The History and Development of Korean Acupuncture


Written by

  • Sanghoon Lee, KMD, MPH, PhD, DiplAc, LAc Professor, Department of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, College of Korean Medicine Kyunghee university
  • Dongwoo Nam, KMD, PhD Assistant Professor, Department of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, College of Korean Medicine Kyunghee university
  • Jeongmin Ko, KMD, Dr.Jeongmin Ko’s Korean Medicine Clinic (Inc.) All that Korean Medicine
  • Hyojung Kwon, KMD, PhD (Inc.) All that Korean Medicine
  • Seung Min Kathy Lee, KMD, PhD, Research Fellow Department of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, College of Korean Medicine Kyung Hee University
  • Park Jun Hyeong, KMD, MS, Researcher, Department of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, College of Korean Medicine
    Kyung Hee University

Published in December 2017 by Korean Society of Acupuncture & Moxibustion Society

Acupuncture is an important form of medicine that has been used for thousands of years. Not only in Asia, but across the globe, documents and tools dating back to prehistoric times have suggested that ancient people had already acquired a rudimentary knowledge of treatment methods similar to acupuncture. Archeological findings also reveal that by 198 B.C., primitive forms of meridians were well known, and by 100 B.C., it was clearly evident that a fully developed system of acupuncture treatment was established.
As the healthcare needs and demands differ for each society, medical theories and related tools develop to reflect these differences accordingly. Korean acupuncture has also diverged from its original roots to blossom into the independent and unique form of medicine we see today. In the following pages, we will walk through the history and development of Korean acupuncture, tracing back to prehistoric times, and all the way up to the 21st century.

1. Prehistoric times to 935 A.D.

1) Prehistoric times to Gojoseon era (Unknown – 108 B.C.)

In historical texts related to the Gojoseon era, it is hard to find direct references related to acupuncture, meaning that acupuncture may not have yet flourished on the peninsula. However, there are several literary pieces of evidence leading us to believe that primitive tools of traditional medicine – such as stone needles and moxibustion, may have already existed and that people probably knew how to use them for treatment. The first description of stone needles can be found in Huangdi Neijing – the first medical book on Traditional Chinese Medicine.1)
Huang Di asked, “When doctors treat conditions, even though they may be illnesses of the same nature, they use different methods and techniques. But they all succeed. Why is this?”
Qi Bo replied, “This is because of differences or variables in geography, weather, lifestyle, and diet. For example, the east is the direction of the birth of heaven and earth. The weather there is mild, and it is close to the water. Many varieties of fish and salts can be found, so the local people eat many kinds of fish and like the salty flavor. But because they eat so much fish, which is considered a hot food, heat accumulates and stagnates in the body. They also eat too much salt, which dries, exhausts, and drains the blood. This is why people of the east often have dark skin. The commonly suffered illnesses are boils and carbuncles. The treatment of this disease often utilizes needles made of stone, which are thicker, and bleeding, which releases the heat. Thus, the method of stone needles comes from the east.”
[Huangdi Neijing Suwen, Huangdi’s Internal Classic Plain Questions Chapter 12 Methods of Treatment]
In the excerpt above, Qi Bo talks about people of the ‘East’ eating different kinds of fish and salty foods, and hence, using stone needles to get rid of the frequent boils and carbuncles. Korean scholars like to cite this excerpt as possible first evidence of the use of stone needles (medical stones) on the Korean peninsula as well, since Korea has often been referred by the Chinese as the ‘far land of the East, neighboring the sea’ by the Chinese.2)
Also, in the oldest Chinese geography book called Shanhaijing (The Classic of Mountains and Seas) and Dongshanjing (The Classic of the Eastern Mountains), it mentions geographical characteristics of Gojoseon, saying that there are many stones and stone needles in the area.3) In the 20th century, archaeologists have in fact unearthed many stone needles and bone needles in North Hamgyung province, which is located in present day North Korea.
The first written record of mugwort, the plant used in moxibustion treatment, can be found in one of the most well-known legends of Korea – The Dangun Legend. The Dangun Legend tells the story of Dangun Wanggeom who was the legendary founder of Gojoseon, and the grandson of Hwan-in ‘Lord of Heaven’. The legend has it that a tiger and a bear both fervently wished to become human beings and that their prayers were eventually heard by Hwan-in’s son Hwan-ung. He gave both of them a bundle of mugwort and garlic, and informed them to eat nothing else but the two plants for 100 days while avoiding sunlight. Unfortunately, before 100 days were up, the tiger eventually gave up and ran away while the bear endured and became a woman. Hwan-ung and the woman married and gave birth to Dangun.
Among the many symbols pervading this story, historians point out that the mugwort used in this legend may have been symbolized to mean moxibustion, as well as food. This is because in many other medical and historical texts such as Myungui Byeollok or Samgukji, moxibustion is frequently mentioned as ‘being used for all diseases’, and that ‘when diseased, people know of moxibustion but not acupuncture or herbs’.4) Whether the mugwort did in fact signify moxibustion is debatable, but it stands to reason that people on the Korean peninsula were aware of its healing properties.

