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History of Tea

A Brief History of Tea Culture in Korea

Modern Korean tea culture dates back to a 2,000 year old rich ceremonial tea heritage that has caught the devotion of tea drinkers, philosophers and poets. Tea-drinking in Korea focuses not only on the taste sensations but incorporates an accompanying appreciation of the purification of the mind, spirit and body.

Excerpts from An Introduction to Korean Tea Culture By Seung-Hee Kam

“Modern Tea Culture in Korea” By Yeonok Kim

The History of Tea in Korea An Introduction to Korean Tea Culture (Issued by the Korean Education Institute of Tea Culture) By Seung Hee Kam

In AD 48, Queen Suro of the Garak kingdom brought tea seeds from India and planted them in Baekgol mountain located in the city of Gimhae (what is now Changwon City), where to this day, places with names connected with tea still remain; the nearby Mt. Jiri is still well known to be a place where the best tea is grown.

Historical records show one of the kings of the Garak kingdom celebrating religious ceremonies with tea, as well as rice, rice cakes, fruit and liquors.

The Goguryeo kingdom bordered China, and the two countries were in a constant state of conflict. Still, the exchange of ideas and tradition was possible. Although Goguryeo had its own long history and highly developed culture, the tradition of tea drinking was developed through Buddhism and Taoism.

A Japanese author, Chongmok, mentioned in his writing that he kept a piece of byung-cha (tea) unearthed from an old tomb of the Goguryeo era; indeed we can see evidence of tea and equipment for making it from the frescoes in the tombs from the Goguryeo period.

According to records from the Dong Dae Sa temple in Japan, a Korean monk named Haneggi taught Buddhist rules and character, as well as the culture of drinking tea to the Japanese. Japanese history books show that one of the kings of Baeke sent sixteen monks with Buddhist tools, teas and incense to Japan; moreover, modern day Jeolla province (where the former Baekje kingdom was located) is still an important center for the cultivation of tea, and 80% of the tea produced in Korea is grown there.

There is clear evidence of the use of tea in Korean history books of the Silla dynasty; a Korean envoy to China brought back tea seeds, which the king ordered to be planted on the slopes of Mt. Jiri. With tea produced in Korea and imported from China, the people of the Silla kingdom refined the art of drinking tea and developed many ways of drinking it.

According to the early chronicle-histories known as Samguk-Sagi (The Three Kingdoms), “A soldier returning with a message from the Tang China brought tea seeds. The King ordered to have the tea seeds to be planted on the slopes of Chiri Mountain.” Though tea has existed since the reign of  King Sun Duk, it was during the Silla dynasty when it became popular.

Most upper class society drank tea during the Silla dynasty, such as the royal family, monks and young noblemen (“hwarang”). The monk Chungdam, and hwarangs such as Bochun and Hyomyung used the tea ceremony in worshipping Buddha. Through records of these characters we can see how much the tea ceremony was refined during the Silla period.

The Goryeo Dynasty (AD 918-1392)

The founder of the Goryeo dynasty, King Taejo, tried to keep up the tradition and culture of the Silla. Tea was used in national celebrations, and the king would make offerings of tea in the funeral ceremonies of meritorious vassals. In temples, the drinking of tea acquired an important position as a way of searching for truth (Zen). Scholars regarded drinking tea as important for building their character, whilst common people also drank tea regularly in their daily lives. This atmosphere of meditation brought about a regard for philosophy and a way of viewing nature as beauty, and one of the tangible results of this was the outstanding porcelain of the Goryeo dynasty. Goryeo was thus the time when the tea ceremony flourished and tea was used in many different situations.

The Joseon Dynasty (AD 1392-1910)

In the early part of the Jeseon period, tea continued to be used in temples in the pursuit of Zen, and in ancestral worship. However the new dynasty began actively to discourage Buddhism, and thus also the importance of tea began to decline. Continuous foreign invasions damaged the economy and social life of the country, and slowly the philosophy and customs of the tea ceremony were forgotten, even though at this late stage, scholar such as Dasan and monk Cho-eui tried to revive the old customs by writing poetry about the philosophy of tea.

Japanese Colonial Period (AD 1910-1945)

The Japanese colonial rulers forced people to adopt the Japanese version of the tea ceremony, teaching it especially to the young, as a way of implanting Japanese spirit and culture amongst Korean women with the aim of unifying the two countries.

Tea in Korea Today

From the end of the Joseon dynasty to the days of the Japanese occupation, Korean tea culture rapidly regressed. Even more so after the Korean War (June 25, 1950~1953), Korean society fell into frenzy, and caused tea culture to collapse altogether.

A regeneration of interest started in 1970, thanks primarily to tea masters who started lecturing, publishing books and conducting classes on Dado (the Korean Way of Tea), increasing the population of tea devotees. The rise in popularity of tea-drinking led to the development of large industrial tea plantations in the provinces of Boseong, Haenam, Hwagye, Yeongam and Jeju Island. Both small and large tea manufacturers actively produce tea in these provinces. Currently, there are more than 500,000 tea enthusiasts in Korea and the quality, diversity and beauty of tea and tea ware is increasing ever so quickly.

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