400th Anniversary of the Donguibogam, the Book that Heals the World
400th Anniversary of the Donguibogam, the Book that Heals the World
  • By Yeon Choul-woong (bruceyeon@koreaittimes.com)
  • 승인 2011.12.01 12:05
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Donguibogam, a famous medical book in Joseon Dynasty and Heo Jun (in the picture left), the chief writer of Donguibogam.

SEOUL, KOREA — “Simeui” means a doctor who heals people’s hearts. This word impressed people who saw the Korean drama series “Heo Jun.” This is what the famous doctor, Heo's teacher, Ryu Eui-tae, which is also famous doctor, emphasized to Heo Jun from his deathbed. Heo has been evaluated as the greatest doctor of the Joeson Dynasty and he is known as the author of the famous medical text, the Donguibogam.

In the drama series Ryu told Heo, “Even if a doctor heals all diseases in the world, a more important point is to take pity on patients regardless of their appearances. Become a doctor who heals not only people’s physical diseases but also their heart.” In the series, Heo focuses on treating ordinary people rather than on living in comfortable circumstances. Heo spares no pains to transport water from a remote mountain valley in order to obtain water suitable to be used to boil down medical herbs for his patients. During his entire life, Heo strived to be a humane doctor.

In 1613, Heo Jun compiled and edited an encyclopaedia of medical knowledge and treatment techniques with the collective support of medical experts which describes the evolution of medicine in East Asia and beyond. In terms of the health care system, it developed the ideals of preventive medicine and public health care by the state, which was virtually an unprecedented idea up to the19th century.  

Heo’s historic medical book was designated as a UNESCO world cultural heritage in 2009. In addition, on October 31, the 36th UNESCO General Assembly designated 2013 as a special UNESCO year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Donguibogam. This is in recognition of the books contribution to the development to the world’s medical culture and its usefulness to traditional Korean medical doctors currently practicing. UNESCO has commemorated valuable books every two years since 2004.  

Among Korean cultural treasures, the Donguibogam is the first to be selected as a theme for the UNESCO’s special year program.


Up to the present, “The Diary of Anne Frank’" and others have been selected to be commemorative UNESCO years. This kudos to “Donguibogam” will enable the book to publicize itself to the world through the UNESCO, events related to the special year, books, magazines, documentaries related to world-class cultural heritages.

Dr. Ahn Sang-woo, a director of the Global Donguibogam Center


Donguibogam, an International Bestseller in the 1600s.  

Dr. Ahn, a director of the Global Donguibogam Center (center)  delivering a congratulatory message at the gala show held before the Donguibogam Special Exhibition. Park Heung-shin, Korean ambassador to France (left)  and the mayor of Toulouse (right).

The Global Donguibogam Center is the driving force behind the designation of “Donguibogam” as a theme for the commemorative UNESCO year. “I think that ’Donguibogam’ is a book which contains the essence of the medical science of East Asia in the 1600s,” said Dr. Ahn Snag-woo, a director of the center. Dr. Ahn went from being an Oriental medical doctor to an Oriental medical scholar.  “ The Donguibogam’ combines traditional medicine handed down from generation to generation since the Three Kingdom Era of Korea which was the most advanced medicine at that time,” Dr. Ahn said. “The book even has value and wisdom that can benefit man kind even today.”    

“At that time, the popularity of the Donguibogam’ was so huge that the Chinese emperor read the book to enhance his health. The number of woodblock-printed editions of the book in Japan was higher than in Korea. This means the book was an international bestseller,” Dr. Ahn added.  The name value and popularity of the Donguibogam at that time was stronger than that of the Korean cultural wave today.  

“Do not consider Traditional Korean medicine outdated medicine,” Dr. Ahn said definitely. “The system and interpretation of Traditional Korean medicine through the Donguibogam’ was used as an international standard in the 17th century,” Dr.  Ahn emphasized. “The originality and excellence of the Donguibogam made it possible for UNESCO to pick the book as a theme for its special year program. 

But the Donguibogam was not written all of a sudden in the Oriental medical sector. The 365-volume Eui-bang Yu-chi and the 85-volume Hangyak Jip Seong-bang were written about 150 years ahead of it during the King Sejong Period and laid the foundation for the birth of the Donguibogam. It is understood as a comprehensive medical encyclopedia covering basic medical knowledge, diagnostic methods, differentiation, acupuncture and hypogastric breathing.  


Dr. Ahn is explaining to employees of the National Toulouse Library about the Donguibogam and traditional Korean medicine before the Donguibogam Special Exhibition.

Traditional Korean medicine starts from a viewpoint that regards a human body as a universe.

