Hygiene, Medicine, and Modernity in Korea, 1876–1910

Volume 03, Issue 1

Modernity in relation to medicine and the body is central to discussions on modernity in Korea. I have chosen to write this paper I have already penned several writings that are related to the topic: modern hygiene, cleanliness, medical service, and medicine. First topic is about the contrast between premodernity and modernity by comparing the prevalence of cholera in the early nineteenth and the early twentieth century. I discussed the new Western hygiene to control cholera decisively contributing to the destruction of the Confucian worldview and the generation of a new colonial modern order as well as preventing an epidemic, cholera. Second topic is about the dichotomy between cleanliness—cultured and uncleanliness—barbarity. Because it was related to the five senses, the discourse of uncleanliness and cleanliness could bring about an immediate effect, which made it the most elementary and primary discourse of modernity in Korea. Third topic is about premodern bodies in topknots and modern bodies in short hair. From among the incidents and topics that I studied then, the most impressive and extreme case regarding the relationship between the body and hygiene was that of the Cut Topknot Act (斷髮令). According to this decree, there were two main reasons for cutting off topknots: hygiene and convenience. Underlying them is the idea that long hair harms political reform and national enrichment. Indeed, this legislation had served as the battleground for a fierce war between modern standards and premodern traditions. Fourth topic is about the modernizing phase of health care system in Korea between 1876 and 1910. The health care system in Korea underwent tremendous changes from 1876 to 1910. In this process, the recently imported Western practices gradually came to occupy the center and existing practices were delegated to the periphery. Final topic is about the sanitation movement that believers of Ch' ǒntokyo initiated around the twentieth century. This voluntary movement was greatly different from the two external and forced modernizations by Japanese imperialism and Western missionaries.

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