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date: 21 April 2019

Science, Technology, and Religion in Chosŏn Korea

Summary and Keywords

During the 518 years of Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), many things changed and many things stayed the same. After the Yi family established the Chosŏn dynasty, Confucianism became the dominant philosophy. Although Confucianism’s grip on Chosŏn weakened somewhat at the end of the 19th century, it nevertheless continued to provide the basic framework for how government officials and most of the educated elite conceptualized ethics, religion, nature, and technology. This changed when the Chosŏn dynasty was absorbed into the Japanese empire in 1910. Chosŏn-era science, technology, and religion operated within a Confucian framework. This affected astronomical, geographical, mathematical, and medicinal thought and practice. It also affected the role of technology in Chosŏn life and society. Moreover, when Buddhism, folk religion and, from the end of the 18th century even Christianity, were practiced in Korea, it was necessary to maneuver within constraints imposed by a Confucian state and society.

Korea’s Confucianism was imported from China. Koreans, however “Koreanized” what they adopted from China to make it their own. When dealing with religion, Chosŏn-era Koreans adopted a much harsher attitude toward non-Confucian religions. When dealing with science and technology, Koreans sometimes made improvements on Chinese models. For example, in the 15th century, Koreans built astronomical instruments that were better than those they had learned about from Chinese astronomers. And, in the 17th century, Koreans produced the most comprehensive encyclopedia of traditional East Asian medicine of pre-modern times. However, none of those changes threatened the hegemony of Confucianism. Chosŏn Korea remained Confucian in its science, technology, and religiosity for over five centuries.

Keywords: Chosŏn Korea, mathematics, astronomy, geography, geomancy, medicine, Buddhism, folk religion, Christianity, Tonghak

Korea and Chinese Civilization

In 1392, Yi Sŏng-gye seized the Korean throne that had been occupied by the Wang family for almost five centuries. He replaced their Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392) with his own Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910). Yi and his descendants would hold the throne even longer than the Koryŏ Wangs. They survived a Japanese invasion in the 1590s and two Manchu invasions in the first half of the 17th century. It was not until the 20th century—when Japan, using the modern military, economic, and diplomatic techniques it had learned from the West, pushed its way into the Korean Peninsula—that the Yi lost their grip on Korea. In 1910, after 518 years, the Chosŏn dynasty came to an end when Korea was absorbed into the Japanese empire.

Soon after Yi and his officials solidified their rule in the 1390s, they turned to China as a model for how to build an advanced government and nurture an advanced culture. As there was little contact with Japan at this point in Korean history, China provided the only example of sophisticated civilization of which the Koreans were aware. The Koryŏ dynasty had not relied so heavily on China for inspiration. For much of its history, it faced a weaker China, one that had lost much of the territory between Korea and China to Khitan (the Liao dynasty, 908–1119), Juchen (the Jin dynasty, 1115–1324) in the north, and, finally, Mongols, who gained control of all of China in the 13th century (the Yuan dynasty, 1279–1368). However, in 1368, with the expulsion of the Mongols and the establishment of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Chinese again gained control over Chinese territory. When Yi seized control of the Korean government in 1392, he recognized this new reality. He and his officials began redesigning Korea, drawing it closer to the Chinese model of an advanced civilization so Korea might benefit from Chinese recognition as a civilized country.

Learning from China was not a new idea in late-14th-century Korea. Korea had been borrowing elements of Chinese civilization, and adapting them for their own needs, for well over a millennium before the Chosŏn dynasty emerged. In 108 bce, China’s Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce) established Chinese settlements on the Korean Peninsula (primarily in the place where Pyŏngyang now sits); these lasted until 313, almost a century longer than the Han dynasty itself.1 Though most of the Korea Peninsula remained free of a Chinese physical presence during that period, the existence of a Chinese outpost on the peninsula itself introduced Chinese culture to Koreans, who adapted elements of it to serve their own purposes.

Probably the most important Chinese contribution to early Korean civilization was writing. The Korean language and the Chinese language are very different. In fact, they are not even members of the same language family. When Koreans first began to write 1,600 years ago—before they had their own writing system—they wrote in Literary Chinese, which was very different from spoken Chinese. They continued to do so even after King Sejong (r. 1418–1450) had a government committee create a phonetic script, now called Han’gŭl, to write Korean.2 Though King Sejong formally presented that Korean alphabet to the Korean people in 1446, most documents—especially government documents, as well as philosophical, religious, and scientific texts—continued to be written in Literary Chinese until the end of the Chosŏn dynasty.

For centuries, then, educated Koreans used Literary Chinese as their primary written language. Koreans could read whatever China produced, which in turn meant that Koreans were very familiar with the various components of Chinese civilization, including Chinese science, Chinese technology, and religions in China. Korea maintained its own linguistic identity (Korean continued to be the spoken language of people on the peninsula), and it preserved cultural features that distinguished it from China, such as its cuisine, its social structure, its art, and its indigenous folk religion.3 However, Korean high culture was influenced enough by Chinese culture that literate Koreans were not only comfortable with Chinese musings on nature, technology, and religion, they also produced texts on those subjects that revealed that, more often than not, they operated within a conceptual framework that was essentially Chinese in origin.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that traditional Korean science, technology, and religion were variants on traditional Chinese science, technology, and religion. This is especially true of Chosŏn Korea, which tried harder than preceding dynasties to make itself respectable in Chinese eyes. The qualifying phrase “were variants on traditional Chinese science, technology, and religion” is important to note. “Variants” means that they were not exactly the same. As already noted, Koreans adapted ideas and practices borrowed from China to fit Korean needs. They also modified those ideas and practices to conform to indigenous Korean assumptions about how to explain and interact with nature, the appropriate uses of technology in doing so, and the acceptability or unacceptability of certain religious beliefs and practices.

It is also important to keep in mind that, despite the title of this article, there were no equivalents for the terms “science” and “religion” in Korea until end of the 19th century. Nor did Chosŏn Koreans before the end of the 19th century link an understanding of the natural world with the technological exploration or manipulation of nature as closely as people link science and technology in the modern world.

Chosŏn-era “science” did not involve the experimentation and mathematical analysis of natural phenomenon that is the hallmark of modern science. Instead, it was closer to what could be called “natural philosophy,” an effort to understand nature through a conceptual framework that did not require reducing nature to mass and movement that could be measured. Chosŏn-era Koreans were religious, in that they regularly used rituals to interact with supernatural beings. However, they did not lump folk religion, Buddhism, Confucianism, and, near the end of the dynasty, Christianity under the broad category “religion.” Instead, they treated them as separate and distinct ways of using ritual to ease uncertainties in life, explain what otherwise could not be explained, or predict what otherwise could not be predicted. Moreover, those literate Koreans who put their understanding of natural phenomenon down on paper did not normally interact with the technical specialists of Chosŏn. Nor did the technical specialists normally read what those scholars had written. Even if they did, they did not use such writings as a guide to improving the technology with which they worked. Scholars and technical experts constituted separate social classes in Chosŏn society. As a result, the scholarly understanding of nature had very little impact on attempts by technicians to manipulate nature.

The Conceptual Framework of Korean Confucianism

To comprehend the Chosŏn approach to nature, technology, and religion, it is necessary to understand Chosŏn Confucianism. Confucianism provided the basic terminology and accompanying conceptual apparatus Koreans relied on when they tried to understand and manipulate nature, as well as understand and control religion.

Koreans had known about Confucianism since at least the 4th century. However, two significant changes accompanied the establishment of the Chosŏn dynasty. First, Confucianism became the official religion of the government (Earlier, it had served primarily as a guide for government administration, with Buddhism granted more ritual and philosophical importance.). Second, early in the Chosŏn era, Korea encountered and adopted a new form of Confucianism, one with origins in Song-dynasty China (960–1279). This new form of Confucianism, called Neo-Confucianism, was much more comprehensive, providing not only ethical guidelines and advice on how to run a government but also a complete explanation of the structure of the entire universe and the place of human beings within it.

