Varieties of Tea in Korea *By Brother Anthony of Taize, with Hong Kyeong-Hee

We are honored to have such experts on Korean tea join The Leaf in contributing to the free spread of Cha Dao.

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3 Responses to “Varieties of Tea in Korea *By Brother Anthony of Taize, with Hong Kyeong-Hee”

  1. sgarrigues Says:

    This is a wonderful article, and I am happy to see something so informative on Korean tea. I hope this encourages others to delve into the world of flavor that Korean teas offer.

    The story of tea in Korea is a fascinating one, with its dramatic ups and downs. I hope you will allow me to add some notes on the story of tea in Korea.

    Whenever it was that tea was first introduced to the peninsula, it was certainly under the Koryo [Goryeo] Dynasty (918-1392) that its usage reached its height. This was the high point of Buddhist culture in Korea, and with state support magnificent temples were constructed and Buddhist estates were endowed throughout the kingdom. Tea was intimately intertwined with the practice of Buddhism, as in other parts of East Asia, and many tea plantations were run by Buddhist monasteries. The popularity of tea with the ruling class went hand-in-hand with their support and practice of Buddhist culture in general. But things were to take a sudden and drastic turn with the fall of the Koryo Dynasty.

    The new rulers of the Yi, or Choson [Joseon] Dynasty (1392-1910) determined to make a complete break with the past and all the practices of the old Koryo regime were rejected. There is no doubt that the huge text-exempt Buddhist monastic estates had contributed to the loss of revenue of the central government, and political meddling by powerful Buddhist prelates had weakened the faction-ridden court. The solution was a simple one. Confucianism was adopted as the sole state ideology, and official support for Buddhism was withdrawn. Buddhist estates were confiscated by the central authority, all Buddhist temples in the towns and cities of Korea were closed and demolished, and only those that were situated in the mountains far from any centers of population were allowed to remain. With the new state doctrine being Confucianism, all positions at court and in civil service were to be based upon knowledge of the Confucian classics, and Buddhists were prohibited from holding any positions of social influence or prestige.

    The drinking of tea, which had been widespread among the gentry class during the Koryo era, suddenly became suspect behavior, due to its connection with Buddhism, and almost overnight it disappeared from the tables of the elite. The tea plantations were abandoned and allowed to go back to nature. A few remote temples, especially in the Jiri Mountains of the southwest, maintained small tea groves for their own use, but otherwise the cultivation of tea in Korea essentially disappeared during the early 1400’s. Those “wild tea groves” found in various regions of Korea today are all the feral survivors of the abandoned tea estates.

    Another change, with an indirect relation to tea, was in the area of pottery. The opulence of the Koryo court was rejected, and the beautiful and unsurpassed blue-green Koryo celadon ware fell into disfavor and was no longer produced. Instead, the new regime favored an elegant and simple white porcelain for court use, while a rustic type a gray-to-brown ware called punch’ong (buncheong) with distinctive stamped or brushed slip design was produced at local kilns for common everyday usage. It was this punch’ong ware that became popular in Japan with the rise of “wabi-cha” among the samurai class during the latter Momoyama and Muromachi periods, and the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) and his tea master Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591) were the most renowned admirers of this ware, which was seen as the epitome of wabi (spontaneous, organic, and a thing of unpretentious beauty). It was the common rice bowls of punch’ong style that the tea practitioners of Japan imported for use in their Zen-inspired tea ceremonies. There was really no such thing as a “tea bowl” in Korea at the time. During Hideyoshi’s devastating invasion of Korea (1592-1598), among the “loot” taken to Japan were entire villages of punch’ong potters, virtually everyone producing that ware in the entire country. That was the end of punch’ong in Korea (until it’s modern revival in the late 20th century), but it continues to be made in Japan by the very same descendents of those enslaved potters, where it is known as Mishima ware, and it is still highly prized by contemporary Japanese cha-no-yu enthusiasts.

    Tea itself has made an impressive comeback in Korea, along with the reinvention of a tea “tradition” (and the revival of the fortunes of Buddhism), but that is entirely a late 20th Century and early 21st Century story.

  2. issue7 Says:

    Thanks so much for the wonderful addition. There is another article in issue 2 about Korean tea by Jeffrey McCloud you should have a look at as well. This is great!

  3. stephenc Says:

    I have just returned from South Korea. It was my first trip there and I spent a week at the Hadong Tea Festival. Firstly, let me say that I had never experienced such warm hospitality a a visitor to another country. Secondly, the tea that I tasted, drunk and experienced was like no other. Korean tea is truely a “one of a kind” and something that all tea people need to know about. It is not better than other teas, it is just uniquely different and worthy of trying. The Hadong Festival is rather difficult to find out about (at least in English) but really worth going to with many opportunities to learn about Korean tea. The article by Brother Anthony is excellent and took me back there for a few moments. Thank you.

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