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2010 Travel Diary #25: Heo Jun and Sancheong’s herbal heritage

Some of the many dried fungus for sale

Thursday 6 May 2010. The mayor hurries off for an appointment: not only is the Sancheong Medicinal Herb Festival in full swing, but elections are approaching in a month’s time. In fact I’m amazed he has found time to meet with this foreign blogger at all. He leaves the rest of us to finish the soju and make our way to the festival. With our local guide sitting in the front seat of the car, and our VIP sticker on the windscreen, we manage to gain access to the best car park. At the entrance is a giant topiary archway trimmed in a suitably herbal theme.

Exhibition tent
Inside one of the exhibition tents

The festival is set in a huge site, with a big stage, large exhibition marquees and seemingly hundreds of smaller tents in which local farmers and herbalists display their wares. At one stall, a calligrapher is painting scrolls wishing health, wealth and happiness. At another, some monks from Daewonsa temple are encouraging people to sign up for a temple-stay. We peer over the heads of the visitors in front, but there is no need to do more, because our place at the temple is already booked for that very evening.

Herbal medicinal food
Some of the herbal medicinal food at the festival

Our first destination is the display tent of my friend Lee Jin-gu: ceramic artist, healer and herbalist. Bringing together all his skills, his stall sells ceramic pots designed for burning medicinal herbs. And, seeing that this is a Korean festival, we have to have the full Experience. Morgan is first in line, and Jin-gu massages her, feeling the energy flows in her body and reading her personal history: he divines that in a previous life she was a monk. Next, the herbal treatment. The pot of smouldering herbs is placed on her bare stomach, and before long Yoseph and I join her on adjacent bunks. We lie, in the warmth of the spring afternoon, digesting our lunch, drifting in and out of sleep, as the gentle weight of the ceramic containers press down on our bellies and the smell of singed herbs drifts towards the sky. We could have stayed there all afternoon.

Moxibustion therapy
Moxibustion therapy courtesy of Lee Jin-gu

After a refreshing cup of tea, it’s time to visit some of the other stalls, while our guide tries to give some local history and explain some of the rudiments of herbal medicine – difficult enough to understand if you’re both speaking the same language, and doubly difficult to translate: Morgan was certainly earning her keep today.

Each stall seems to be handing out free samples, usually dark green or brown decoctions which promise to raise my body temperature, reduce my body temperature, or moderate the balance in my body. But most of all, they promise stamina. Virtually all the herbs seem to be good for a man’s stamina, which, from the hand gestures I gather is a euphemism for sexual performance. I am concerned that when I am at the temple that night I am going to be suffering from acute priapism, hardly a condition conducive to focusing on one’s inner self.

Herbal Salt
뽕소금, Sancheong’s herbal salt made of mineral salt, mulberry, sea tangle and pyogo (shiitake) mushrooms

We see giant mushrooms and fungi, dried and fresh leaves, the inevitable ginseng roots, and herb reductions of all kinds. Most of the produce seems to be geared towards men, but when pressed I find a herbalist who will show me a bag of dried fungus which is good for women. Another speciality of the region is a herbal salt which looks like soil.

I pass stalls of herbal soaps, stalls selling Sancheong’s famous dried persimmons, and my favourite, after all the not terribly pleasant-tasting samples I had tried (when does medicine ever taste good?): freshly-squeezed Sancheong strawberry juice. We move on to a stall where students from Jinju university are experimenting with cocktail recipes: now that’s the sort of experimentation I like. Very colourful, and fortunately not too alcoholic.

Herbal cocktails
Herbal cocktails

In another opportunity to experience herbal medicine, visitors are invited to try their hand at chopping various herbs using vicious-looking guillotines. I remember the opening scene of Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, where the central figure is filmed using exactly this implement to chop her herbs. The finger gets closer and closer to the blade, and her attention is distracted. The camera cuts away from the herbs as the viewer waits for the inevitable scream of pain.

Heo Jun musical
The life of Heo Jun is played out on stage

From the main stage the PA system is blasting out the latest single by Girls’ Generation. Meanwhile, on a smaller stage at a corner of the campus, the story of Heo Jun is played out in a mini-musical.

Heo Jun
Heo Jun

In an earlier draft of this diary, I referred to Heo Jun as a “Sancheong local hero”. This presented a slight dilemma to a friend from Sancheong who saw it. Yes, Sancheong is proud to have a special association with Heo, but he is a national hero, not a local one: he is the most prominent medical man the country has produced.