To understand how Neo-Confucianism shaped the way Chosŏn-era Koreans thought about nature, technology, and religion, it is important to keep in mind that Neo-Confucianism is non-theistic. Though Neo-Confucians believed in the existence of some supernatural entities, such as the spirits of ancestors, they did not believe in an almighty supernatural personality—God with a capital G. There is no Creator in the Neo-Confucian explanation of how the universe came into being. Nor are there any commandments in the sense of proclamations by God telling human beings how they should and should not behave. In the Neo-Confucian worldview, the world not only continually creates itself, but in the process of doing so, it creates its own moral code.

The universe, Neo-Confucians believed, is created through the interaction of li and ki. Both terms are difficult to translate into English; they each have such a wide range of meanings that there is no single English equivalent for either. Li, for example, is sometimes translated as “principle,” but that is not nearly dynamic enough to express the responsibility for creation li bears. Li is more accurately defined as the totality of the patterns of appropriate interactions between human beings, and between human beings and their environment. Li determined what were and were not appropriate interactions. In doing so, li, in conjunction with ki, determined what things were. In Neo-Confucianism, things were defined more by what they should do—how they should interact with other things—than by what they looked like.

What things looked like was determined by ki. Ki is sometimes translated as “matter-energy,” since it was both the stuff out of which everything in the universe was made of and the energy that animated things and made movement possible. However, ki by itself had no direction. Without li guiding ki, there would be nothing but chaos. Li were not imposed on ki from outside. Rather, li were the internal patterns defining the appropriate interactions human beings and other objects should engage in to be the things they were supposed to be.

The moral code of Neo-Confucianism can be boiled down to one simple principle: harmonious cooperation is good, and anything that benefits an individual human being at the expense of other human beings is bad. Li defined the patterns of harmonious cooperation. Action not in accord with li was immoral because it was self-destructive behavior; it is only by doing what they were supposed to do that people and things could be what they were supposed to be.

Li and ki could not explain the universe without further elaboration. That elaboration came in the form of yin, yang, and the five phases. Yin, yang, and the five phases are not things. Rather, they are aspects of how things relate to each other. Yin refers to more passive interactions, yang to the more active and aggressive. The same object can be more yin in one interaction and more yang in another, depending on which role it plays in those interactions. Similarly, the five phases—usually defined as wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—represented an endless cycle of growth and decline. Wood stood for increase and growth, fire for peak growth and activity, earth for balance and neutrality, metal for decrease and decline, and water for maximum decrease and inactivity.

Something described as wood was not necessarily associated with a plant. Bodily organs could be described as wood if they were associated with slow but life-enhancing activity. In fact, muscles were associated with wood to distinguish them from the more active blood (associated with fire) and from the much less active skin and hair (associated with metal).

Linkages such as these—based on how things behaved rather than what they looked like—were used to connect everything in the universe: the visible stars in the sky, types of domestic animals, and even differences in weather were broken down into five basic categories, with each category identified with one of the five phases. This sort of comprehensive catalog—in which not only was everything pigeonholed into one of only five possible categories, but things were also believed to interact according to which phases they represented—is called “correlative cosmology” and is a distinctive feature of both Chinese and Korean approaches to understanding the natural world.4 It produces what might be called the “pattern perspective,” in which the emphasis is on regularities in how things interact rather than on what things look like when they stand still and alone.

Traditional Science and Technology in Chosŏn Korea

Working within the parameters of Chinese civilization in general and Neo-Confucianism in particular, Chosŏn-era Koreans established a strong scientific tradition of their own and also produced innovations in technology. “Science” is the right term for the astronomy, geography, and medicine of Chosŏn times, since all of these disciplines featured attempts to systematically understand natural forces on their own terms rather than relying on explanations featuring interventions by supernatural personalities. Moreover, in the case of astronomy and geography, mathematics was an important component. These traditional sciences lacked the requirement of rigorous mathematical and experimental proofs that is the hallmark of modern science but, in their reliance on natural explanations, they nonetheless deserve the label.

However, neither those who promoted scientific theories nor those who worked to improve technology should be called scientists; that title should be reserved for those whose lives are devoted to the scientific enterprise. Those who discussed why nature behaved the way it did tended to be Neo-Confucian philosophers. Their natural philosophy was just a small part, and a minor one at that, of their attempts to articulate appropriate roles for human beings in the universe. Given that li determined both what something was and what it should do, there was no sharp fact/value divide in Neo-Confucian thinking. Nevertheless, moral philosophy took precedence over natural philosophy. This meant that when Neo-Confucians examined objects and processes in the natural world, they were more concerned with learning how they should interact with those objects and processes, and what movement in nature told us about human behavior and misbehavior, than they were in analyzing the objects and processes for their own sake.5

Most of those who focused on the relationship between technology and the natural world normally did not concern themselves with the grand theories of the Neo-Confucian philosophers. They shared the Neo-Confucian concern for process over substance, but were more interested in the specifics of how to use mathematics for accurate measurements of celestial movements, how to select the herbs that would be the most effective in treating bodily dysfunctions, or how to determine auspicious and non-auspicious sites on a landscape.

One reason Neo-Confucian philosophers and technicians did not communicate much with each other is that they constituted two separate social classes. Neo-Confucian philosophers were yangban, those whose ancestors had held important posts in the bureaucracy or the military of the Chosŏn state. Their family background qualified them to take the government examinations, testing knowledge of Confucian philosophy and literature, that appointees to high bureaucratic and military posts were required to pass. Technicians, on the other hand, took a separate set of exams, testing a specific set of skills. There were separate examinations for physicians, mathematicians, astronomers, and geographers, as well as for translators and painters. Those who passed one of those exams and earned an appointment to a government post usually worked as clerks under the supervision of a yangban official. Technicians were called chungin, and, though they also had to be literate in Chinese, they inhabited a different intellectual universe from the yangban and were placed on a lower rung of the social ladder. Children from chungin families did not marry into yangban families, nor would yangban normally take seriously any philosophical writings produced by a chungin, in the rare case that a chungin wrote a philosophical text. This social division reflected both the Korean emphasis on hereditary status (yangban came from yangban families, and chungin generally came from chungin families) and the Confucian respect for broad philosophical learning over specific technical skills.6


Mathematics was one of the skills with which yangban were supposed to have a basic acquaintance, but they would never work as a mathematician. They would have considered that beneath their dignity. Early in the Chosŏn dynasty, King Sejong established a Mathematics Bureau (Sŭpsan’guk) in 1423. He also created at least thirty official civil service positions for specialists in mathematics.7 However, those posts were considered beneath the dignity of a Confucian scholar. Instead, they were filled by men who had studied ancient Chinese mathematics classics rather than the classics dealing with history, poetry, and moral philosophy that scholars hoping for a higher-level government post memorized. The examinations used to select professional mathematicians tested applicants on calculating formulae introduced in such ancient Chinese texts as Computational Methods in Nine Chapters (Jiuzhang suanshu), Organizational Canon of the Five Administrative Departments (Wucao suanjing), the Gnomon of the Zhou Dynasty and Classic of Computations (Zoubi suanjing), and Computational Rules of the Five Classics (Wujing suanshu). These works had provided the tools for mathematicians in China since at least the Tang dynasty (618–907) and, in Korea, since the mature Silla dynasty (668–935). The Chosŏn dynasty did not significantly alter that venerable curriculum.8

Most of those mathematicians were assigned to the Board of Taxation (Hojo), which is where the need for their computational skills was most urgent.9 Official mathematics was practical mathematics. It was used for such concrete tasks as calculating the size of a plot of farmland, calculating the tax rates on such agricultural land, and calculating the size of officials’ stipends, not for formulating mathematical laws governing the movements of physical bodies other than celestial objects.

