Tea in South Korea Had a Circuitous History

So much about tea is actually really depressing, both now and historically.

There are conflicts over land, wages, profit, quality, quantity. Issues of weather and natural disasters.

Combine those problems with how tea has been used to wield power—during times when tea is highly esteemed and even when it’s disparaged—and you quickly realize how a simple plant that brings joy has also spawned complex misery.

Take South Korea, for example. With tea already well established in the 900s, and with tea entwined with Korean culture today, we might think it’s been a straight trajectory. But no.

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In Favor

According to Laurie Barnes in her book High Tea: Glorious Manifestations East and West, a princess from India brought tea seeds with her when she married King Suro in the year 48 CE, planting them in Changwon City, on the southeast coast of what is now South Korea.

Not sure if those seeds grew or not, but tea was being imported (or gifted) from China, and eventually made firm inroads:

  • by the early 600s, Queen Seondeok was drinking green tea medicinally
  • in the mid- to late 600s, tea became part of court ceremonies
  • by the mid-700s, King Gyeongdoek popularized the brew; Ch’ungdam, a Buddhist monk, initiated the Buddhist tea rite; and tea was being grown in the country.
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Tea cups with lids, saucers, and infusers, South Korea, nineteenth century

Tea culture was at its zenith during the Goryeo (Koryo) Dynasty (918–1392 CE).

Rituals developed as tea drinking became elaborate affairs in the royal court, involving tea parties, poetry, music, and beautiful ware. Korean potters—who seemed to “have borrowed a secret from heaven” according to Prime Minister Yi Gyu-bo (Barnes 2014:37)—created elegant celadon tea ware.

Monks offered tea to Buddha, served it to visitors, and drank it themselves. Tea was even prepared in a uniquely Korean way, and was available to all citizens (The Tea Detective 2012).

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Out of Favor

The succeeding Joseon (Choson) Dynasty ended much of this, however, replacing Buddhism with Confucianism and delegating tea mostly to ritual purposes for the upper class. The royals still drank their daily tea, and they continued to celebrate tea rituals, fostered the development of fine white porcelain tea ware (the celadons were considered extravagant), and even required tea as tribute (Barnes 2014:43).

Tea, however, was not widely available in Korea any more.

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South Korea Seogwang Sencha

As Buddhist monks held on to their traditions—which were entwined with tea—Joseon rulers taxed tea and destroyed Buddhist monasteries and temples (The Tea Detective 2012), aiming to end their influence and move the country to Confucianism.

By the late 1500s, most of Korea’s tea gardens were gone, and the Seven Year War with Japan (1592–1598) took care of whatever remained.

In the mid-1700s, Yi Deok-ni opined that:

nobody knows how to pick and make more [tea]. Because tea is not so important for our countrymen, it is obvious that they are unconcerned whether it exists here or not. . . . It grows in hedges and on steps, but is considered to be good-for-nothing stuff. Indeed, even its name has been forgotten. (Barnes 2014:45)

In Favor

Tea finally rebounded with several scholars and Buddhist monks sparking renewed interest. Cho-ui, a Buddhist monk, poetically described tea’s “undefiled spirit and energy,” believing that when drinking tea,

one must engage in the “meditative bliss of experiencing the joy of the dharma (universal truth).” (Barnes 2014:48)

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But then not for the Koreans

That bliss and joy ended in 1910 with the Japanese occupation. And although Korean tea culture languished during this time, tea was being grown—the Japanese began the first commercial tea garden in Boseong, sending the tea to Japan (Lee 2009).

Today

Upon Korea’s independence in 1945, Venerable Hyo Dang took up the cause for Korean tea culture, penning The Korean Way of Tea, codifying brewing techniques, and opening the Korean Association for the Way of Tea. Despite the devastation of the intervening Korean War, tea had been firmly reestablished (The Tea Detective 2012).

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Jang Young-seob purchased the neglected Boseong garden in 1957, calling it the Daehan Dawon Tea Plantation and successfully returning it to production (it is now one of the country’s largest green tea producers).

Today, much of South Korea’s tea cultivation area (in the warmer, southern region) is still planted with native plants. The country seeks to increase exports of its green tea—and judging by this exquisite South Korea Seogwang Sencha from the Seogwang Tea Garden, located on volcanic Jeju Island, we might well agree with Yi Je-hyon’s (1287–1367) words:

Surprised at the knocking

on the door, I turned to see

The delivery of tea,

more valuable than jade.

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Sources:
–Barnes, Laurie E., High Tea: Glorious Manifestations East and West, Norton Museum of Art, W. Palm Beach, FL, 2014.
–Lee, Cecilia Hae-jin, “Green tea is more than a way of life in South Korea,” Los Angeles Times, 5/13/2009, https://www.latimes.com/food/la-fo-greentea13-2009may13-story.html.
–The Tea Detective, “The history of Korea’s tea and tea drinking culture—past to present,” 2012, theteadetective.com/KoreaTeaHistory.html.

South Korea Seogwang Sencha, a premium tea, is available at TeaHaus.

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