(15) In Search of A Cure-All

By Yang Sung-jin

As the recent frenzy among Korean men to obtain the US-made anti-impotence drug Viagra shows, the human desire to discover the medicinal means to revitalize one’s health is universal. Unfortunately, not quite so universal is the realization that very few cure-all solutions actually exist.

In the case of Viagra, although this epoch-making pharmaceutical was recently approved for sale in the U.S., a event which prompted wide-spread discussions on matters related to sexuality, the average Korean male had little reason to seek out the drug at all costs.

Contrary to the misguided perception that Viagra is a “super aphrodisiac”, it is actually a medicine for patients with erectile dysfunction.

Searches for medicinal fountains of youth are nothing new, in the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty, 44 articles related to medical prescriptions can be found. Interestingly, one article refers to a medicinal compound reminiscent of Viagra.

In 1452, court official Lee Son-jae filed a report based on a Chinese text to King Tanjong, which classified a total of 365 medicines according to their quality and categorized them into three groups.

The first group listed 120 kinds of medicines which were said to be of superb quality, and whose effectiveness made them ideally suited for use by those having royal status. Lee said that these medicines were in tune with the laws of nature, and thus, while prolonging the life-spans of users, would have no harmful side-effects.

The second group also totaled 120, all having the function of curing diseases and helping the ill to recover, but not quite measuring up to the first group in terms of quality. The third group, amounting to 125 kinds, were said to be effective in curing illnesses, yet they could not be taken for long periods because of their poisonous nature.

Lee then classified “Chonmuntong,” now known as asparagus, as the most incredible cure-all amongst the 120 kinds of medicines in the first group.

According to the article, Chonmuntong was said to taste a little bit sweet was described as having no poison whatsoever. It was touted as preventing rubeola, or extreme dampness. It was also thought to be effective in blocking partial paralysis and killing three kinds of noxious insects.

Furthermore, it was said to be good for those with lung complaints, skin diseases and urinary ailments.

Lee also reported, “I read a prescription written by King Sejong, in which Chonmuntong was said to make humans live forever and boost vitality dramatically. Also, if taken by someone on a long term basis, that person would develop new skin, become smarter and prolong his life span, even to the extent that he would be able to join the ranks of the immortals in heaven. It was said to be good for both sexes, and even a man of 80 years or older who took Chonmuntong, was supposed to be able to sire a boy as his sexual power would never run out, and he would be able to have 100 wives.”

Viagra in Choson

The medicinal powers of Chonmuntong, as described in this article were incredible enough, but there was also a specific prescription explaining how to use the seemingly magical medicine: “Chonmutong grows in a land of high altitude. The root of the herb is most effective around January to May. If steamed, it should be dried in the sunlight. Mix it with liquor and take it after a meal. The more, the better.”

But why did the official hold Chonmuntong in such high regard that he saw fit to report on it to King Tanjong? The truth was that Lee was trying to persuade the king to take it so as to permit him to father a boy baby, and thus maintain the royal lineage.

Yet, King Tanjong was indifferent to this report of a drug, which would likely have caused a sensation in modern Korea. Wonder drug or not, the king did not father a son. Worse, he committed suicide at the age of only 17 after having been denied the throne by his uncle in a bloody coup.

There are a number of other articles on the subject of medical treatments in the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty, not the least of which describes the use by a king of leeches.

King Chungchong (reign: 1506-1544) had long suffered from tumors. In 1533, royal doctors attempted to remove a tumor but had little success. One royal physician, Chang Sun-son, expressed his opinion: “As the tumor forms in the body, the best method to remove the bad blood is to apply a leech.”

Later King Chungchong said, “Chang Sun-son’s advice was right. Lately I’ve tried a lot of different medicines but the tumor has only become worse.

But the leech sucked the bad blood from the tumor and the swollen part became normal. Nonetheless, because the excessive use of the leech may have proved to be bad for my health, I stopped the treatment and put a bandage on it.”

King Chungchong also had problems with his teeth. On May 28, 1539, the king, who was suffering from a toothache, asked his officials’ opinion of his plan to send a Choson doctor to China along with his regular envoys, in order to get a prescription from China which would presumably be better than Choson medicine.

King Chungchong had to live with other diseases as if they were his shadow. According to records dated in 1544, the king had difficulty in discharging urine and feces. Royal doctors wrote a prescription suggesting the use of castor oil, which turned out to be effective and is used to this day by sufferers of chronic constipation.

Another interesting fact about the Choson Dynasty in connection with general health was there use of saunas. While today’s businessmen frequent the sauna in order to relax and relieve the stress of everyday urban life, people in the Choson period used the sauna mainly as a place to recuperate.

Lethal Sauna

In a record dated in 1422, King Sejong remarked on a deplorable phenomenon in which patients died of heat exhaustion as a result of their ignorance about the extreme heat-emissions of saunas.
He wrote that, “Deaths in saunas are on the rise. Investigate the effectiveness of saunas, and if they turn out to be harmful, abolish them. If saunas help patients overcome diseases, have doctors stand vigilant at their sides every day,” King Sejong ordered.

In October of the same year, incidents of death continued to occur in saunas despite the king’s warning. A government investigation revealed that monks were on duty, taking care of the saunas, yet were failing to decide who should use the steamy facilities, which led to the deaths. Another article confirms that some monks were assigned to night-shift duty at the sauna in Seoul and were exempted from military service in return.

Yet, monk-supervised saunas were rather unusual treatments. The most frequently mentioned medical treatment in the Choson Annals is “Chongsimhwan,” a pill used for preventing heart attacks and other “serious” life-threatening illnesses.

Now that Chongsimhwan is mass produced by a number of domestic pharmaceutical companies, nobody would think of the gold-plated pill as a cure-all. But the tiny pill was extremely popular at the time, not only among commoners but also among high-ranking officials.

The Choson kings also favored the Chongsimhwan. The Annals show that in 1401, King Taejong recommended a dose of Chongsimhwan to a person injured by a kicking horse. Furthermore, when King Sonjo lost consciousness in 1607, royal doctors used Chongsimhwan in the effort to save his life.

And King Munjong’s death also involved this pill. On May 14, 1452, King Munjong’s health was in critical condition, yet the royal doctors thought it was not that severe. It was only at the highly critical moment when the doctors realized the seriousness of the king’s disease, that they rushed to use Chongsimhwan, but they were too late to prevent his demise.

Chongsimhwan was also the item most favored by foreign envoys to Korea. The Japanese never failed to demand a certain amount of Chongsimhwan as a gift from the Choson. According to a document dated in 1810, the pill was included in a list of the essential items which Choson envoys to Japan were instructed to bring back with them.

Even Ching Dynasty diplomats were eager to get the pill, even going so far as to prefer to gifts of apparently much higher value, a fact which further suggests the high quality of this Choson remedy.

Those in the past, it seems, held the position that an effective medicine is worth crossing even borders and seas to obtain — a sentiment which seems to be shared by Viagra-hungry consumers in modern Korea.