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What is the Donguibogam and what is in it?

Koreans usually have two choices when they have to visit a clinic: one is a medical clinic, employing western medicine for treatment; and the other is a traditional clinic, employing traditional medicine. There are many obvious differences between the two types, mainly concerning methods of diagnosis and treatment. Most importantly, the traditional medical clinic has been functioning in Korea for more than 1500 years. Many books, documents and artifacts present the historical flow of traditional medicine. Among them, Donguibogam is considered the most important book in the history of Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM).

In 2009, UNESCO designated Donguibogam as part of the Memory of the World; a first in the field of medical books, even though there are numerous classics in China. Donguibogam literally means “Treasured Paragon of Eastern Medicine”, and UNESCO described it as an “encyclopedic bible of medical knowledge of treatment techniques compiled in Korea”.

The 25 volumes of the Donguibogam
The 25 volumes of the Donguibogam

Donguibogam is composed of 25 volumes and was mostly written by Heo Jun (1546-1615), a royal physician of King Seonjo and his son, Gwanghaegun. At first, Heo Jun and other court physicians were commissioned by King Seonjo to compile all the medical knowledge of Korea and China, when public health was a pressing issue as a result of the first Japanese invasion (1592-1598) of the Imjin War. The work ceased for a while because of the second invasion (1597). Afterwards, Heo carried out the rest of the work on his own. By the time he finally completed it in 1610, it had taken 14 years from its original commissioning date of 1596; and it was not physically published until 1613.

Donguibogam, thanks to Heo’s effort, included a great amount of both theory and knowledge in medicine as well as combining cultural and philosophical background into TKM. Also, it shows the unique features of TKM, which is distinct from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). However, the most valuable element is the contents of Donguibogam:

1. Naegyeong (내경) Chapter: Overview of the Inner Body

This leading chapter explains what make up the body and how it works physiologically or pathologically. Heo edited the medical concepts of the body creatively, individually from TCM theory, which established the difference between the two Eastern Medicines. He arranged the concepts from the inside to the outside of the body, whereas most TCM books did conversely. This implies that Heo focused more on the inner aspects of the body which are the basic concepts of TKM.

2. Oehyeong (외형) Chapter: External Appearance

While the first chapter describes the inner parts of the body, this chapter describes the outer part. This contains a description of the whole body from head to toe, and also explains the disease and treatment of outer parts through an original view.

3. Japbyeong (잡병) Chapter: Various diseases

This chapter explains how doctors should diagnose disease and other diseases not included in the previous chapters. It contains fundamental methods of diagnosis as well as treatments, therefore, it was common for this kind of chapter to be at the opening of the book in TCM. However, Heo put this chapter behind the Naegyeong and Oehyeong Chapter to emphasize more on the physiological and pathological understanding of the body.

Some of the herbs used in Traditional Korean Medicine
Some of the herbs used in Traditional Korean Medicine

4. Tang-aek (탕액) Chapter: Liquid Medication

Herbal medicines are the principal concerns of this chapter. Theories and understanding about herbs for treatment, such as when we can obtain seasonal herbs and how to process them properly as well as the methods of prescription and usages, are explained in this chapter.

5. Chimgu (침구) Chapter: Acupuncture and Moxibustion

This chapter is about acupuncture and moxibustion treatments which are significant when dealing with diseases in TKM. Acupuncture treatments use physical stimulus by inserting needles, while moxibustion treatments generate heat by burning moxa (mugwort herb) to obtain therapeutic effects. Eastern Medicine has accumulated a large number of theories about acupuncture and moxibustion and that are reflected in this chapter.

Even though it has been 400 years since Heo Jun wrote Donguibogam, it still takes a prominent place in modern TKM. Also, it provides fresh ideas to modern science and Western Medicine. It is unfortunate that Donguibogam had not yet been translated into English, but it will be from next year (2012). This may lead to positive consequences for both traditional Medicine and modern Western Medicine and to people who suffer from various diseases.

Donguibogam is registered by the Cultural Heritage Administration as Treasure No.1085


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