Medical Applications and Distribution of Borneol during the Joseon Period


Uisahak. 2024 Apr;33(1):1-57. doi: 10.13081/kjmh.2024.33.1.


Borneol(yongnoe) was a fragrance and medicinal ingredient with unique efficacy. However, it could be produced only in tropical Southeast Asia and obtained only through international trade. In addition, camphor(jangnoe) with similar material properties was developed and distributed as an inexpensive replacement for borneol, although the processing method is different from that of borneol. Even in Joseon Korea, borneol and camphor were recognized as separate medicines, and efforts were made to obtain a high-quality borneol. Borneol and camphor have a unique effect of relieving inflammation, pain and heavy feeling, so it could be widely applied to symptoms in various diseases. During the Joseon period, borneol was a rare item that could only be obtained through foreign trade, and it was also used for perfumes and insect repellents, but most widely used as medicine. There are many records of actually prescribing borneol to the royal family, and many medicines containing borneol and its effective symptoms were also recorded in the medical books. Borneol was able to spread widely in Joseon society thanks to the practice of distributing ‘nabyak’ to court officials every year in the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Since nabyak was used as a household medicine that was stored and used when necessary, pills containing borneol that could be applied to various symptoms were suitable for this purpose. Despite considerable medical demand, borneol was one of the important ‘dangyakjae’, the Chinese medicines imported to Joseon. During the Joseon period, borneol was imported through China and Japan, but genuine borneol was difficult to obtain, so it was often presented to Joseon as gifts of envoy trade. It is thought that camphor was also imported, but it is not well mentioned in official records or medical books reflecting national demand. Perhaps this is thought to be because the government prioritized securing better quality borneol rather than campher. In the early 17th century, due to the instability of the envoy’s route to the Ming Dynasty, Joseon had to import borneol only through the sea. As a result, there were problems with the supply and quality of borneol, and national interest in Japanese borneol temporarily increased. However, as the relationship with the Qing Dynasty stabilized, a system was established to import national borneol demand through the annual envoy trade. Naeuiwon, the medical center for the royal family is in charge of securing and prescribing Chinese medicines, but the cost was covered by the silver paid by Hojo, the ministry of finance of Joseon Dynasty. Since the amount of Chinese medicines used in the preparation of nabyak was not small, the financial burden of importing enough medicines including borneol increased. The purveyors for government played a role in supplying Chinese medicines to the government. Their appearance shows that private merchants were actively involved in the trade of Chinese medicines including borneol. The formation of the medicinal market by private merchants’ activities greatly contributed to the widespread expansion of the applications and distribution of borneol.

PMID:38768990 | DOI:10.13081/kjmh.2024.33.1