Unfortunately, little information is available on the life of Heo Jun in English. Indeed, reflecting the demographic bias among providers of User Created Content, more web-based information is available about the Korean TV drama which is based on his life than is available on the great man himself. And if a certain ubiquitous web encyclopaedia is not noted for its reliability, other sources, too, sometimes fail to agree on details of his life.

Yoo Ui-tae
Yoo Ui-tae, Heo Jun’s teacher

Heo was born in 1537, or 1539, or 1546, in Yanchun (Gyeonggi-do) or maybe somewhere else. He was the son of his father’s second wife, or maybe a concubine.

Moving on to what is less in doubt, his family was well educated – his two brothers both had good government posts – and Heo himself showed himself gifted in medical studies. He was in no way disadvantaged by not being son of his father’s first wife. His grandparents were based in Gyeongsang province: his grandfather was a provincial official and his grandmother came from Jinju, near Sancheong. It seems that Heo Jun’s early medical studies were conducted in Sancheong with the famous physician Yoo Ui-tae – though again one source queries this.1

Heo became a court physician to King Seonjo (r 1567-1608) and King Gwanghaegun (r 1608-1623) either in 1569 (as a result of a recommendation) or in 1574 (as a result of passing an examination). But despite being a court physician, Heo’s interests lay in making medical treatments more accessible to the commoners.

A facsimile of the Donguibogam at the Sancheong herb museum

Heo Jun is best known for compiling the Donguibogam, the comprehensive herbal medicine text book. The work was commissioned by King Seonjo in the aftermath of the Japanese invasions, when health problems among the populace were widespread. The huge task – the work extends to 25 volumes – was completed in 1610, and therefore King Seonjo did not live to see the end product. Reflecting Heo Jun’s desire to make medical care accessible, the names of the various medicinal herbs are written in Hangeul rather than Chinese script. Since its publication it has sold widely in Japan and China, and it is regarded even today as the definitive work of oriental medicine. It was added to UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” register in 2009. Heo Jun himself died in 1615.

My guide, Mr Min, tells me that there’s a herbal medicine for any disease you care to mention: you do not need Western medicine to heal you. And despite Korea’s impressive modern health system, traditional herbal medicine is growing in popularity. In the last 15 to 20 years, the number of Korean doctors specialising in herbal medicine has grown threefold – from 5,792 in 1990 to 16,732 in 2007. I was later told that the number of students wanting to study herbal medicine at university increased significantly earlier this decade, when a popular TV drama based on the life of Heo Jun was screening.

Giant fungus
This giant sized fungus was on sale for 1 million won

And the medicine on display at Sancheong is definitely herbal. When one thinks of oriental medicine one often thinks of trade in unspeakable body parts of endangered species. I don’t see any bears’ gall bladders, powdered rhino horns or tigers’ penises at Sancheong. This festival seems to be 100% vegetarian.

There are other things to see at the Festival: a nice little exhibition of bonzai trees, information boards, and many different shapes and sizes of ginseng roots in coloured oils: some of them look almost human, like tiny gnarled bodies dancing a waltz.

Inside the herbal medicine museum in Sancheong-gun
Inside the herbal medicine museum in Sancheong-gun

I’m now overloaded with information about the curative properties of herbs and conflicting claims about the life of Korea’s most famous medical man. As it’s getting towards the end of the day we head off into the hills for a change of scene. First, a herb museum where you can browse to your heart’s content and learn what herbs will best suit the balance of your own body.

Herbal medicine factory
Cleaning up at the herbal medicine factory

And then we briefly visit a small herbal medicine factory and clinic. Sancheong’s herbs being the most potent in the country, this pharmacy does a brisk trade. And just in case I hadn’t had enough medicine during the day, I drink down a sachet of green liquid to top up my stamina. I’m going to need it for the 108 prostrations at the temple.

Further reading:

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  1. Wikipedia, in its current version, disputes the connection with Yoo Ui-tae, without quoting sources. The received wisdom (eg, propounded in a paper by No Jung-woo in 1965) is that Yoo Ui-tae is verified as a learned physician in Sancheong at the time of Heo Jun’s childhood, and was his tutor. []

3 thoughts on “2010 Travel Diary #25: Heo Jun and Sancheong’s herbal heritage

  1. A couple of typos:

    In the history of Heo Jun. Assume you mean 1569 rather than 1969. And you mean court physician rather than court physical…

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