By Andy Boone
When did tea first integrate into Korean culture? Ancient texts date back 5,000 years mentioning PaeksanCha or “White Mountain Tea, ” but the widely accepted story is that Indian Princess Heo Hwang Ok of Ajodhya brought the gift of tea seeds upon her marriage to the King of Gaya in 56 A.D. The princess traveled with the seeds to the most ideal spot for them to grow – the White Mountain – but she found tea already growing there! If tea knowledge was a part of ancient Korean culture it had been lost to time, an unfortunate theme in the cycle of loss and rediscovery that characterizes Korea’s tea history.
Tea culture flourished in Korea around the first century. Some historical documents indicate that tea offering ceremonies were performed either as a buddhist ritual or as medicine, and predate all other known tea ceremonies of the world.
During the Goyo period (918-1392) tea became particularly popular with nobility and the buddhist monks. Tea ceremonies were a staple of nearly every royal event and festival during this time. The royal court even established DaBhang, a federal agency to oversee tea supply and officiate the elaborate tea ceremonies and poetry readings of the royal court. Many arbors and pavilions were established to host tea parties for court officials. Buddhist temples gave rise to tea villages to supply the temples with tea. This period created artistic teaware popular amongst the nobles and buddhist monks.
Tea has even inspired poets. Many scholars believe there are more tea poems written in Korean than any other language. Korean tea poetry has influenced the style of tea ceremony, raising the bar of tea delivery and enjoyment to the level of performance art! However, the common man only consumed the libation during celebrations or buddhist rituals.
Confucianism in the 14th century had a negative impact on tea culture in Korea. Rice wine became the center of attention as Buddhist temples were wiped out. Offerings on ancient altars even made the transition from tea to wine. Yet the crushing blow came with an invasion from Japanese feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 1590’s. He and his generals were devotees of Japanese tea ceremony and they admired the beauty and craftsmanship of Korea’s teaware, so they rounded up hundreds of Korean potters to take captive to Japan. Under the hardships of war, tea became a luxury awarded to only to Korean aristocrats.
For the first half of the 20th century, Japanese colonial rule suppressed Korean culture and the imposed Japanese tea customs until after World War 2 and the Korean War were over. Only then did Tea culture reemerge in the 1960’s. Tea masters began restoring plantations and teaching the function and art of their ceremonies. Today Korean tea culture and production is re-emerging with exquisite craftsmanship, and experiencing unprecedented levels of popularity and interest.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/136887643″>A Korean Way for Preparing Tea</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user28844204″>Cho Hak</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
1-Surprising to most scholars, these were of the Camellia sinensis sinensis variety (this variety wasn’t known to be cultivated in India until around the turn of the 19th century), and not the assamica which would have been native to India.
3- This became the foundation of the modern Japanese ceramic industry.