(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.


(14) Facts and Faulty Myth About Kobukson

By Yang Sung-jin

Last week, numerous events and ceremonies were held across the nation to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598), one of Korea’s most respected military heroes. Yi was born on April 28th.

Admiral Yi is widely admired by the Korean people because he defeated the Japanese forces in the 1592-98 Hideyoshi Invasion. Furthermore, most Koreans are proud of the historical fact that Admiral Yi invented the iron-clad fighting battleship named “kobukson” (turtle ship in Korean), which greatly helped beat off the Japanese naval forces during the war.

But there is a faulty myth behind the worship of Admiral Yi, even though he certainly deserves respect. In particular, the kobukson is at the center of myth-making by historians.

When asked on how many kobuksons might have existed around the Hideyoshi Invasion, ordinary Koreans are likely to put the figure around dozens or more.

But, only three kobuksons were assembled and employed for the actual sea battles against the Japanese. Even this figure is not entirely rock-solid.

Some historians argue the Choson naval force had at least five kobuksons at that time.

Another fact to remember is that the kobukson, or at least its prototype can be found in documents far earlier than the Japanese invasion of the late 16th century.

In the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty, the first ever reference to the word “kobukson” is found in an article dated Feb. 5, 1413.

King Taejong, then passing by Imjin Island, was reported to have watched a mock battle between a kobukson and an imitation of a Japanese battleship.

Also, in 1415, official Tak Shin reported to the king that the turtle ship should be developed further because it is almost indestructible from collision with enemy’s ships.

Some scholars go so far as to put the origin of the kobukon around the late period of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), as part of a bid to counterattack the Japanese seaborne marauders who pillaged the seashore villages of the Korean peninsula.

Most troubling is the lack of credible historical documents, which has long intensified disputes over the origin and actual look of the kobukson, providing little academic foundation to authentically restore the iron-clad battleship.

The most authoritative record about the kobukson to date is an article of the Choson Annals dated on May 1, 1592. The document reveals that Admiral Yi made the kobukson in the course of building up the military force.

According to the document, the kobukson was covered with thick wood blocks, with the cross-shaped narrow paths grooved on top. In the space between the paths stood sharp swords and pikes. These life-threatening weapons were camouflaged with a sheet or grass so that the enemy could mistakenly jump on the cover to death.

The ship also bore the head of the dragon, the legendary creature of Asian culture, through which a cannon fired. Moreover, six cannons were installed on each side of the ship, while the soldiers could hide behind the sturdy shield with utmost safety. The tail of the ship was equipped with a firearm, as well.

The speed of the kobukson seemed fairly quicker than other ships. The same document states, “The kobukson dashed into battle at will, destroying enemy ships as if the wind tossed them upside down.”

Historical Prediction

Admiral Yi started developing a new type of kobukson as soon as he was appointed as left naval station commander of the Cholla province in 1951, just one year before the devastating war broke out.

According to the diary written in 1952 by Admiral Yi himself, he received hemp clothes for the kobuskon on Feb. 8 and tested the firearms on the new battleship on March 27.

Coincidence or not, Admiral Yi conducted the final test of other cannons using the kobuskon on April 12, completing the kobukson project. And the very next day, the 200,000 strong Japanese army aboard 700 battleships across the sea moved in to attack the Choson Dynasty.

It was about two months after the breakout of the war that the kobukson went out to the sea near Tangpo to confront the Japanese naval force for the first time. In the sea battle directed by Admiral Yi, the kobukson proved its strategic power, spearheading the historical victory of the Choson naval force, while crushing some 30 Japanese battleships.

But why was the kobukson so effective in gaining the upper hand in the sea battle over the Japanese forces? First of all, the structure of the kobukson covered with the lethal pikes and swords on top prevented the Japanese army from moving too close, which led to the Choson’s victory in the end.

At the time, the Japanese army was superior at hand-to-hand fighting through numerous battles during the 100-year-long Japanese internal war known as the “Warring States Period.” Such tactics were also applied to the sea battle: the Japanese soldiers jumped on the deck of the enemy ships and began the deadly hand-to-hand fighting.

Furthermore, it was the highest honor to be designated as the first person allowed to jump on the enemy ship.

But when it came to the kobukson, the honorable jumping meant an immediate death.

Even scarier was the incredible speed of the kobukson hitting and scuttling the Japanese ships. The secret of the nimble movement lied in the flat bottom of the main body in contrast to more streamlined boats. As a result, the kobukson was able to gyrate freely.

More importantly, the firearms equipped on the kobukson were far more sophisticated and powerful that those of the Japanese naval force. With the Choson soldiers invisible behind the shield, the kobukson launched its deadly attack on the Japanese army, who were extremely scared, thinking that the fire-spouting kobukson was a sea monster.

Deadly Sea Monster

The strange appearance and destructive charging of the kobukson did much to deal a blow, both psychological and real, to the Japanese army. A Japanese soldier named Soto Oka dubbed the kobukson as a “blind boat,” suggesting its indiscriminate collision with the Japanese battleships.