The tools used for calculations did not lend themselves to the construction of abstract mathematical formulae. Unlike the Chinese, who had begun using the beads on an abacus for calculations from the early 15th century,10 Koreans, both those in government posts and ordinary subjects, used computational rod (sanmok) notation. In sanmok notation, calculations were expressed as graphic representations of the placement of counting rods on a counting board. Different positions of the rods on the counting board represented different mathematical quantities. Such concrete conceptualization of numeral relations encouraged Koreans to focus on the specific patterns that governed relations between particular numbers rather than on the abstract properties of generic lines, planes, and solids.11 As a result, Koreans, like the Chinese and the Japanese, did not develop the notion of abstract proofs so central to the development of Western mathematics. Instead, the proof of a mathematical formula was in its applicability. Several examples of specific applications of a formula would be provided to show how that formula would provide needed information in a number of different but similar cases. Such inductive proofs were considered acceptable by mathematicians who used the tools of mathematics only to solve specific problems.12

The same lack of concern for rigorous deductive proofs can also be seen among those yangban who, in the second half of the Chosŏn dynasty, dabbled in mathematics for recreation rather than practical applicability. Even though Ch’oe Sŏkchŏng (1645–1715), Hwang Yunsŏk (1719–1791), Hong Taeyong (1731–1783), and Ch’oe Han’gi (1803–1879), among others, wrote treatises on mathematics, they would have been insulted to be labeled mathematicians.13 Instead, they were Confucian scholars who, among their many scholarly interests, sometimes played around with numbers. In some of those treatises, they revealed that they studied works on Western mathematics written by Catholic missionaries in China and had extracted some formulae from those books. Nevertheless, not only was there little interest in the Western notion of deductive proofs, but Korean Confucians also continued to rely on sanmok notation, even though they occasionally noted the greater ease and reliability of the Western method of mathematical notation.14


The same tendency for the hereditary scholar elite to dabble in scientific ideas and for the hereditary technician class to focus on the practical application of scientific techniques imported from China can also be seen in the Chosŏn-dynasty approach to astronomy. Moreover, in astronomy as in mathematics, European ways of approaching the natural world—introduced via missionary works imported from China starting in the early 17th century—were mined for interesting information and practical techniques but did not undermine the traditional pattern perspective Koreans had learned from China over a millennium earlier.

Nevertheless, astronomy during the Chosŏn dynasty reveals more creativity, more indigenization of ideas and technologies imported from China to better fit Korean needs and conditions, than is seen in Chosŏn mathematics. This may be because astronomy had more direct implications for the legitimacy and power of the Chosŏn king. As was the case in China as well, astronomy in Chosŏn times was inseparable from astrology.

According to the National Administrative Code (Kyŏngguk taejŏn) promulgated in 1470, the staff of the Royal Observatory included not only twenty specialists in “celestial patterns” (astronomy) but also fifteen geographers and ten diviners, those qualified to interpret unexpected astronomical events as auspicious or ominous.15 Chosŏn Koreans believed that there was a connection between the movements of celestial bodies above and events on the earth below. In particular, they believed that a lack of virtue in their king would produce anomalies in the sky. Unexpected celestial events, such as the appearance of a comet that had not been predicted, were sometimes read as warnings from heaven that something unfortunate or unpleasant would soon happen unless the king changed his behavior quickly. It was therefore important that the king, with the assistance of his astronomers, be able to predict celestial movements so that no such significant events would occur unpredicted. Moreover, if the king were able to predict unusual astronomical events, it would prove that he was the link between heaven and humanity that a king was supposed to be in order to be recognized as legitimate.16

Professional astronomers did not come from the yangban class. Like official mathematicians, they were chungin and took a government examination in their field in order to gain a government post. Their exam was called the ŭm-yang [Chinese yin-yang], which geographers and diviners also took. Astronomers, geographers, and diviners were expected to have special expertise on the patterns created by the interactions of yin and yang. The only difference was that astronomers focused their attention on the movements of objects in the sky, geographers focused on the lay of the land, and diviners focused on the patterns of yin and yang as they affected the lives of individual human beings. They all worked for the same government agency, which was called the Watchtower for Observing Ephemera in the Sky (Sŏun’gwan) until 1466, when its name was changed to the Office for Observing Phenomena (Kwansanggam).

Astronomers did not worry about the exact nature of the celestial objects they were tracking. They were concerned only with accurate observations and predictions of how those objects moved across the sky. Confucian scholars, on the other hand, sometimes discussed the nature of the universe, such as whether the traditional Chinese view that the earth was flat and the sky was round was correct, or if the European missionaries working for the Chinese court were correct in claiming that the earth was round. However, they did not test these hypotheses against the data collected by astronomers. Nor did which position they considered more accurate have any effect on their overall worldview. Whether the earth was round or square was irrelevant to their greater concern with issues of government and morality. Determining how to promote appropriate interactions within the human community took precedence over any attempts to define the structure of the physical world.17

Astrological concerns—the supposed connection between the behavior of the ruler and the behavior of celestial objects—led King Sejong in the 15th century to support home-grown improvements in the astronomical technology Korea had acquired from China. The automatic striking clepsydra (chagyŏngnu), sun-and-stars time-determining instrument (ilsŏng chŏngsi ŭi), armillary sphere (honŭi), smaller armillary sphere (kanŭi), sun dials (ilgu), and other devices that the Koreans had constructed by improving on earlier Chinese instruments gave Korea what might well have been “the finest and most complete sets of astronomical instruments in the world” at that time.18 King Sejong was so impressed with what his technicians produced that he granted commoner status to the chief technician, a slave named Chang Yŏngsil (1390?–1450?), and even named Chang to a low-level government post.19

Another sign of the intersection of politics and astronomy comes two centuries later, when Korea adopted the system of calendrical calculation that the new Qing dynasty (1644–1911) in China had adopted. That calendar (actually an ephemeris, since it went beyond calculating the lengths of days and months to provide data on changes in the positions of celestial objects over time) was created with techniques introduced by European missionaries who also worked as court astronomers. Korea was not able to ask China’s new rulers for the technology behind that shixian li (Kor. sihŏnnyŏk) calendar, since Korea was subordinate to China in the Sinocentric world order and was not allowed to create its own calendars. However, Korea was also expected to date official documents sent to China according to the Chinese calendar, but the Chinese calendar often did not reach Korea until several months after the calendar had been promulgated. Without the ability to use the tools necessary to calculate the calendar, Korea could not correctly date its diplomatic documents.20

Wanting to avoid such a faux pas in its interactions with the Chinese court, Chosŏn began dispatching astronomers to Beijing to discretely learn the European methods of calendrical calculation.21 That discretion, plus substantial quantities of silver placed in the right hands, enabled Korea to eventually circumvent Qing restrictions and obtain enough information to promulgate its own version of the shixian li by the early 18th century. To keep abreast of later refinements of the astronomers’ art introduced from the West, Korea continued to add an occasional astronomer to the entourage of official tribute missions to Beijing. As late as 1823, despite an official policy of suppression of Catholicism at home, Korean records reveal that court astronomers were still secretly seeking out Catholic astronomers in Beijing with the blessing of the Korean court.22

In addition to acquiring techniques of calendrical calculation originally introduced to China by European missionaries, Koreans also learned how to incorporate the Southern Hemisphere into their star maps. Koreans had long drawn star maps showing the placement of stars in their own sky. One carved in stone in 1395, right after the Chosŏn dynasty was founded, showed the locations of 1,467 stars relative to the other stars in the northern sky. In the 18th century, visitors to China returned with information on the more complete star maps produced by Europeans working in Beijing. Using that information, Koreans soon began to produce star maps of their own that included stars visible only from the Southern Hemisphere. One of those official star maps somehow ended up in a Buddhist temple to the east of the capital.23

Despite their expanded knowledge of how many stars there were in the sky, and their enhanced techniques for calculating the movements of celestial bodies, Koreans did not lose faith in the Neo-Confucian pattern perspective. They incorporated ideas and techniques imported from the West via China into their traditional understanding of the relationship between human beings and the celestial realm.