The basis of traditional Korean medicine is to understand a human body as a universe and treat diseases by harmonizing nature and the individual. Korean ancestors thought that human beings had natural healing power.  They thought that the occurrence and treatment of diseases were affected by people’s life patterns and mindset and various environmental elements such as herbs, soil, water, and climate. Therefore, traditional Korean medicine has environmental, emotional, and physical elements.

This point is a big difference between western and traditional Eastern theories of medicine.

In traditional Korean medicine, a proper lifestyle and mindset are a way to prevent a disease from occurring. “I could have strong confidence about Korean culture while participating in “The 2011 Toulouse Made in Asia”  event held in France in February,” Dr. Ahn emphasized. “Western participants were surprised to know that the Donguibogam, which was written 400 years ago, mentions that environmental and psychological elements have a big impact on the health of humankind.”

French audiences in a seminar in the 2011 Toulouse Made in Asia on the Donguibogam and traditional Korean medicine.

Traditional Korean medicine and Traditional Chinese medicine are different.

Many non-Korean people put traditional Korean medicine and traditional Chinese medicine in the same class or do not know that traditional Korean medicine has a unique history. “The Koreans have used this traditional medicine for thousands of years,” Ahn responded to a question on how to explain traditional Korean medicine to non-Koreans. “It is as obvious as the fact that the Koreans speak not Chinese but Korean.”       


“Traditional Korean medicine and traditional Chinese medicine have not interacted with each other and have taken different paths since China introduced socialism.”

“Different from traditional Korean medicine, Chinese traditional medicine lacks spirit,” said Dr. James Flowers who is studying traditional Korean medicine at Wonkwang University for his love of traditional Korean medicine.  According to Dr. Flowers, Essence, Gi and Spirit are key words that represent the traditional medicine of East Asia. Among them, Spirit distinguishes people from animals and plants.

This means China which adopted socialism created traditional Chinese medicine excluding Spirit in accordance with a materialistic way of thinking. In fact, students of traditional Chinese medicine study traditional Chinese medicine and western medicine fifty-fifty.

Modern Chinese medicine is trying to transplant traditional medicine from ethnic Koreans in China itself. In fact, the Chinese government has registered traditional medicine from ethnic Koreans in China as an intangible asset of Liaoning as part of its research program on Northeast Asia, which claims historical sovereignty over Goguryeo, an ancient Korean kingdom. At the same time, the Chinese government is accepting the characteristics of Sasang constitutional medicine. Sasang constitutional medicine is a traditional Korean medical theory by doctor Lee Je-ma during the King Gojong era, 205 years after “Donguibogam” came out.  

The UNESCO’s choice of “Donguibogam” will spur the globalization of Traditional Korean Medicine.

"I want to share the essence of Korea's medical tradition and culture, which is thousands of years old and collected in the Donguibogam with people around the world,” Dr. Ahn said. “Traditional Korean medicine is easily accepted to the world as it was delivered to western regions such as Europe through many different routes. A pulse-checking method was transferred to Germany and Germans developed an electric pulse detector. Korean acupuncture was transferred to France by the Japanese after the Japanese imported it after the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592, Dr. Ahn explained. So acupuncture is no stranger to people in France, Dr. Ahn said.     


“I want people around the world to know about the excellence of traditional Korean medicine as soon as possible, receive treatment by traditional Korean medicine and recover,” Dr. Ahn said. “Moreover, I hope that the excellence of the Korean culture and traditional Korean medicine will be enhanced and people will know Korea is a new economic power with a long tradition.”

To this end, the Global Donguibogam Center has mapped out a plan to hold the ICOM (International Congress of Oriental Medicine) with other international academic meetings next year, one year before the 2013 Sancheong EXPO.

The center is planning to hold the ICTAM or Eighth Congress on Traditional Asian Medicine as the opening event for the 2013 Sancheong EXPO which will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Donguibogam.  The center will establish an office for the ICTMA while Dr. James Flowers will take the job of the General Secretary. 

The Global Donguibogam Center

The Center(www.dongui400.or.kr) is a project of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. The Traditional Korean Medicine Research Center is carrying out this project. The research center has been distributing the English version of Donguibogam to organizations and universities around the world since 2008.   

This center is devoted to conducting research on various books written by Heo and publishing the results of the research in the form of books and even translating them into English. The Global Donguibogam Center succeeded in listing the Donguibogam on UNESCO for the seventh time as a Korean cultural heritage and for the first time in the world as a specialized medical book.   

The Global Donguibogam Center has been carrying out a wide array of international activities since getting the Donguibogam on the UNESCO list. The center took part in the International Book Exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany. The 2011 Toulouse Made in Asia held an academic seminar on the 400th anniversary of the Donguibogam in 2010.   

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