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Click Into the Hermit Kingdom (16)

Choson Kings Well Versed in Medical Treatments


By Yang Sung-jin


Since The New York Times reported earlier this month on a new anticancer drug known as "anti-angiogenesis,'' the world media has hopped on the binge babbling about the breakthrough, whose clinical effectiveness has yet to be tested in the years to come. The ardent attention being paid to the cancer cure is understandable: cancer is one of the most lethal diseases on earth with virtually no dependable treatments.


During the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), the most dreaded illness was not cancer, but infectious diseases of unknown causes. As expected, once a contagious disease broke out, its effect upon the nation was devastating. 


Even the king and his aides would evacuate the royal palace temporarily to avoid any fatal infection.


One of the Choson kings who paid the utmost attention to taming infectious diseases is King Sejong (reign: 1418-1450). As a pestilence hit the nation, King Sejong ordered prescriptions and medicines to be distributed in each region on May 1, 1419.


"Many people will die unless the officials of each province make efforts to save those infected with pestilence now spreading. Therefore, I will give out medicines, with which officials are urged to help the patients,'' the fourth king of the Choson Dynasty announced.


Another record dated in 1424 also shows that King Sejong was highly concerned about infectious diseases. "Although each province is now suffering from pestilence, local administrators are said to be lazy in saving people. I ask them to make medicines for the people and I also order medical students to treat the patients whenever required. In addition, let the shamans frequent the infected site and take care of the patients,'' King Sejong said.


For all the king's compassionate instructions, things seemed to remain unchanged. In 1434, King Sejong went on to ask the Ministry of Rites to publicize the prescriptions against diseases in a bid to prevent people from dying out of ignorance.


Those prescriptions, developed by King Sejong and royal doctors, include some components that would make people today twitch and shudder. 


A concoction called "Sunghaebang,'' which was used to treat influenza and pneumonia, required three spoonfuls of child's urine and as much yellowish mud under the house floor.


Another treatment is a mixture of water and insect feces. Particularly, only the insects inside a peach tree were believed to be effective, the document of the Annals specifies.


Prescription Exotica


King Sejong is said to be a renaissance man since his scholarly interest ranged from linguistics to philosophy to history. Also, King Sejong was well versed in medical treatment and theory, which he acquired through continued studies and extensive reading in an effort to cure his younger brother, Prince Sungnyong, who had long suffered from diseases.


The Annals state that King Sejong, then the Crown Prince, attended on Prince Sungnyong day and night, while reading numerous books on medicine in the hope of finding a cure for his younger brother. Despite King Sejong's desperate efforts, Prince Sungnyong, who was the darling of the royal family, died at the age of 14.


King Sejong himself was not free from diseases. Even before ascending to the throne, King Sejong studied hard, often too hard, disregarding his health. While in office, he almost never rested, busying himself with all sorts of state affairs. The result was bouts with recurrent illnesses.


To cure the king's illness, a respectable Chinese doctor named Hayang was invited in 1425. After a checkup on the king, Hayang diagnosed the illness as follows: "The king's upper body is well and good, but his lower part is weak, largely due to the mental stress and overwork.''


King Sejo (reign: 1455-1468) also suffered a lot from diseases, especially after he took the throne by a coup. Unofficial history has it that his disease-ridden life was due to the malignant spirit that haunted the palace after the death of King Tanjong, the ill-fated monarch killed by King Sejo.


Though the rumor about the malignant spirit could be false, it is a solid fact that King Sejo acquired a high level of medical knowledge in the course of enduring numerous diseases himself. According to the record dated on Nov. 17, 1457, the king lectured royal doctors on medical books. 


In the same month, King Sejo expressed his desire to share his medical learning with other officials two times a month.


In late 1463, King Sejo wrote himself a book, titled "Medical Theory,'' and ordered its distribution across the nation. In this book, King Sejo argued that the essence of treating diseases is to capture a critical moment while considering the constantly changing conditions in the patient's body.


Another Choson king whose medical knowledge went far beyond the amateur level was King Chongjo (reign: 1776-1800). The process in which King Chongjo came to excel in medicine is similar to that of King Sejong, with only a slight difference. King Chongjo studied a wide range of medical texts in the course of taking care of his grandfather (King Yongjo), who had long suffered from diseases.


King Chongjo himself endured prolonged pain from recurrent boils. An article of 1793, in which King Chongjo talked about his health and the nagging boils, sheds light on the depths of medical knowledge he had. The king states, "Boils and body swelling got worse yesterday. Neither washing nor applying medicine was effective. As a result, the bad elements are spreading upward in my body. The human face is a center for all the yang ki (positive force) and that is why my left eye is hot and sore, also affecting my left earlobe and eyelashes. Consult the royal doctors as to whether acupuncture should be used for this.''


There's another article showing that King Chongjo diagnosed his own illness based upon his medical knowledge on June 25, 1800. However, he died of aggravated boils and tumors three days later.


Classified Doctors


In the "Medical Theory'' written by King Sejo, there is an interesting passage which classifies doctors into eight different levels in terms of qualification and aptitude.


The foremost on the list is a doctor who can comfort the heart of a patient: "He should be able to make the patient comfortable all the time. Even at a time of crisis, he must not do any harm to a patient, while giving what he wants. Peaceful mind generally leads to peaceful spirit. Therefore, a doctor of this level should be able to wake up as if nothing happened even after drinking with a patient.''


The second level doctor is a person who uses food in curing an illness, the article of the Annals shows. Those who excessively restrict the diet of patients cannot belong to this level. 


Doctors in the third level simply write prescriptions according to the medical text, particularly in emergencies.


In the fourth level, it is the doctor himself who panics when things become urgent. He does not know what he has done to the patient. 


A fifth-level doctor is a reckless doctor who never hesitates to treat patients when there is no one else to aid and observe.The sixth is much worse, since this level is applied to a doctor, if he can be called such, who enjoys talking about a disease with an incurable patient, which goes against the ethics of a doctor.


One step lower is a person who wants to be a doctor, yet has no knowledge of medicine.


The lowest level is reserved for charlatans, who are clever, yet lacking medical knowledge. This kind of person shows no compassion whatsoever to the patient, but brags about his petty medical skills, in disregard of the value of human life.


As with the Choson Dynasty, today the first-class doctor as defined in the Annals is now much sought after -- a real doctor who can soothe the troubled heart of desperate cancer patients who have volunteered for the clinical test of "anti-angiogenesis'' at their own risk.


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