Like astronomers, official geographers worked for the government and served political goals. One of their tasks was to mark out the territory that was under the control of the king and therefore subject to taxation (this was especially important in the north, where the border between China and Korea was not clearly delineated until the early 18th century24); another was to determine the various ways the king’s territory could be traversed. However, they were not just geographers in the modern sense. They were also geomancers, experts in locating the invisible channels of energy in the earth that could benefit those who knew of and could therefore make use of them. One of their duties was locating auspicious sites for the graves of deceased monarchs, since, according to geomantic reasoning, energy flowing through the bones of the dead would bring health and prosperity to their descendants. A geomancer-monk had selected the site for the capital of the Chosŏn dynasty soon after it was founded; it was also believed that energy flowing down from powerful mountains to the north of the site would ensure the political and economic vitality of the settlement below.25

Government geographers were not the only Koreans who made maps. Ordinary subjects sometimes did so as well. Before the 19th century, however, topographical accuracy was not the prime concern of mapmakers, regardless of who they were. They were more concerned about showing the proper relationship among various features of the landscape than with the actual size of those features and distances between them. For example, Chosŏn maps of the world usually show Korea larger than Japan, and China not only larger still but also in the center of the map, reflecting the Sinocentric worldview of Koreans at that time.26 And maps of Chosŏn itself, though they present the basic contour of the peninsula and the relative locations of its various geographical features, often show distances between two points in terms of li (different from the li that means “principle or pattern”). Li here refers to the time it takes to travel between two points, rather than the physical distance. A map will show more li between two points with a rugged mountain between them, for example, than between two points the same number of miles apart but separated only by flat, dry land. The counting of li in this way is another example of the Chosŏn Korean focus on how things (in this case, places) relate to each other rather than on their specific individual features.

Both the temporal/spatial concept of distance and the geomantic perspective were adopted from China. However, Koreans, as was their wont, modified these ideas. For example, in the second half of the Chosŏn dynasty, Koreans produced geomantic maps of the Korean Peninsula that show energy flowing from Mount Paektu, the highest mountain on the border between China and Korea, down through the peninsula’s mountains and valleys and vitalizing the entire country. Those maps do not show energy from Mount Paektu flowing north into Qing territory.

Koreans also created a type of map not seen in either China or Japan. These are often called “wheel maps,” since they show the world with a large continent (containing both China and Korea) in the center surrounded by a circular sea, then a circular land mass surrounding that sea, which in turn is surrounded by another circular sea.27 The Korean term for those maps was Ch’ŏnhado, maps of “all under heaven.” They represent the Sinocentrism of Korea at that time, and the Korean assumption that theirs was a more civilized country than Japan (Korea is always shown as larger than Japan). They also represent Korean creativity, presenting the world as Koreans knew it at the time in a format unique to Korea.

Not all Korean maps subordinated topographical accuracy to geomantic considerations. In the 19th century, a man who was not a professional geographer (he may have been originally a merchant) spent thirty years wandering up and down the Korean Peninsula and gathering information that he then put down on a map so detailed and accurate it almost looks as though he based it on photos taken from an airplane. In 1861, this map, called Taedong yŏjido (Great Map of the Eastern Country), was carved onto woodblocks and printed in several segments which, if put side by side in the right order, totaled 21.9 feet wide and 12.5 feet long. That geographer, Kim Chŏngho (?–1864),28 printed several copies, probably hoping to earn a sizable profit from selling them. However, he included not just geographic features but towns, military bases, and important government offices. The government was not pleased, worrying that his map provided information that would be useful to an enemy. Kim was arrested and probably died in his prison, though his map is praised today as the finest product of Korea’s traditional geography.29


Koreans today are very proud of Kim Chŏngho’s map. They are even more proud of the accomplishments of Chosŏn’s physicians, particularly the greatest physician in pre-modern Korean history, Hŏ Chun (1539–1615). Hŏ is the only one of Chosŏn’s technical experts to have an impact beyond the peninsula. Hǒ Chun was one of a small group of officially certified physicians during the Chosŏn dynasty. There were people in Chosŏn’s town and villages who diagnosed bodily ailments and recommended various remedies, from medical concoctions to acupuncture, to those who asked their advice. Even yangban might provide such advice occasionally, since medicine was one of the fields of which they were supposed to have some knowledge. But such informal medical practice did not qualify a person as a physician. To be considered a physician, normally a person had to study ancient Chinese medical texts and pass the government examination testing knowledge of those texts. Those who passed that exam worked for the government. Most worked in the Seoul area, either in clinics for the royal family or top officials or in medical aid stations established just beyond the capital city wall to ensure that people with contagious diseases did not enter Seoul and risk infecting those who ran the government. A few official physicians were dispatched to rural areas to promote health there, particularly in areas that lay on routes to the capital along which diseases could spread. However, no matter where they were stationed, all certified physicians worked for the government and did not earn a living through a private practice. Just like mathematicians, astronomers, and most geographers, they were government employees.

They also shared with the other official technical experts the pattern perspective Korea had adopted from China. In their medical practice, they were less concerned with the structure of individual organs than they were with the functions of those organs, particularly how they interacted. Korean traditional medicine shared with traditional Chinese medicine the goal of optimizing the harmonious interactions of the various parts of the body. That is why Korean physicians, just like physicians in China, did not perform surgeries. To remove and even physically modify an organ would make the restoration of the total pattern of harmonious interactions impossible. Instead, Chosŏn’s physicians relied on medical concoctions as well as stimulation through acupuncture (the insertion of needles into specific points on the body) and moxibustion (the burning of a small amount of an herb on one or more of those points) to correct physiological departures from the patterns of interactions that defined health in their medical theory.

The medical concoctions Chosŏn physicians relied on were mixtures of not just herbs but sometimes fruits, vegetables, animal parts, and minerals as well. Many of the ingredients in Chinese prescriptions were not available in Korea, and were very expensive to import from China. Moreover, the medical efficacy of herbal ingredients was believed to depend on both the soil and the climate of where they were grown. An herb with the same name in China and Korea might not have the same effect on a patient. It was therefore necessary to indigenize Korean pharmacopeia. That process began in the preceding dynasty, when the Koryŏ dynasty found itself, because of the non-Chinese states that emerged between its northern border and the Chinese border, unable to obtain Chinese ingredients even if it could afford them. The indigenization of Korean medicinal ingredients accelerated in the Chosŏn dynasty, particularly during the reign of King Sejong.

In 1433, King Sejong had his officials compile the Hyangyak chipsŏngbang (Great Collection of Native Korean Prescriptions). Totaling eighty-five volumes, this work identified 959 different diseases and explained how to treat them. It described 703 different mineral, vegetable, or animal medicinal products available on the peninsula, and told how to identify them, when to collect them, and what diseases they were effective against. Though many of its prescriptions were extracted from Chinese medical manuals, whenever possible it substituted native ingredients for expensive or rare Chinese ingredients.30

The next major advance in the indigenization of medical practice in Korea came almost two centuries later, with the publication of Hŏ Chun’s Tongŭi pogam (A Treasury of Eastern Medicine). Most of Tongŭi pogam is dedicated to traditional Chinese prescriptions (often with local ingredients replacing those found only in China) as well as traditional advice drawn from Chinese sources on when and how to use acupuncture and moxibusion. The originality of Hŏ’s medical guide comes first from its comprehensive nature; it covers the entire gamut of human physical and mental dysfunctions and ways to treat them. But what attracts the most attention, both in his time and today, is the emphasis he placed on preserving health. Advice on this front is presented at the front of the massive work since, he says, the first priority of a physician should be to keep his patients healthy. Only if he failed to do that would he need to turn to the prescriptions and treatments that comprise the rest of the book. The advice Hŏ gives for preserving health is drawn from China’s Daoist tradition. He recommends a number of practices including abdominal breathing and stretching exercises that, he asserts, will enhance the flow of life-enhancing ki in our bodies and thus support the harmonious interactions of our organs and allow us to live healthy lives much longer.31 Because of both his comprehensive and original approach to health care, Hŏ’s work spread beyond Korea. It has been reprinted many times in both Japan and China, starting in the early 18th century.32

The next significant display of originality in Korean medical practice appears over two centuries after Tongŭi pogam was published. Near the end of the 19th century, an amateur physician modified not just the practice of medicine imported from China, but also the medical theory. Yi Che-ma (1838–1900) extended the notion of yin and yang, which had been combined with the five phases to explain why different medicines were effective against different diseases, to predict how a physician should treat different patients with the same symptoms. He argued that there were four basic body types. Whether people were strong yang, weak yang, strong yin, or weak yin would determine how they would react to the same treatment. Depending on their body type, they would react differently even if they displayed the same symptoms. Before treating them, therefore, a physician should determine their body type. One way to do that was by examining their physical appearance and also determining which of the four fundamental emotions (sorrow, anger, joy, and pleasure) dominated their personality.33 Yi’s concept of psychological physiology, unlike Hŏ’s comprehensive guide to medical practice, has not gained much attention beyond the Korean Peninsula.