2) Three Kingdoms (60 BC –935 AD)

In the 1st century, Korea was divided into three kingdoms, which were: Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. These Three Kingdoms separately inhabited the Korean peninsula until 676 AD, when Silla successfully unified them into one. In the late 9th century, Silla was again divided into the Later Three Kingdoms (892–936). During these periods, acupuncture was clearly established as a mainstream medical treatment, with formal education systems established by the government, and licensed acupuncturists and herbalists working to promote health in the nation. Interestingly, there were slight differences in the acupuncture books that Silla used for education, and we can infer a lot about how acupuncture in the Korean peninsula had started to flourish independently. 

3) Goguryeo (37 BC – 668 AD)

The Goguryeo kingdom was located in central and northern parts of Korea, directly bordering China and Russia. It has a significant place in Korean history as being one of the largest kingdoms among the three, with great military aspirations. Despite frequent wars with China, the two were very active trading partners and many Chinese writings and herbs were imported into the country and to Japan through Goguryeo. In the Japanese history book [日本書紀] it mentions that in the year 561 AD, Zhi Cong from China brought 164 medical books into Japan through Goguryeo. Zhi Cong did not stay very long in Korea, hence historians infer that Chinese medicine must have been introduced to Korea before 561 AD.

4) Baekje (18 BC – 660 AD)

Chinese Medicine was introduced into Baekje much later than Goguryeo for obvious geographical reasons. As of yet, there has been no direct archaeological findings related to acupuncture.

5) Silla (57 BC – 935 AD)

Although Silla was one of the smallest kingdoms amongst the three, it made a strategic alliance with Tang China and invaded Goguryeo and Baekje. After unifying the peninsula, it went on to rule the territory for almost a millenium, leaving many historical artifacts and relics behind.
It is during the Silla period that the first records of acupuncture education in Korea can be found. The people of Silla used Chinese medical books such as Shen nong ben cao jing (The Classic of Herbal Medicine), Zhen jiu jia yi jing (An ABC of Needles and, Nan jing (Book on Difficult Issues) and more. However, although many of the material medica came from China, there were several differences in the actual acupuncture educational systems. Unlike China where two separate professions for medicine existed (medical doctors) and acupuncturists), Silla trained only medical doctors and these medical doctors were additionally taught to use acupuncture and moxibustion. 
Nan jing (Book on Difficult Issues) was not used as an acupuncture textbook in Tang China, whereas in Silla, it was an officially selected textbook. Also, instead of using the same medical volumes taught in China and Japan, medical doctors in Silla learned acupuncture using Ling shu (Miraculous Pivot). Overall, although the systems in China and Japan were very similar, Silla greatly differed in the education and medical system.