Korean J Med Hist.  2019 Aug;28(2):373-426. 10.13081/kjmh.2019.28.373.

Choe Han-gi's Discourse on Singi and His Criticism on Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine: Focusing on the Relationship with Seo Gyeong-deok's Philosophy

  • 1Department of History, Sungkyunkwan University, Korea. csungsan@skku.edu


This study examines how Choe Han-gi (崔漢綺, 1803-1879) developed his medical discourse which integrated the concepts of traditional Chinese medicine with modern Western anatomy, based on the philosophy of Seo Gyeong-deok (徐敬德, 1489-1546), a scholar of the Neo-Confucianism of Joseon (1392-1910). Seo emphasized gi (氣, C. qi, vital, material force) rather than yi (理, C. li, the principle of things) as a way of understanding the world. Since Choe's early academic interests pertained to Neo-Confucianism, it is reasonable to examine his philosophy in this context. Similar to Seo, Choe assumed that the most essential component of the world was the intrinsic and mysterious gi. Although Seo spoke of gi as a damil cheongheo ji gi (湛一淸虛之氣, the gi which is profound, uniform, clear, invisible, and empty), Choe preferred to use the word singi (神氣, C. shenqi, the intrinsic, invisible, and mysterious gi). He believed that the earth, moon, and stars operated through the action of singi and that all creatures could only exist by relying on it. Singi was the most important premise in Choe's medical discourse, a fact demonstrating that although he could be very critical of traditional Chinese medicine, his perspective was part of that tradition. He believed that singi integrated and operated the entire human body and that it perceived external objects. He also emphasized the role of hyeongjil (形質, C. xingzhi, a visible object with a form and quality; here it means all human bodies). This was the medium through which singi could appear in reality. Choe thought that singi could not reveal itself in reality without hyeongjil, and that hyeongjil became a dead thing without singi. His perception of the role of hyeongjil was expressed in his interest in modern Western anatomy, an interest that complemented his focus on singi. In light of his understanding of the singi-hyeongjil relationship, Choe criticized both modern Western anatomy and traditional Chinese medicine. He thought that modern Western anatomy lacked awareness of singi and that traditional Chinese medicine lacked accurate knowledge of human anatomy. Although he was not completely sympathetic toward any forms of medicine, he was open to ideas from both Western and Chinese medicine. Choe could not accept Western anatomy as fully as Japanese intellectuals did. The study of anatomy in Japan had developed in relation to the idea of Ancient Learning (古學, C. guxue), which denied such theories of systematic correspondence as Yin and Yang and the Five Elements (陰陽五行, C. yinyang wuxing) and tended to focus on the action of hyeongjil itself. Because Choe accepted modern Western anatomy without accepting Ancient Learning, his perspective was unique in the history of East Asian anatomy. From a medical history perspective, how does Choi Han-gi's medical discourse distinguish itself from other medical discourses, and what are its characteristics? In addition to other explanations, focusing on the political imagination associated with medicine can help illuminate the differences between the medical discourse of Choe and those of others. Discussion of medicine and the human body was tied to political thought, manifesting the political imagination of the society in which that discussion took place. The development of Western and Japanese anatomy reflected a vertical and hierarchical political order, exemplified by the belief that the brain was the center of the body. However, Choe doubted that organs like the brain or heart dominated the body. In his view, the singi ruled the body; it was not a specific organ, and it was equally inherent in all people. His political thought also emphasized the horizontal and equal order among people. His view of singi simultaneously influenced both his perspective on medicine and his perspective on society. Choe Han-gi's belief in this horizontal and equal political order was inherent in his singi-centered medical discourse.


CHOE Han-gi; SEO Gyeong-deok; YANG Eung-su; Singi; Hyeongjil; Ancient Learning; Western Anatomy

MeSH Terms

Asian Continental Ancestry Group*
Complement System Proteins
Human Body
Medicine, Chinese Traditional
Complement System Proteins
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