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History of epidemics in Korea explored at National Folk Museum

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The diary of Joseon-era military official Rho Sang-chu (1746-1829), which was kept for more than six decades, from 1763 to 1829, is on display at the National Folk Museum of Korea's exhibition,
The diary of Joseon-era military official Rho Sang-chu (1746-1829), which was kept for more than six decades, from 1763 to 1829, is on display at the National Folk Museum of Korea's exhibition, "Our Lives Beyond Epidemics" / Courtesy of the National Folk Museum of Korea

By Park Han-sol

"Last night, the symptoms of my child who has fallen ill with smallpox grew so much worse that I could hear him coughing up phlegm from outside the house. I am deeply worried that he may not be able to live to see another day."

In his diary entry from 1778, Joseon-era military official Rho Sang-chu (1746-1829) poured out his feelings of frustration and misery about the prospect of losing his own child, who is said to have died less than a day later.

These private records, kept by Rho from 1763 to 1829, which offer a glimpse of life marked by a deadly outbreak during the late Joseon Dynasty, are on public display for the first time at the National Folk Museum of Korea's exhibition, "Our Lives Beyond Epidemics."

More than 350 artifacts and videos shed light on the country's history of epidemics, spanning from the Three Kingdoms era to the present years of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as different forms of folk culture that emerged as a response to the outbreaks.

The earliest record of an epidemic can be found in "Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms)," the oldest surviving chronicle of Korean history compiled in 1145 during the Goryeo Kingdom period (918-1392). In 15 BCE, in the Baekjae Kingdom (18 BCE to 660 CE), "people were starving due to the drought from the spring to the summertime, and the epidemic spread," the book writes.

But the most detailed information about the extents of mass outbreaks of disease and remedies concocted by both royalty and commoners can be witnessed in records from the Joseon Dynasty.

There was even statistical data kept by a provincial governor in Pyeongan Province that tracked the number of deaths from the epidemics spreading in the region, reminiscent of the current COVID-19 tracking system. In just seven months, the number rose more than fivefold, from 3,880 in December 1524 to 20,424 in July of the next year.

One major infectious disease that plagued the nation for centuries was smallpox. Its prevalent existence is hinted at not only in written records such as Roh's diary, but also in the portraits of high-ranking government officials.

In accordance with court painters' practice of depicting the subject with attention to minute facial features and imperfections ― from scars and spots to wrinkles ― portraits of officials like Jo Heung-jin and Yi Seong-won show the smallpox scars on their faces.

The widespread fear surrounding smallpox made Koreans deify it; they called it, "Smallpox God," or "Your Majesty," that needs to be appeased.

The remedies for such an epidemic ranged widely from unique ritualistic practices to practical medical treatments.

A horse made of hay that was used in a shamanic ritual held to appease and send back the smallpox spirit / Courtesy of the National Folk Museum of Korea
A horse made of hay that was used in a shamanic ritual held to appease and send back the smallpox spirit / Courtesy of the National Folk Museum of Korea

One was a shamanic ritual held to "send back" the smallpox spirit. Held on the night of the twelfth day after a person has fallen ill, it aimed to appease the spirit and send it back to where it came from via a ritualistic horse made of hay.

Another life-changing epidemic, cholera, which arrived in Korea in 1821, was initially called a "mysterious disease" for its bizarre nature. Members of the working class often referred to it as "mouse pain ('jwi-tong' in Korean)" as the painful symptoms of the disease were said to be similar to those of rodent bites.

This superstitious connection between the animal and the disease led to the peculiar practice that was recorded in 19th-century French explorer Charles Varat's "Voyage en Coree" (1892).

"For the evil spirit of cholera, an unusual and aggressive remedy was being adopted ― putting up talismans in the shape of cats on the main entrance of the house [to chase away the mice]," he wrote.

Medical books like "Donguibogam," (1610) written by court physician Heo Jun, present a medicinal soup made up of kudzu roots and bugbane as a remedy for the fever symptoms of smallpox and measles.

When viewed from above, the plan of the exhibition is designed to resemble the shape of an infinity symbol. Human history has been and will continue to be marked by epidemics. But by creating a point of emotional resonance with present-day audiences amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it offers a message of hope that humans will once again overcome what lies ahead of them.

The exhibition, "Our Lives Beyond Epidemics," runs through Feb. 28, 2022 at the National Folk Museum of Korea.

An installation view of the exhibition,
An installation view of the exhibition, "Our Lives Beyond Epidemics" / Courtesy of the National Folk Museum of Korea
박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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