The Donguibogam is a medical encyclopedia written by Heo Jun (1539-1615), a royal physician and renowned doctor, in the 16th to 17th century. People often say there has been no traditional Korean medicine (TKM) doctor greater than him since. The encyclopedia was registered at UNESCO as part of the ‘Memory of the World’ register in 20091. Significantly, the Donguibogam is the first medical textbook thus registered.
What makes the encyclopedia so special is, first, that this book was a national project to write a user-friendly medical textbook with herbal medicines which are easy to obtain, and treatments which are easy to perform, satisfying the requirements of the age: King Seonjo commissioned Heo Jun to compile Donguibogam in 1596 and a number of royal physicians and scholars participated in the project. However, because of the Japanese invasion at 1597 (the Jungyu War), Heo Jun completed the book by himself in 1610. It was finally published 3 years later in 1613.
Second, Donguibogam is an internationally used medical book. It was reprinted over 40 times and widely used in China and Japan, even spreading to Vietnam. When Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Korea on 24 November 1995, he gave a speech in the Korean House of Parliament, where he mentioned Donguibogam as an example of the good relationship between Korea and China over 2000 years.
Last but not least, Donguibogam contains a unique idea which can represent the idea underlying the whole of Korean culture. Donguibogam focuses on prevention, whereas other medical books of that period all emphasized treatment. Also, Donguibogam draws attentions to the mind of the patients as well as to the diseases themselves. The concepts found in Donguibogam originated from Seondo, a traditional Korean way of living2. The ultimate goal of Seondo is to be a Doin or Sinseon, someone who can live forever by accumulating Jung, Ki, and Sin inside the body. Jung, Ki, and Sin can be translated as healthy body energy, healthy mind energy, and healthy spirit energy, respectively. Seondo developed many methods – such as healthy eating, meditation, exercises and even mind control – in order to achieve the rather impossible goal. Donguibogam focuses on Jung, Ki, and Sin while Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) books focuses on Yin and Yang, and it well described the spirit of TKM which came from the oldest Korean history of Dangun.
Even though Donguibogam was the greatest medical textbook in the 17th century, would it still be compatible in the 21st century? I would say yes. In fact, it is still widely used in practice in Korea as well as in China and other Asian countries. In Korea, you can also find numerous products (such as drinks, food, cosmetics and even shampoos) that contain traditional herbs, and most of them follow Donguibogam. Most importantly, the concepts of Donguibogam, to focus on prevention before developing a disease; and to emphasize healthy mind in treating diseases, will remain for long, maybe for good.
- The full document can be found at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/register/full-list-of-registered-heritage/registered-heritage-page-2/donguibogam-principles-and-practice-of-eastern-medicine/ [Accessed on 30th August, 2011]
- One of the authors of Donguibogam was Jung Jak, a student of Park Jihwa. And Park Jihwa was a student of one of the most famous Seondo practitioners ever, named Seo Kyungduk. It is likely that Heo Jun was highly influenced by Park Jihwa, and Heo Jun himself had a deep understanding of Seondo. Further reading: http://shindonga.donga.com/docs/magazine/shin/2008/12/02/200812020500029/200812020500029_1.html.