The Religions of Chosŏn

As was the case with science and technology, the religious culture of Korea was strongly influenced by China, though Koreans also had indigenous religions. The greatest influence from China is seen in Neo-Confucianism and in Buddhism. Neo-Confucianism so dominated both intellectual and ritual life during the entire Chosŏn dynasty that it should be treated as a religion, even though Neo-Confucians did not worship a God. Not only did Neo-Confucianism define the primary ethical principles of Chosŏn, it also provided rituals for government, families, and villages, and mandated specific types of interactions with supernatural beings (primarily ancestral spirits). In addition, Neo-Confucianism determined the limits of activities by other religions, including what rituals they could legally perform and who could perform them. Both Buddhism and the indigenous religion that combined animism and shamanism had to operate within constraints applied by the Confucian state. Christianity (which did not appear in Korea until the last quarter of the 18th century) and Tonghak, a new religion born in the 19th century, fared worse. Both were targeted by the Chosŏn government, and the leaders killed, because they refused to accept the government’s insistence on controlling their ritual behavior.

Buddhism has been present on the Korean Peninsula since the late 4th century. Until the Chosŏn dynasty was established in 1392, it had enjoyed significant government support. That changed when Chosŏn adopted Confucianism as its guiding religion and pushed monks and their temples out of the capital into remote mountain valleys. Some monks continued to meditate to clear their minds of attachments to things of this world, and other monks and non-monastics continued to pray to various buddhas in the hope that those supernatural beings would use their powers to help them solve such worldly problems as ill health. However, outside of these religious activities, the contributions Buddhism made to Korean civilizations dwindled. For the first thousand years of Buddhist history in Korea, monks served as conduits not only of the latest currents in Chinese Buddhist thought and practice but also of other aspects of Chinese civilization, including science and technology. That changed after 1392. Monks could no longer travel between Korea and China, and even if they had been able to do so, officials would not have paid attention to any information they brought back, as monks had lost the respect from high officials they had once enjoyed.34

The folk religion had no such connection with China. Nor, unlike Buddhism, did it have an educated clerical hierarchy. The ritual specialists in shamanism were mostly uneducated women who, in the northern part of the peninsula, served as spirit mediums and, in much of the southern part, as trained performers of rituals in which they tried to convince spirits to do their bidding. Though many of their rituals claimed to provide health benefits, in that shamans said they could chase away spirits who were causing health problems, shamans did not have sophisticated medical theory or medicines at their disposal. They were equally incapable of contributing to advances in astronomy (though they worshipped some star gods), geography, or mathematics, as they were usually illiterate. Neither could the animism component of Korea’s folk religion, which involved the worship of mountain and river gods as well as revering village guardian trees, contribute to a scientific understanding or technological manipulation of nature. Both shamanism and Buddhism remained important elements of the village culture of Chosŏn, but they had little to offer those who wanted to understand the world around them in natural rather than supernatural terms.35

Korea’s religious landscape began to change when a small Catholic community emerged in 1784. Books written by Catholic missionaries in China had begun circulating in Korea over a century earlier. In fact, it was books, rather than missionaries, that introduced Koreans to Christianity. There were no missionaries in Korea until 1794.36 Some of those books imported from China before the first missionary arrived introduced Renaissance-era mathematics, astronomy, geography, and anatomy. However, even though some of the ideas in those books—such as the notion that the earth is round instead of flat, or that the material world can be divided into four elements rather than five phases—were adopted by a few Confucian scholars, those scholars did not abandon their Neo-Confucian worldview. Instead, they accepted those Western ideas within a Confucian framework.

Even the birth of Korea’s first indigenous organized religion, Tonghak, in 1860 didn’t pose a serious threat to Confucian hegemony. Tonghak replaced the Neo-Confucian emphasis on li with an emphasis on ki as the animating force in the universe, and made Ultimate Energy the equivalent of God in their religious outlook.37 Despite this emphasis on the energy seen and felt in the material world, Tonghak did not promote advances in science and technology until the 20th century. Instead, it retained the traditional Confucian focus on appropriate interactions among human beings.

The Neo-Confucian Worldview at the End of the Chosŏn Dynasty

It was not until Protestant missionaries started entering Korea in 1884 that the first serious attempts to replace the Confucian worldview with Western medical theory and practice, Western notions of geography, astronomy, and mathematics, and, of course, the Western religion of Christianity emerged. Unlike the Catholic missionaries who preceded them, Protestant missionaries opened hospitals and schools to teach both Christianity and the Western approach to the natural world.38 They made inroads, especially among the few members of the educated elite who recognized that the world outside Korea was undergoing dramatic changes, particularly evident in the decline of China and the rise of Japan, and that Korea needed to change in order to survive. However, Confucianism retained its grip on most of the population through to the end of the dynasty.

Because of both a lack of physicians trained in the biomedicine of the West and the reluctance of many Koreans to try an unfamiliar type of medicine, traditional medicine retained its appeal. In 1899, the government opened a new public hospital, which it staffed primarily with specialists in traditional medicine.39 In one sign of modernization, though, the next year the government inaugurated a licensing system for all practitioners of traditional medicine on the peninsula.40 This was the first time in Korean history that medical specialists who operated outside of the civil service had received any official certification of their expertise. However, it did not signal a transformation in the type of medicine those specialists practiced.

A major barrier to the rapid acceptance of the modern science and technology of the West was that, even though the Confucian civil service examinations had been ended in 1894 by a brief reform government, the most powerful policy-making positions remained in the hands of men who had received a traditional Confucian education. They were willing to allow the limited introduction of new technology. King Kojong (r. 1863–1907) began installing electric lighting in his palaces in 1885, and a little more than a decade later a few streetlights were placed along the main street in Seoul. By 1899, Seoul also had streetcars, and railroads began carrying passengers beyond the city walls that same year. And in 1901, the king acquired his first automobile.41 Technological change was accepted by the ruling elite as long as it did not undermine the hegemony of Confucianism and the power of Confucian officials.

Those Confucian officials were even willing, by the last decades of the Chosŏn era, to tolerate a small community of Christians on Korean soil.42 And they allowed the teaching of modern mathematics, geography, and other sciences in the modern schools that were being established by both missionaries and Koreans. Nevertheless, Chosŏn Korea remained predominantly Confucian until the end. The Confucian officials in charge saw both Christianity and Tonghak as minor irritants that would never gain enough support to successfully challenge the power of Confucianism. And they saw the new ideas about nature and the new techniques for manipulating it as nothing more than tools they could use to support their superior Confucian ethical and political ends.43 Chosŏn Confucianism did not unravel until after the government that supported it fell to the Japanese empire in 1910.

