University, Korea

The Korean Peninsula lies east of China’s Shandong and Hebei provinces and west of Japan’s Honshu Island. Present day North Korea also shares a land border with China’s Liaoning and Jilin provinces, as well as with Russia. Korea sits at the center of Northeast Asia, acting as a node of transmission of ideas and goods between China and Japan. A mostly mountainous land area surrounded by sea to the east and west has historically meant a consciousness of the sacredness of earth and water as mutually constitutive as well as sharing a land border with China, Korea shares close sea links with both China and Japan.

Korea shares a land border with China and shares close sea links with both China and Japan. Much of today’s Northeast China sat within historical Korean polities. Its relationship with multiple Chinese and Japanese configurations has been historically intimate, fraught, and sometimes violent. In cultural terms, Korea shares much in common with China and Japan yet has always maintained a distinct and vibrant tradition of local knowledge production. Rather than thinking of Korea in terms of the configuration of modern nation states, it is more useful to understand Korea on its own historical terms as a key actor in a broader East Asian civilization. Historians also characterize Koreans as recipients of knowledge transmitted from China, including medical ideas. It is more useful, however, to understand Korea as a site of local knowledge production, including medical knowledge, that they shared with and transmitted across East Asia.

Resonant with a shared East Asian civilization, the Chosǒn state declared Confucianism as the state ideology. Therefore, scholars often characterize Confucianism as the major influence on medical ideas in Chosǒn Korea. However, Korean medical texts use mostly Daoist and Buddhist ideas to understand and explain the human body and medicine in general. Furthermore, in general terms, mid to late Chosǒn Koreans understood themselves as the repository of the genuine chonghwa 中華civilization. This helps to explain the Korean insistence on doubling down on earlier East Asian ideas of emptiness of the body and even its invisibleness. In terms of the body, the body form and void are mutually constitutive. Void is not nothingness, but rather a part of the oneness of the body and its ineffable connection with the heavens.

In the early Chosǒn period, Koreans drew from Chinese Daoist texts to visualize the body. Korean physicians also referred to images in widely-used Chinese medical texts such as Gong Tingxian’s Wanbing Huichun 萬病回春. However, in 1613, Hǒ Chun published the Treasured Mirror of Eastern Medicine, the first text claiming Korean originality in visualizing the body with a small number of images characterized by sparse minimalism. At variance with counterparts in China and Japan, Koreans in the Chosǒn period argued that to illustrate the inner body was to miss the point. They moved to more emphasis on the void or the emptiness of the body, by doubling down on Daoist-Buddhist ideas, such that Koreans did not publish any new visual interpretations of the body until the twentieth century. Even if Koreans understood the body as a metaphor for the state, they did not illustrate it. they found written text adequate to explain the inner body as both a site of bodily functions such as digestion, related to production of ki and blood. as well as a haven for a host of divinities or spirits. The small intestine, Hyǒnnyǒnggong 玄靈宮(profound and divine palace), is piled up like leaves from the left of the umbilicus. Fermented food and water in the stomach are transported to the small intestine. Clearness and turbidity are separated at the exit of the small intestine. Waste then enters the large intestine, the Minyǒnggong 未靈宮(Last Divine Palace). It winds to the right, piled up in 16 layers. Koreans shared with their Chinese and Japanese counterparts the conceptualization of the key role of the spleen in digestion, coordinating the storing, processing, and excreting roles of the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. Furthermore, the spleen was in charge of the flesh of the body. Less interested in appearance and physical function, Koreans showed more interest in the spleen and stomach as the center of the body, not only in terms of location but crucially in terms of its role as the center of thought or ideation, the Yellow Court. In this way, Koreans placed more emphasis on the idea of the connection between digestion and thinking than on visual appearance. This understanding of the role of the guts as central to clear and lucid thought, as well as the production of ki, continued well into the twentieth century. Linked with Daoist divinities, the guts acted as a metaphor for the human links with the world of spirits and higher ideation.