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Conventional understandings of Chinese medicine, and by extension East Asian medicine, are that historical and contemporary discourses on the medical body have essentially revolved around a unitary body perception—the cosmological body as demonstrated by the use of concepts such as qi, yinyang, and the Five Phases. Notably, in this body conception, the material, spiritual and emotional dimensions are not separable from each other but are rather interconnected by means of allpervasive qi that resonates in the universe.

However, East Asian medicine has in fact provided a far more diverse and dynamic landscape of conceptualizations of the body than has previously been assumed. Addressing this relatively ignored topography, this paper investigates medical thought about body structure that was proposed and practiced by Yi Chema 李濟馬 (1837-1900), a physician and Confucian in late nineteenth century Chosŏn 朝鮮 Korea. Rather than considering cosmological factors, he brought into play human affairs and agency in his discussion of the medical body. In the framework of his medical system, later referred to as Sasang 四象 (fourfold imaging) medicine, psychosocial characteristics—such as affective temperaments, cognitive traits, and behavioral dispositions—are inherently interwoven with the configuration of the viscera and body parts. Importantly, the physiological processes of this psychosocial body are not so much maintained by cosmologically resonating qi flowing throughout the body, but rather, they are activated by the human agent’s psychosocial drive to engage with the world.

Yi Chema, through his conceptualization of the psychosocial body, envisaged an ideal world in which the qualities and differences of people should be acknowledged to the fullest extent. Thus he rejected hierarchical socio-cultural orderings of human beings in favor of a respect of heterogeneity. Yi Chema’s effort to promote the psychosocial body can be understood against the backdrop of late nineteenth century East Asia, where the mechanistic body of what was then seen as modern medicine was encroaching upon the cosmological body.

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In: East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine

The translation below is an essay, ‘On the Origin of Medicine’ (Ŭiwŏnnon 醫源論), taken from the textbook 1 Eastern Medicine [for] Prolonging the World and Preserving People (Tongǔi Susebowǒn 東醫壽世保元, 1894), 2 by Yi Chema 李濟馬 (1837–1900, styled Tongmu 東武). 3 Yi Chema, hailing from the peripheral northern part of Korea, was a Confucian-cum-physician and also served as military officer and local magistrate during the Chosŏn 朝鮮 dynasty (1392–1910). Having no specific allegiances to any intellectual lineage in either medicine or Confucianism, he was able to translate his critical yet inspirational impulses into a distinctively novel style of clinical practice. His ideas built on the observation that sentimental/emotional, or better, psychosocial dispositions of a person are inextricably associated with the visceral dynamics of the person. 4 He thus put forward as an overarching scheme of organisation the four constitutional types: Greater Yang (Taeyang 太陽) Person, Greater Yin (Taeŭm 太陰) Person, Lesser Yang (Soyang 少陽) Person, and Lesser Yin (Soŭm 少陰) Person. Later dubbed ‘Sasang Medicine’ (Sasangǔihak 四象醫學), Yi Chema’s distinctive way of knowing and style of practice became one of the main intellectual currents of Korean medicine during the twentieth century. Its history thus provides an illustrative example of the diverse landscape and historical dynamics of East Asian medicine.

In: Asian Medicine


Prescriptions of Local Botanicals for Emergency Use (K. Hyang’yak Kugŭppang 鄕藥救急方) is the oldest medical text extant on the Korean Peninsula and known to have been compiled during the latter half of the Koryŏ 高麗 dynasty (918–1392 ce). The key value of this work lies in the dissemination and praxis of medical knowledge. First, the author used annotations in order to record Koryŏ people’s pronunciations of the names of medicinal ingredients and symptoms introduced in the main body of the text. In addition, he made use of actual empirical cases to enhance the persuasiveness of treatment methods and integrated medicine newly introduced from Song 宋 China (960–1279) into medicine familiarly used from before. Finally, he edited this text with a focus on important and simple yet efficacious treatment methods. The book continued to be used steadily following publication. It was additionally printed no fewer than twice by the government of the Chosŏn 朝鮮 dynasty (1392–1910), which ousted Koryŏ, with its clinical usefulness heightened through the supplementation of explanations on medicinal ingredients use in these processes. In particular, the quotation of sentences from Prescriptions for Emergency Use in medical texts published by the Chosŏn government implies that the utility of the medical knowledge in this work was amply acknowledged. The intended readership of the medical information in Prescriptions for Emergency Use was the not the general populace who lived in the Korean Peninsula in the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries. They not only lacked the financial means to pay physicians but also were illiterate, so that they could not even read medical texts. In order for this work to be effective, it was necessary for it to address those who could read medical texts and put their contents into practice. In the end, the author of this book assumed scholar-gentry equipped with academic knowledge as its readers and sought to provide medical information tailored to their level and to realize medical service through them. Through this work, it is possible to see in a very concrete and vivid manner how medical knowledge was disseminated and, furthermore, how medical knowledge thus disseminated was put to use in an era when medical resources were insufficient.

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In: East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine