What Is Korean Medicine?

Mark Wollacott

Korean medicine is a form of Asian medicine related to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It is native to both North and South Korea. As with TCM, it is a holistic approach that seeks to treat the entire body, spirit included, rather than following Western tradition in focusing solely on the problem.

Some mosses are used as herbal treatments in Korean medicine.
Some mosses are used as herbal treatments in Korean medicine.

The history of Korean medicine is longer than the region’s history. Archaeological digs have unearthed bone and stone needles, suggesting prehistoric acupuncture. Much of modern Korean health care originates from its native shamanism and from China’s influence. Two regional centers for its development were Jeju Island to the south and the peninsula’s northwest region, which now borders China.

Korean acupuncture uses 60 pressure points.
Korean acupuncture uses 60 pressure points.

Early historical evidence for the development of Korean medicine include Yi Seung-Hyu’s poem, ‘Jewang Ungi.’ Between the poem and the 15th century, China’s influence grew. Kim Ye-mong spent three years between 1443 and 1445 gathering thousands of medicinal prescriptions from across the kingdom. Developments continued through the centuries up until Japan’s occupation of the nation in 1910.

Yi Je-ma came to the realization that different patients would require different treatments for the same ailment. He called this idea the metabolism theory. At the heart of Yi’s theory is the idea that all humans are different and it is wrong to assume the same treatment works on everyone. He believed this was due to how the body’s metabolism reacted to the medicines presented to it.

Korean medicine is divided into five broad holistic therapies. These are herbal medicine, acupuncture, moxibustion and medication. The latter is a key part of Jeju shamanism and local folk-psychology. All remedies are in line with TCM treatment concepts concerning the whole body and the soul.

Herbal remedies used in Korean medicine are produced from various natural elements, from moss to lichen via trees, plants and fungi. What ingredients are used and how they are applied depend on the core problem. These can be eaten, drunk or used as a suppository. They can also be blended into an ointment or cream and applied to the affected area directly or indirectly using a compress or poultice. Ingredients such as ginseng, garlic, onions and pepper are seen as crucial elements of a healthy lifestyle as well as folk-remedies.

Acupuncture and moxibustion are interconnected disciplines. Korean medicine has a different style of acupuncture than China. Developed by Sa-am, Korean acupuncture focuses on just 60 pressure points instead of TCM’s 360. Muxibustion involves the application of a warm stick of mugwort being applied to the affected area. Acupuncture and muxibustion are usually used concurrently.

Meditation is most connected to Korea’s ancient religions, many of which are still active in the modern era. Jeju shamanism focuses on the well-being of the human soul. Korean medicine believes meditation is good for calming the mind and the body, thus reducing blood pressure and stress.

The Korean medicine tradition emphasizes the importance of relaxing and reinvigorating meditative practices.
The Korean medicine tradition emphasizes the importance of relaxing and reinvigorating meditative practices.

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Discussion Comments


I studied so called Korean medicine (I'm Korean) at one of the 11-12 universities in Korea. I can tell you it's a pseudoscience.

We memorize ancient Chinese texts, memorize Chinese meridians that don't even exit and so forth. It's just a pathetic pseudoscience, full stop.

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