Discussion of the Literature

Korea has one of the longest traditions of history writing of any country on earth. The oldest extant history of Korea authored by a Korean, the Samguk sagi [The History of the Three Kingdoms], was written in the 12th century, and it claims to be based on earlier histories no longer extant. Until relatively recently, however, Korean histories focused on political, diplomatic, and military concerns. Works specifically dedicated to the history of Korean science, technology, or religion did not emerge until the 20th century, when Koreans learned about the modern discipline of history from their Japanese colonial overlords as well as from Westerners. Histories of science, technology, and religion in Korea are therefore a product of the encounter with the modern world and, as result, reflect a desire to highlight a separate and distinct Korean identity in a world composed of separate and distinct nations.

This desire to emphasize that Korea was different from other countries, particularly from its closest neighbors China and Japan, has produced historical accounts that tend to pay more attention to Korean originality and less attention to what Koreans have learned from others. In the area of science and technology, this means that Korean scholarship sometimes neglected Korea’s scientific and technological debt to China before 1900.44 There are several scholars in the field of the history of science in Korea who place this topic into its East Asian context. However, such scholars as Yung Sik Kim, Jongtae Lim, Yongbŏm Yi, and Seong-rae Park are outnumbered by more nationalistic scholars who focus solely on Korean sources and overlook the role interactions with China played in Korea’s scientific and technological accomplishments.

One example is the Korean claim that Korea invented the rain gauge in the 15th century, during the reign of King Sejong. Unfortunately, that original gauge no longer exists. The oldest rain gauge in Korea, in fact, the oldest extant rain gauge in East Asia, dates to 1770, with that date given according to the reign calendar of Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735–1796) in China. Some Chinese scholars insist that date on the rain gauge proves it was made in China, but Korean scholars point out that Korea also used Chinese imperial reign dates. Moreover, Chosŏn-era Korean sources say that a rain gauge was invented in the twenty-fourth year of King Sejong’s reign, over three centuries earlier, so that was not the first rain gauge to exist in Korea. Those who rely solely on Korean sources insist there is no question that Koreans invented the first rain gauge, while those who rely solely on Chinese sources insist that there are references to measurements of rain in 13th-century Chinese texts, proving that China must have had a rain gauge before Korea. Seong-rae Park and Sung Sam Kim are among the few to carefully examine both Korean and Chinese sources in order to settle this historical dispute. Both conclude that there is more evidence to support the Korean claim, though the Chinese concern for measuring rain may have stimulated Koreans to invent a rain gauge.45 Even though their use of a wide range of data supports what more nationalistic Koreans say, their example of carefully examining both Chinese and Korean sources has not been widely followed by other Korean historians of science and technology.

The common tendency to emphasize Korean originality and downplay the importance of ideas and techniques Koreans adopted from China can also be seen in the history of medical thought and practice in Korea. Hŏ Chun’s Tongŭi pogam deserves the accolades it receives as a comprehensive encyclopedia of traditional East Asian medical practice. It is justifiably held up as an example of Korean genius. However, most studies of Tongŭi pogam do not pay much attention to the fact that the vast majority of texts Hŏ drew on were Chinese rather than Korean.46 Moreover, Hŏ’s introductory discussion of health-enhancing and disease-preventing techniques of breathing and exercising is usually portrayed as rooted in traditional Korean longevity-enhancing practices. Little mention is made of the Chinese Daoist origin of those practices.

Alongside the tendency to downplay Chinese influence, there has also been a tendency to exaggerate the significance of Korean ideas when those ideas resemble those articulated in the early-modern West. For example, much has been made of the suggestions by such Chosŏn-era Confucian scholars as Kim Sŏk-mun (1658–1735), Yi Ik (1681–1763), and Hong Tae-yong (1731–1783) that the earth is round and rotates rather than being square and stationary.47 Some argue that those men learned about the rotation of the earth from publications by Europeans in China, proving that at least some Chosŏn Koreans were open to new ideas. Others argue that they came to the conclusion independently, proving that Koreans were capable of original scientific thought.48 No one has pointed out that none of those Koreans determined that the earth rotated through a mathematical analysis of the movement of celestial bodies as measured from earth. They were proposing provocative hypotheses rather than engaging in a modern scientific analysis of nature.

Scholarship on religion in Korea has followed a different path than scholarship on science and technology. South Korea today has an unusual religious culture in that approximately one half of the population says it identifies with a particular religion and the other half says it is not religious. Moreover, within the 50 percent who say they are religious, no single religion dominates. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 22 percent of South Koreans are Buddhists, 21 percent are Protestants, and 7 percent are Catholics.49 Ch’ŏndogyo, the main successor to the indigenous religion of Tonghak that emerged in the middle of the 19th century, is far behind, with less than 1 percent of the population.

Christianity is a recent addition to the Korean religious landscape, with Catholics appearing only in the last quarter of the 18th century and Protestants not arriving on the peninsula until the Chosŏn era was almost over. Yet Protestants claim more than one out of five South Koreans, and their churches are much more visible than Buddhist temples and Catholic churches.50 As a result, scholars of the history of Buddhism, Catholicism, and Ch’ŏndogyo tend to stress that they faced government persecution during Chosŏn times while Protestants did not, the implication being that persecution stymied their growth. It is true that Buddhism lost its favored status when Chosŏn replaced Koryŏ, though Buddhists were not killed for being Buddhists.51 Catholics and followers of Tonghak, on the other hand, were killed because of their religious beliefs. The history of Korean Catholicism in the 19th century is primarily a history of martyrs.52 And the founder of Tonghak, Ch’oe Cheu (1824–1864), was executed by the Chosŏn government, as were many of his followers in the decades after his death. However, most of the growth in not only Christian but also Buddhist numbers (Ch’ŏndogyo has not fared as well) came after 1960, long after the anti-Buddhist, anti-Christian, and anti-Tonghak Chosŏn government had disappeared, so persecution alone cannot explain the differences in the religious preferences of South Koreans in the 21st century. Historians of religion in Chosŏn Korea need to go beyond their focus on suffering, as well as their equally conspicuous focus on the ideas of prominent leaders, and look more at the religious lives of Koreans between 1392 and 1910, something a few scholars are starting to do.

In the 20th century, a solid foundation was laid for studies of the history of science, technology, and religion in Chosŏn Korea. The task of scholars in the 21st century is to build on that foundation to produce more nuanced studies of what Koreans thought and accomplished under their staunchly Confucian government.

Primary Sources

Literary Chinese was the primary language of Chosŏn. The Korean alphabet, now called Han’gŭl, was invented in the 15th century, when King Sejong sat on the throne, but it was little used except for vernacular poetry and fiction as well as writing by women until the end of the 19th century. The vast majority of sources providing information about science, technology, and even religion were written in Literary Chinese. That includes the most important source, the Chosŏn wangjo sillok (Annals of the Chosŏn Dynasty). The sillok [literally “veritable records”] is a daily record of discussions at court, as well as important petitions submitted to the court by Confucian scholars, for the entire 518 years of Chosŏn. Most of those discussions dealt with politics, foreign relations, and criminal cases. However, sometimes the king talked with his top officials about issues related to science, technology, or religion. Fortunately, the entire sillok has been placed online in its original Literary Chinese along with a modern Korean translation. Moreover, it is searchable by term or topic (sillok on-line). An English translation is also being prepared, though it is still in its early stages (English version of sillok).

The sillok is a summary of discussions at court. A more complete record is available for the second half of the dynasty, from the early 17th century until the end of the 19th century. The Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi [Daily Records of the Royal Secretariat] provides complete versions of many of the discussions at court. Unfortunately, we only have records from 1623 to 1910. Similar records are found in the Ilsŏngnok [Records for Daily Reflection], but its earliest entries date from 1760. Another possible source of information is Pibyŏnsa-tŭngnok [Records of the Border Defense Command], which is available for the period 1617 to 1892. All three are also available on-line (Sŭngjŏngwon ilgi and Ilsŏngnok Pibyŏnsa-tŭngnok).

The Chosŏn government also produced an encyclopedia, the Chŭngbo munhŏnbigo [Collected Documents for Reference, an Enlarged Edition]. It includes sections specifically on astronomy and geography. The final version was compiled in 1907. It is available online, with an accompanying modern Korean translation, through any library that has a subscription to the KRpia database of Korean e-books.

