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LifestyleHealth and Leisure
Traditional Korean medicineOne of the ‘bones’ of Jeju
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승인 2011.02.24  17:38:48
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▲ Ingredients for Korean herbal medicines on display in the traditional way. Photo by Craig Nagy (

Jeju’s traditional medicine has three branches: shamanism, an indigenous system of folk healing; herbal medicines, of which Jeju is the primary producer in Korea; and Korean traditional medicine, which includes acupuncture, cupping, moxabustion, and other physical modalities.

Korean Traditional Medicine has its foundations in classical Chinese medicine, which developed approximately 5,000 years ago and made its way to Korea in the 6th century C.E., during the Goryeo period. It was likely brought to Jeju six centuries later, soon after the island lost its sovereignty to Korea.

Chinese medicine is based on the Taoist philosophies of the balance of yin and yang and of the five elements, a system of diagnosis and treatment in which five aspects of the natural world correspond to human anatomy, physiology, and emotions. Its aim is one of balance and harmony within the body as well as between humans and the environment.

Korean medicine further developed treatment methods not found in the Chinese system, including a micro-system of hand acupuncture called “Koryo.” Additionally, “Sasang” constitutional medicine, which diagnoses and treats based on four primary temperament types, emerged in the 19th century and is unique to Korea.

Jeju’s herbal medicine, like that of most indigenous societies, evolved much earlier. Numerous plants from earth and sea consumed as foods, teas, extracts, or capsules are used for health purposes; one 2010 study alone identified 299 components in 263 plants.

According to a Jan. 13 KCTV report, Jeju is now Korea’s No.1 producer of medicinal plants, which represent a new growth industry for the island. Annually, 2,600 tons of medicinal plants are produced and are grown here on over 757 hectares. A full 60 percent of the yield is exported to niche markets around the world, the remainder sent to the mainland.

The third, oldest, and most indigenous form of health care on Jeju Island is its shamanic tradition. Shamanism, which has its origins in Eastern Siberia, has long been recognized around the world as not only a religion but also a form of folk medicine for both physical and mental health.

At times labeled as ‘superstitious’ by non-believers, shamanic tradition nevertheless represents a legitimate system of healing to its supplicants. It also meets the definition of ‘folk psychology’ and as such brings comfort to many.

Jeju’s indigenous medicine is thriving. The island’s continuous tradition of shamanism has received recognition as an ‘intangible cultural asset’ and is becoming increasingly known in other countries. As traditional Chinese medicine, particularly in the form of acupuncture, has achieved enormous attention and popularity in the western world, meriting numerous scientific studies, Korea’s version is also widely known. The export of Jeju’s herbal medicine products is engendering a new local industry.

Additionally, one of the core development projects of Jeju’s provincial government, under the auspices of Jeju Development Center, is the Healthcare Town (scheduled to open the first of three programs later this year) in Seogwipo. The focus of its initial program, which includes traditional Korean methods of health care, is wellness.

The complex will also include a research and development facility with three major foci, one of which is bio-medicine. Seogwipo provides a natural setting for the Healthcare Town. Additionally, the city has a history of biomedical research, having had a laboratory for natural medicine at least as far back as the 1940s.

Jeju’s new Bio-Science Park, on the campus of Jeju National University, conducts research on both biodiversity and bio-medicine extracts.

Other aspects of wellness indigenous to Jeju, and thus inherent components of its traditional medicine, include the island's pure mineral water from Mt. Halla, its pristine air quality and meditative natural setting, and its focus on physical activity in numerous forms.

Jeju is paradise for proponents of natural medicine and has kept this tradition well.

Dr. Hilty is a cultural psychologist and former practitioner of traditional East Asian medicine.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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