JEJU WEEKLY
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Jeju traditional medicine - the healing biodiversity of the island
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승인 2013.03.28  11:16:03
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[Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series. For Part 2, click here.]

In the richness of Jeju's various natural resources, none compare to the vast array of plant species – many with known medicinal uses.

As previously described, the traditional healing system used by the people of this island has three branches: the mainland's traditional medicine, botanical as well as physical therapies such as acupuncture which were adapted from that of China; shamanism, traditionally a system of healing and even today used to calm the mind and console the spirit; and, the island's indigenous medicinal botany.

Contributing to the health and renowned longevity of this island society as well are the pristine soil and air; water from deep aquifers purified and recharged by the volcanic rock on the surface; cuisine based on a variety of whole grains, fish, plants and fermented foods including soybean; and a complex psychological profile including social engagement, purpose, mutual aid, extended family systems, self-sufficiency, determinism, and much more.

Some of the staples of the Jeju diet which are universally known for their health properties include garlic, ginger, ginseng, and 'suk' or mugwort (artemisia argyi), among many others.

Jeju's medicinal plants can be found throughout the island's climatic zones, from the coastal, grasslands and evergreen broadleaf mid-mountain (known locally as 'gotjawal') regions which collectively make up the subtropical zone, through the temperate zone of deciduous broadleaf at >600m above sea level, to the sub-arctic and sub-alpine zones above 1400m with evergreen coniferous forest and shrubs. Very few are extracted from the sea, and a very small number of Jeju's indigenous treatments are animal-based.

Many of these botanical medicines can also be purchased at the daily and 5-day traditional markets. They have been typically ingested as decoctions, infusions, tinctures, foods, pellets, or ashes, applied as salves and poultices, inhaled in steam, made into suppositories, or used in shamanic ceremonies meant to cure by magico-religious means.

Three animal-based treatments are unique to Jeju: a centipede, raptor, and grub.

The centipede variety, a Scolopendra subspecies known as “ji-ne”on the mainland and “ji-neng-i” or “jeu-naeng-i” in Jeju dialect, is used for the treatment of backache, arthritis, and neuralgia.

After removing the head, tail and legs, considered “too strong” (whether in taste or medicinal properties is unknown), the remaining 19 segments of the torso are roasted over the fire, then boiled with chicken, extracted and shaped into a ball with the raw yolk of a chicken egg, and the resulting pellet is swallowed.

Found primarily in the mid-mountain regions, under rocks as the creatures prefer a damp climate, they were thought in the 1970s to number “ten times the amount of the Jeju population” according to folklore; boys would go into the woods to collect and sell them. Today, due to development, the centipede population has dwindled.

The raptor Accipiter Gentilis Schvedowi or Eastern Goshawk is locally known as “cham-mae” or “chang-eung” and is used by shamans, a universal characteristic stemming from the earliest forms of shamanism found in the Altaic and Tuvan regions of Siberia. The beak, foot, wing and tail are all used for the treatment of seizure disorders, also known as epilepsy and in folk terms, “fits.” In shamanism, this type of ailment is viewed as a form of spirit possession. The cure includes burning one or more of the aforementioned bird parts, then infusing the ashes in alcohol to be consumed by the afflicted.

In the treatment of “soul loss,” one of the singular most universal features of shamanistic traditions, the shaman uses the feather of the bird only. Upon burning the feather in the context of ritual, the ashes are then consumed by the devotee in order to console the spirit.

A white grub, larva of trypoxylus dichotomus [allomyrina] septentrionalis or Japanese horned beetle, a type of rhinoceros beetle, is the third type of animal used in Jeju medicine. Called “gum-baeng-i” in the mainland, it is known as “sil-geo-ri na-mu-e-deun [caesalpinia japonica, the type of tree in which it lives] jat” or simply, “jat.” The beetle is prolific throughout Northeast Asia and is a type of scarab. In its 3rd larval stage, the final before metamorphosis, it is fried in sesame oil much like the “pondegi” or silkworm larvae of the mainland. Rich in protein, it is fed to children to treat “ga-re,” or phlegmatic conditions.

Additionally, the abalone and the sea cucumber have each been called “the ginseng of the sea,” used to boost “yang” energy in the yinyang balance at the core of Taoism-based Traditional Chinese Medicine [TCM] which informs that of Korea. The boar and deer, used in TCM and indigenous to Jeju, were not included in the local medicine; Halla deer species either have no antlers, the feature used in TCM, or their antlers are considered “too strong” to be used for medicine.

Horse bone powder, recently in vogue, is not a traditional medicine of Jeju, despite the island's identification with the horse. Brought by the Mongolian invaders of the 13th century, Mongolians at that time considered it inauspicious to consume any part of the horse (although they include horsemeat in their diet today) – or, it is surmised, instilled such belief in the people of Jeju in order to protect their livestock – so the use of horse bone powder as a medicine, rich in calcium though it may be, is a fairly recent trend.

There are numerous medicinal plants in the diverse Jeju biosphere; in Jeju's micro-climate, plants of both northern and southern hemispheres grow, and zones range from sub-tropic coastal and grasslands to temperate (evergreen broadleaf, deciduous, and evergreen coniferous), alpine, and sub-arctic. The volcanic soil and rocky base, which serve to purify and recharge the water supply, further add to this unique and very rich ecosystem.

Jeju is a natural “medicine bag” – gift of the gods to the island's inhabitants.

For detailed information on the most common medicinal plants of Jeju, please see Part 2 of this series, here.


Dr. Hilty is a cultural psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju her home. Dr. Hilty was additionally educated in and practiced Traditional Chinese Medicine for 14 years.

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