In addition to reference works produced by the government, the collected works of particular scholars can be mined for useful tidbits of information. The most fruitful collections would be Chibong yusŏl [miscellaneous comments of Chibong] of Yi Sugwang (1563–1628), Sŏngho sasŏl [Detailed comments by Sŏngho] of Yi Ik (1681–1763), Yŏyudang chŏnsŏ [Complete works of Yŏyudang] by Chŏng Yagyong (1762–1836), and Oju yŏnmun changjŏn san’go [Long-winded drafts of random thoughts by Oju] by Yi Kyugyŏng (1788–1856). These texts, along with many other collected works of Chosŏn scholars, can be accessed online at Institute for the Translation of Korean Classics. Despite the name of this site, only Sŏngho sasŏl is accompanied by a complete Korean translation. Yŏyudang chŏnsŏ is accompanied by a Korean translation of the first twenty-five volumes only. Chibong yusŏl and Oju yŏnmun changjŏn san’go are available online in the original Literary Chinese only.

Collected works of Korean Confucian Scholars Institute for the Translation of Korean Classics.

Ilsŏngnok [Records for Daily Reflection].

Pibyŏnsa-tŭngnok [Records of the Border Defense Command].

Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi [Daily Record of the Royal Secretariat.

Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty sillok on-line, English version of sillok.

Further Reading

Chung, Byung-jo. History of Korean Buddhism. P’aju, ROK: Jimoondang, 2007.Find this resource:

Jeon, Sang-woon (Chŏn Sang-un). The History of Science and Technology in Korea. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Kim, Sebastian C. H., and Kirsteen Kim. A History of Korean Christianity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Kim, Yongun with Yonguk Kim. Han’guk suhaksa. Seoul: Kwahakkwa I’gansa, 1977.Find this resource:

Kim, Yung Sik. “Problems and Possibilities in the Study of the History of Korean Science.” Osiris 13 (1998): 48–79.Find this resource:

Kim, Yung Sik. The Natural Philosophy of Chu Hsi, 1130–1200. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2000.Find this resource:

Ledyard, Gari. “Cartography in Korea.” In The History of Cartography. Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies. Edited by John B. Harley and David Woodward, vol. 2; 235–345. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Ministry of Health and Welfare, Korea. Donguibogam: Treasured Mirror of Eastern Medicine. Seoul: Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2013.Find this resource:

Needham, Joseph with Lu Gwei-Djen, John Combridge, and John Major. The Hall of Heavenly Records: Korean Astronomical Instruments and Clocks, 1380–1780. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Park, Changbom. Astronomy: Traditional Korean Science. Translated by Yoon-jung Cho and Hyun-ju Park. Seoul: Ewha Womans University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Park, Seong-Rae. “History of Science in Korea: A Survey.” Korea Journal 30.7 (July 1990): 4–8.Find this resource:

Park, Seong-Rae. “Pride and Prejudice in the Historiography of Science in East Asia.” In Current Perspectives in the History of Science in East Asia. Edited by Yung Sik Kim and Francesca Bray, 3–12. Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Park, Seong-rae. Science and Technology in Korean History: Excursions, Innovations, and Issues. Fremont, CA: Jain Publishing, 2005.Find this resource:

Yi, Yong Bhum with Lee Kyung Yup, Choi Jong Seong, and Boudewijn Walraven. Korean Popular Beliefs. P’aju, ROK: Jimoondang, 2015.Find this resource:

Yŏ Insŏk with Yi Hyŏnsuk, Kim Sŏngsu, Sin Kyuhwan, Pak Yunhyŏng, and Pak Yunjae. Han’guk uihaksa. Seoul: Korean Medical Association Center for Research on Medical Policy, 2012.Find this resource:

Yoon, Hong-Key. The Culture of Fengshui in Korea: An Exploration of East Asian Geomancy. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006.Find this resource:

Young, Carl F. Eastern Learning and Heavenly Way: The Tonghak and Ch’ŏndogyo Movements and the Twilight of Korean Independence. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014.Find this resource:


(1.) Mark E. Byington, ed., The Han Commanderies in Early Korean History (Cambridge, MA: Korea Institute, Harvard University, 2013).

(2.) Gar K. Ledyard, The Korean Language Reform of 1446 (Seoul: Sin’gu Munhwasa, 1998).

(3.) For a succinct but insightful analysis of the ways Korea differed from China in its social structure and political culture, see James B. Palais, “A Search for Korean Uniqueness,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 55.2 (December 1995): 409–425.

(4.) Joseph Needham and Ling Wang, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 2 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1956), esp. 232–265; and Yung Sik Kim, The Natural Philosophy of Chu Hsi, 1130–1200 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2000), 42–69.

(5.) For more on the fusion of fact and value in the traditional East Asian worldview, see Donald Munro, “My ‘investigation of things,’” Dao 15 (2016): 321–339.

(6.) On the government examination system, particularly how it applied to yangban, see Yi Sŏng-mu, “The Government Service Examinations of the Chosŏn Dynasty,” in The Institutional Basis of Civil Governance in the Chosŏn Dynasty, eds. John B. Duncan, Jung Chul Lee, Jeong-il Lee, Michaek Ahn, and Jack A. Davey (Seoul: Seoul Selection, 2009), 61–100. For the chungin, see Kim Yangsu, “Chosŏn hugi chŏnmunjik chungin ŭi kwahak.kisul hwaldong,” Yŏksa wa sirhak 27 (2004): 33–97.

(7.) Chŏn Sangun, Sejong sidae ŭi kwahak (Seoul: Sejong taewang kinyŏm saŏphoe, 1986), 58; and Kim Yongun and Kim Yongguk, Han’guk suhaksa (Seoul: Kwahakkwa I’gansa, 1977), 142–143, 168.

(8.) Kim and Kim, Han’guk suhaksa, 144–145, 168–192. An English-language summary of this book has been published as Kim Yong Woon, “Pan-Paradigm and Korean Mathematics in the Chosŏn Dynasty,” Korea Journal 26.3 (March 1986): 25–46. An English-language description of the core texts in this curriculum is available in Benjamin A. Elman, On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550–1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 423–424.

(9.) Kim and Kim, Han’guk suhaksa, 168.

(10.) Li Yan and Du Shiran, Chinese Mathematics: A Concise history, trans. John N. Crossley and Anthony W. C. Lun (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 184.

(11.) Kim and Kim, Han’guk suhaksa, 281–284; and Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, vol. 3 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 23–24.

(12.) Don Baker, “Impotent Numbers: Korean Confucian Reactions to Jesuit Mathematics,” The Korean Journal for the History of Science 34.2 (2012): 236–248.

(13.) Kim and Kim, Han’guk suhaksa, 256–263.

(14.) Baker, “Impotent Numbers,” 250–251; Koo Mhan-ock, “How Did a Confucian Scholar in Late Joseon Korea Study Mathematics? Hwang Yunseok and the Mathematicians of Late Eighteenth-Century Seoul,” Korea Journal for the History of Science 34.2 (2012): 257–286; and Jun Yong Hoon, “Mathematics in Context: A Case in Early Nineteenth-century Korea,” Science in Context 19.4 (2006): 475–512.

(15.) Kuksa p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe, ed., Han’guksa, vol. 10 (Seoul: Tamgudang, 1990), 122.

(16.) Park Seong-rae, Portents and Politics in Korean History (Seoul: Jimoondang, 1998).

(17.) In Yoon-jung Cho and Hyun-ju Park, trans., Astronomy: Traditional Korean Science (Seoul: Ewha Womans University Press, 2008); Changbom Park notes that “scholars inevitably tried to fit the Western models of the universe into the framework of traditional Asian cosmography” (p. 151). Earlier, Park bemoaned the fact that “there is little evidence that observation of the heaven and production of astronomical charts, which formed the basis of [earlier] Goryeo [Kogryŏ] astronomy, was supported by progress in theoretical astronomy” (p. 99).

