Stone Gorge Yi: Charting Heaven and Earth in Colonial Period Korea

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM
Centennial Ballroom G (Hyatt Regency Denver)
James Flowers, Johns Hopkins University
Korean thinkers at the turn of the twentieth century faced the existential and painful dilemma of how to respond to demands from the international community to accept scientific modernity. In this period of dramatic change in the Korean political and social system, the self-styled Confucian intellectual and physician, Yi Kyu Chun also known as Sŏk Kok (Stone Gorge 1855-1923), fought to preserve “East Asian” identity. He did so by insisting on adherence to a cosmological and medical framework based on texts of Chinese antiquity to guide education and medical practice. He used the canonical medical text, Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor Basic Questions as the foundation for his medical positions. The term geographic imagination is useful in analyzing Chinese conceptions of climactic patterns, corporeal variation, and therapeutic multiplicity. According to the medico-geographic conceptualization of this text, “Heaven is insufficient in the northwest,” while “Earth is incomplete in the southeast.” Originally understood as a medico-geographical text to explain therapeutic multiplicity in China, Sŏk Kok reconceptualized the model to a global scale. Applying his own innovation, Sŏk Kok rescaled the geographic imagination even further. Instead of northwest China being cold, in his model England had become the dry and cold place of yin. All of China, now including Korea, had become the warm place of yang in the southeast. For Sŏk Kok, the yang of the southeast had become a positive civilizing element, instead of a place of troubling heat and humidity in the original model of the Inner Canon. With this momentous shift towards thinking on a global scale, some Korean thinkers, such as Sŏk Kok, ironically succeeded in preserving “traditional” medicine, which continues to thrive today. In rescaling the geographic imagination, the understudied Sŏk Kok provides an example of Korean thinkers who insisted on a defense of local knowledge.
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