Although the nations surrounding China were heavily inﬂuenced by Chinese medical philosophy, the direction of exchange is sometimes obscure. Shared medical traditions have different creation myths in each state within the Chinese cultural sphere. For example, in Korea, the invention of moxa and stone acupuncture needles was attributed to Tan Gun, the legendary founder of that nation. Many medicinal substances were exported from Korea to China, before Korea exported Chinese medicine to Japan. Due to Korea’s geographical situation, the history of medicine in the peninsula was intimately linked to developments in China, Japan, and other Asian countries. During the Three Kingdoms period (37 B.C.E.–935 A.D.), scholars adapted the Chinese writing system to the Korean language. The date for the introduction of Buddhism into Korea is usually given as 372, when a Chinese monk brought Buddhist scriptures and images. Having adopted Buddhism from China, Korean monks and scholars traveled to China and India in search of further enlightenment. Buddhism also ﬁgures prominently in early interactions between Korea and Japan. Surviving historical records suggest that disease germs as well as religious artifacts were involved in these transactions.
Korean physicians were very much inﬂuenced by Chinese medical philosophy, and used Chinese medical terms in describing disease, but they also reinterpreted Chinese texts in terms of local conditions and added information obtained from Indian sources. Scholarly discussions of disease generally followed the principles set forth in the Chinese medical literature, but the study of Korea’s traditional folk remedies stim- ulated the development of an independent line of medical scholarship that recognized the importance of local conditions. Such texts include the Emergency Remedies of Folk Medicine (1236), a medical encyclopedia entitled the Compilation of Native Korean Prescriptions (1433), and the Exemplar of Korean Medicine (1610).
Emergency Remedies of Folk Medicine mainly deals with the use of local drugs, but it also describes symptoms of various diseases and methods of cure in terms of classical Chinese medicine. Medical emer- gencies described in the text include food poisoning, the bites of poisonous insects and wild animals, stroke, nightmares, drowning, falls, alcoholism, epilepsy, fainting, hemorrhages, internal bleeding, and so forth. The text also described the symptoms of malaria, the ‘‘three- day fever’’ that was much feared throughout the region, and its treatment with various local medicines.
Chinese records suggest very early opportunities for the spread of smallpox and other diseases through direct and indirect trade with India, Rome, and Arabia. The Exemplar of Korean Medicine states that smallpox was introduced into northern China from Central Asia by the Huns about the time that the Han Dynasty replaced the Chou Dynasty. Smallpox was probably brought to Korea from China by the end of the sixth century and then transmitted from Korea to Japan.
Another kind of argument about China’s relationship with the Western world is exempliﬁed by Gavin Menzies’s controversial claim that Ming Dynasty explorers, led by Admiral Zheng He, discovered the Americas in 1421. In 1405, Zheng launched a great ﬂeet of ships on the ﬁrst of seven expeditions. Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng allegedly led the ﬂeet to places as distant as Sumatra, India, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Kenya, and the Americas. Most scholars believe that Chinese explorers and travelers did bring back stories of an exotic world outside the sphere of Chinese inﬂuence, but China’s rulers apparently concluded that what the outside world had to offer was insigniﬁcant. Menzies, author of 1421: The Year China Discovered America, gained considerable notoriety for his theory that Admiral Zheng discovered America before Columbus. He has also argued that DNA evidence conﬁrms his thesis. According to Menzies, some Chinese sailors and concubines who accompanied the Ming Dynasty admiral remained in the Americas, established settlements, and interbred with indigenous peoples.