(18.) Joseph Needham, Lu Gwei-Djen, John Combridge, and John Major, The Hall of Heavenly Records: Korean Astronomical Instruments and Clocks, 1380–1780 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 16–94.

(19.) Park Seong-rae, Science and Technology in Korean History: Excursions, Innovations, and Issues (Fremont, CA: Jain Publishing Co., 2005), 104.

(20.) Lim Jongtae, “Learning ‘Western’ Astronomy from ‘China’: Another Look at the Introduction of the Shixian li Calendrical System into Late Joseon Korea,” Korea Journal for the History of Science 34.2 (2012): 205–225. [“Joseon” is another way to Romanize the Korean term “Chosŏn.”]

(21.) Chosŏn wangjo sillok, King Injo yr. 23, 12th month, pyŏngsin day (1645) (Seoul: Kuksa P’yŏnch’an Wiwŏnhoe, 1955–1958).

(22.) Chŭngbo munhŏn pigo I, 6a–10b. (Seoul: Hongmun’gwan ch’anjip kyojŏng, 1907).

(23.) Sang-woon Jeon (Chŏn Sang-un), The History of Science and Technology in Korea (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2011), 43–63; and Changbom Park in Yoon-jung Cho and Hyun-ju Park, trans., Astronomy, 115–128. That temple is Pŏpjusa on Mount Sŏngni.

(24.) Kim, Seonmin, “Ginseng and Border Trespassing between China and Chosŏn Korea,” Late Imperial China 28.1 (2007), 33–61.

(25.) Hong-Key Yoon, The Culture of Fengshui in Korea: An Exploration of East Asian Geomancy (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), 231–240.

(26.) Kenneth R. Robinson, “Chosŏn Korea in the Ryūkoku Kangnido: Dating the Oldest Extant Korean Map of the World,” Imago Mundi 59.2 (2007): 177–192. An illustration of that map is available in Gari Ledyard, “Cartography in Korea,” in The History of Cartography, vol. 2.2, Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies, eds. J. B. Harley and David Woodward (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 244.

(27.) Example of such wheel maps can be found in Ledyard, Korean Language Reform, 257–258. There are also illustrations of wheel maps in Oh Sang-hak, “Circular World Maps of the Joseon Dynasty: Their Characteristics and Worldview,” Korea Journal 48.1 (2008): 8–45.

(28.) Because of his low social status, we do not know the exact date of his birth.

(29.) Ledyard, Korean Language Reform, 313–329; and Chŏng Hyŏng-u, “Kim Chŏng-ho’s Map of Korea,” Korea Journal 13.11 (1973): 37–42.

(30.) Tai-jin Kim, ed., A Bibliographical Guide to Traditional Korean Sources (Seoul: Asiatic Research Center, Korea University, 1976), 70–73.

(31.) An English translation of the complete Tongŭi pogam has been published in in nine volumes: Donguibogam: Treasured Mirror of Eastern Medicine (Seoul: Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2013).

(32.) Park Seong-rae, Science and Technology in Korean History, 124–125.

(33.) Song Il-byung, An Introduction to Sasang Constitutional Medicine, trans. Joseph K. Kim and Huh Mahn-hoi (Seoul: Jimoondang, 2005).

(34.) For English-language surveys of the history of Buddhism in Korea, see Chung Byung-jo, History of Korean Buddhism (P’aju, ROK: Jimoondang, 2007); and Korean Buddhist Research Institute, ed., The History and Culture of Buddhism in Korea (Seoul: Dongguk University Press, 1993).

(35.) For more on Korea’s folk religion, see Choi Joon-sik, Folk Religion: The Customs of Korea (Seoul: Ewha Womans University Press, 2005); Yi Yong Bhum, Lee Kyung Yup, Choi Jong Seong, and Boudewijn Walraven, Korean Popular Beliefs (P’aju, ROK: Jimoondang, 2015); and Hyung-key Kim Hogarth, Korean Shamanism and Cultural Nationalism (Seoul: Jimoondang, 1999).

(36.) Sebastian C.H. Kim and Kirsteen Kim, A History of Korean Christianity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 14–53.

(37.) For more on Tonghak, which changed its name to Ch’ŏndogyo near the end of the dynasty, see Carl F. Young, Eastern Learning and Heavenly Way: The Tonghak and Ch’ŏndogyo Movements and the Twilight of Korean Independence (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2014). Also see Don Baker, Korean Spirituality (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), 79–85.

(38.) Kim and Kim, A History of Korean Christianity, 54–106.

(39.) Yŏ Insŏk, Yi Hyŏnsuk, Kim Sŏngsu, Sin Kyuhwan, Pak Yunhyŏng, and Pak Yunjae, Han’guk uihaksa (Seoul: Korean Medical Association Center for Research on Medical Policy, 2012).

(40.) Annette H. K. Son, “Modernization of Medical Care in Korea, 1876–1990,” Social Science & Medicine 49 (1999): 543–550.

(41.) Andrei Lankov, The Dawn of Modern Korea (Seoul: Eunhaeng namu, 2007). Also see Min Suh Son, “Electrifying Seoul and the Culture of Technology in Nineteenth Century Korea” (unpublished PhD diss., UCLA, 2008).

(42.) By 1910, Protestants numbered slightly less than 150,000 and Catholics around 73,000, out of a total population of at least 15 million. Don Baker, “Sibling Rivalry in Twentieth-century Korea,” in Christianity in Korea, eds., Robert E. Buswell, Jr. and Timonthy S. Lee (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006), 292.

(43.) Park Seong-Rae, “Introduction of Western Science in Korea, 1876–1919,” Korea Journal 21.5 (May 1981): 29–38.

(44.) Yung Sik Kim, “The Problem of China in the Study of the History of Korean Science: Korean Science, Chinese Science, and East Asian Science,” in Questioning Science in East Asian Contexts: Essays on Science, Confucianism, and the Comparative History of Science, ed. Yung Sik Kim (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014), 239–252.

(45.) Kim, Sung Sam, “Comments on the Chinese Claim for the Invention of Rain Gauges,” Korea Journal 30.7 (July, 1990): 22–32; and Park Seong-Rae, “Pride and Prejudice in the Historiography of Science in East Asia,” in Current Perspectives in the History of Science in East Asia, eds. Yung Sik Kim and Francesca Bray (Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 1999), 9–11. Park has a more detailed version of his argument for Korean priority in the Korean-language version of the same article (“Tongasia kwahaksa-esŏ ŭi charang kwa p’yŏn’gyŏn,” Kwahak sasang 19 [1996]: 69–90).

(46.) One exception is Kim Ho, Hŏ Chun ŭi Tongŭi pogam yŏn’gu (Seoul: Iljisa, 2000), 132–134. He lists all the sources Hŏ refers to and where they came from.

(47.) Yung Sik Kim, “Problems and Possibilities in the Study of the History of Korean Science,” Osiris 13 (1998): 53–54; and Yung Sik Kim, “The Ideas of the Earth’s Rotation in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century East Asia: Independent Development, Transmission from the West, and Chinese Forerunners,” in Questioning Science in East Asian Contexts, ed. Kim, 205–235.

(48.) Sang-woon Jeon, The History of Science and Technology in Korea, 149–166.

(49.) Gallup Korea, ed., Han’gugin ŭi Chonggyo: 1984, 1989, 1887, 2004, che och’a 2014 pigyo chosa pogosŏ (Seoul: Gallup Korea Research Center, 2015), 19.

(50.) In 2011 the South Korean government reported that there were close to 80,000 Protestant churches in the ROK, compared to around 27,000 Buddhist temples and less than 2,000 Catholic churches (Don Baker, “The Emergence of a Religious Market in Twentieth-century Korea,” Review of Korean Studies 19.1 [June 2016]: 15).

(51.) Don Baker, “Privatization of Buddhism in the Chosŏn Dynasty,” Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies 14.2 (October 2014): 1–17.

(52.) Sebastian C. H. Kim and Kirsteen Kim, A History of Korean Christianity, 31–53.