Interestingly, once the Japanese naval forces came to know the kobukson better, they ran away as soon as spotting it, calculating there was no possibility in winning a battle. Unlike the widespread perception that the kobukson was utilized throughout the war, it was not used at all when the Japanese mounted another large-scale attack on the Choson in 1598. It seems the Choson naval forces also knew the kobukson lost its strategic edge against the escaping Japanese.

Another mistaken notion to be cleared up is that the kobukson was an iron-clad battleship, the first ever invention of its kind in world history. And while it still may be, historians admit the possibility that the kobukson’s cover shield could have been made of material other than iron.

There is a 17th century painting preserved in the Korea Naval Academy Museum, depicting the appearance of the iron-clad kobukson with a highly realistic touch. The painting, however, cannot be used as evidence for the existence of the iron-clad turtle ship because it greatly differs from the drawings of the kobukson in the 1795 compilation of Admiral Yi’s writings and related materials, which do not mention iron in explaining the kobukson.

Yet, there is a word meaning iron-clad armor related to the kobukson in an official letter written in 1748 by Yi Un-sup, then left naval force commander of Kyongsang province. The letter was designed to call for the construction of more kobuksons in order to replace conventional battleships.

“Although Admiral Yi’s kobukson draws keen interest from scholars, existing documents and materials are far short of public expectations. The problem is that scholars have been slow to conduct a scientific study of the kobukson, fearing it might undermine national pride and fantasy around the turtle ship,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.


(13) Korea Marks 400th Anniversary of Death of Adm. Yi Sun-shin

By Yang Sung-jin

Last week, the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin in Sejongno, downtown Seoul, was washed with specially treated soap and water, drawing onlookers on the sidewalk. The annual washing ceremony is to preserve this image of the national hero, who was born on April 28, 1545 — which happens to be today.

This year also marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Admiral Yi, who was killed by a stray bullet in the naval battle which concluded the devastating seven-year-long war against the Japanese (1592-98).

The admiration of the Choson admiral is universal in Korea. Yi’s poems, showcasing his unparalleled allegiance to the country, are still taught to middle and high school students. To commemorate Admiral Yi’s dedication to safeguarding the nation, various events and ceremonies are planned for the anniversary.

It should be noted that the widespread admiration for Admiral Yi, almost to the level of worship now, is partly due to the heightened nationalism which characterized the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945). Historians such as Shin Chae-ho wrote biographies of Yi in order to offer hope to Koreans suffering from the merciless rule of imperialist Japanese forces.

Another contributing factor was the hero-making by former president Park Chung-hee. In the 1970’s, Park ordered a large-scale renovation of Yi’s shrine in Asan, Chungchong-namdo, in a bid to orchestrate a national cult of worship for him. This is now viewed as a move aimed at justifying Park’s military dictatorial rule by idealizing a fellow military hero.

Of course, all of this does not change the fact that Admiral Yi was, indeed, a great military leader, who saved a nation on the verge of the total destruction at the hands of longtime enemy, Japan.

All records of Admiral Yi are well-preserved in the CD-ROM “Annals of the Choson Dynasty.” There are a total of 178 articles related to Yi therein.

“The Annals of the Choson Dynasty does not mention Yi as many times as people today imagine it does,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

But considering that Yi was a military officer — a class deemed inferior to the literati — the number of articles clearly suggests Yi was viewed and recorded with special attention by the Choson historiographers, Lee added.

Untrodden Path

Yi was born in Seoul to a family whose members traditionally served as a civil officials. The reason that Yi chose a contradictory path is, at best, guesswork. The predominant opinion now is that his family, then in decline, was unable to afford the fees necessary to send their four sons to take the state examination for the civil service.

Furthermore, Yi showed an aptitude for the military: he was good at archery and horseback-riding.

Nevertheless, Yi fell off his horse during the National Examination at the age of 28 and broke his left leg, failing the exam. In 1576, he tried again and this time passed it at the age of 32, starting his career at the lowest rank in the military.

Ten years later, Yi was involved in an incident, which marks the first official record about Yi in the entire Annals of the Choson Dynasty. To the reader’s dismay, especially those who harbor unwavering admiration for him, the first article mentioning Yi was not about a heroic act, but about his negligence of duty.

The article, dated Oct. 10, 1587, states that officials Lee Kyong-rok and Yi Sun-shin were arrested on charges of failing to defend a fortress against the Turchin’s sudden attack, killing 10 Choson people and taking 106 Koreans as hostage.

The truth of the matter is that Yi called for reinforcements from the central government, seeing the possibility of an attack from the northern barbarians, only to be flatly rejected.

Yi was discharged from the military because of the incident and was only reinstated later as a soldier without rank.

With the help of his childhood friend and then high-ranking official Yu Song-ryong, Yi climbed the ladder and was appointed as left naval station commander of Cholla province in 1591.

As soon as he took up the post, Yi lost no time in putting all his efforts to the task of enhancing the military preparedness of the agricultural Cholla region. He ordered the construction of naval battleships, including “kobukson,” (turtle ships), while securing food for the troops.

