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Herbs of Our Own Kingdom: Layers of the ‘Local’ in the Materia Medica of Early Chosn Korea

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image of Asian Medicine

Previous scholarship takes increasing Korean interest in ‘local botanicals’ () in its dynamic with Chinese counterparts as a gauge to measure the degree of independence and the extent of indigenisation of Korean medicine during the Chosn Dynasty (1392‐1910). Questioning this fundamental assumption about the development of Korean medicine, my article aims to scrutinise evocation of ‘the local’ in changing medical strategies concerned with Korean identity. While analysing major texts on local botanicals published during the early Chosn Dynasty, I claim that the classificatory arrangement used to map the local on botanicals often overlapped, and was not organised into a clear set of categories. Considering the traffic of herbal medicine across political and geographical boundaries, and the extreme diversity of botanical names, shapes and attributes, texts on local botanicals cannot be said to show clearly what belongs to a local ‘us’ or a foreign ‘them’. Instead, adjusting the names of botanicals, textualising the folk names of certain species, and publishing a series of books focusing on local botanicals reflected the socio-cultural need of scholars during the Chosn Dynasty to imprint motifs of the ‘local’ on Materia Medica simultaneously making a display of a separate Korean cultural identity. It was an accommodation of what was regarded as universal knowledge to a locale where the body of Chinese medicine had to be interpreted and mediated by the socio-cultural conditions of Chosn Korea.


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