the digestive organs in Korea
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.