War broke out in 1592 as the 200,000-strong Japanese army aboard 700 battleships invaded the Choson Kingdom. The Choson naval force of southeastern Kyongsang province was shattered by the surprise attack. At this point, the Choson navy is estimated to have owned some 220 battleships, a meager fighting power compared with Japan’s.

“One reason for admiring Admiral Yi is the fact that he won battle after battle despite the Choson navy’s poor condition in terms of military power,” researcher Lee said.

With urgent messages for help flooding in from Kyongsang province, Yi ordered his ships to set sail for the point where the Japanese ships were spotted on May 4. Three days later, Admiral Yi found and attacked about 30 Japanese battleships which were moored ashore and whose crews were pillaging the village. The outcome was that 26 Japanese ships were sunk, and countless Japanese were dead. This battle is now called the “Okpo Sea Battle,” marking as it did the first engagement between the Choson and Japanese navies.

Encouraged by his first successful operation, Admiral Yi crushed another 30 Japanese battleships near Tangpo. It was at this particular battle that the kobuksons were first employed, adding badly needed power to the Choson naval force.

On July 6, Admiral Yi garnered an unprecedented victory over the Japanese navy. With only 50 ships, the Choson navy fought with 73 Japanese battleships, destroying 47 of them, and capturing 12. The battle, called “Hansan Victory,” is now regarded one of the rarest instances of victory by an inferior fighting force in the world history of naval battles.

In 1593, the government acknowledged Admiral Yi’s achievements and appointed him as the commander-in-chief of all the southern provinces of Choson.

As the war entered a phase of peace negotiations amidst sporadic battle, Admiral Yi devoted himself to further building up his military forces, to taking care of refugees, and to encouraging the commerce of civilians under the auspices of his naval force.

Most commoners hailed Yi as the only leader to rely on. But some officials in the central government did not think so. An article dated June 26, 1596 showed that an opinion against Admiral Yi was also held by the king: “Yi Sun-shin fought hard initially, but later he did not do his best. And I doubt his fidelity because he rarely defeats the enemy.”

Worse, Admiral Yi was later embroiled in a case of slander orchestrated by a Japanese spy and imprisoned on March 4, 1597. At this point, Yi was sentenced to death on charges of betraying the nation and neglecting his duties. Later, he was saved by a high-ranking official Chong Tak and freed as a plain soldier, again without any rank.

All of which was the prelude to the destruction of the Choson naval force. In 1597, the Japanese mounted another large-scale attack on the Choson. In July, commander Won Kyun led the Choson navy against the Japanese naval force but the result was considerably worse than expected. Won Kyun’s Choson navy was utterly defeated and destroyed by the Japanese navy because of his poor leadership. With the sinking of the Choson battleships, what Admiral Yi had achieved over the past years was sent down as well.

The Choson government was flabbergasted at the news of the devastated navy. Officials ultimately put forward the idea of re-appointing Yi as naval commander in order to once more confront the Japanese forces.

King Sonjo had nothing much to say of his terrible prior judgment: “Last time, I wrongly deprived you of your official post and punished you, but that was because I did not know the situation very well, and as all humans are likely to make mistakes.”

Mistake or not, Yi was re-appointed as commander-in-chief on Aug. 3. Yet, all the military equipment and soldiers, to which he had put all his energies, were gone. Welcoming him were the 120 soldiers still remaining in the barracks and 12 battleships.

On Aug. 15, Admiral Yi confronted the Japanese navy with his 12 ships, despite strong opposition from the government. The result was simply a miracle. Yi not only fought successfully with 133 Japanese battleships but actually destroyed 31 of them, which played a critical role in reversing the tide of the war in favor of the Choson forces.

With the news of victory of Admiral Yi, people and soldiers began to rush to his station in Kokum Island, now near Mokpo. On Nov. 19, 1598, Yi launched an attack on the retreating Japanese army aboard 500 battleships. Along with the Ming China’s reinforcement navy, Yi led the battle, which turned out to be the battle which concluded the Japanese Invasion. It was also Yi’s last battle.

Directing the battle against the Japanese, Admiral Yi was shot in the chest by a stray bullet and died on his boat. The annals record Yi’s last remark: “The battle is urgent now. Don’t let the soldiers know that I am dying.”

The battle couldn’t have been more successful. Nevertheless, sadness at Yi’s death overshadowed the victory. The Ming China’s navy commander Chen Lin slipped from his chair at news of Yi’s death and began to cry. The Choson soldiers and the Korean people could not stop bemoaning his death.

In fact, the hearse carrying Yi’s dead body was often stopped on the road by weeping mourners.

The Annals of the Choson Dynasty also laments the death of Yi, whose life was devoted to saving the nation in times of crisis against the Japanese aggressor: “He sacrificed his body for the nation and his life out of fidelity. Nothing can be compared with his achievements. Alas! The government was ignorant of his true character, which prevented him from further fulfilling his destiny.”