Hanjae Yi Mok 寒齋 李穆 (1471-1498)   Father of Korean Tea

Yi Mok was born in the seventh month in the second year of the reign of King Sŏngjong 成宗 (r 1469-1495) in Kagŭm-ri, Hasŏng-myŏn, Kimp’o city in Kyŏnggi Province, the second son of Yi Yun-Saeng 李閏生 (dates unknown) who had the title of Ch’amŭi 参議, Third Minister. His clan was the Chŏnju Yi clan.

He began schooling in his eighth year, and in his fourteenth year became the pupil of the scholar Chŏmp’iljae Kim Chong-Jik 佔畢齋 金宗直 (1431-1492). It seems that his teacher was a tea lover who communicated his enthusiasm to his pupils.

In 1489, he passed the First State Examination (Chinsa-kwa 進士科) and entered the Confucian Academy (Sŏnggyun’gwan 成均館). At that time, the scholar Sayun Kim Su-Son 士允 金首孫 (15th century) was teaching there and, recognizing his qualities, arranged for him to marry one of his daughters.

While he was studying, the king fell sick and his mother, the queen-mother, ordered a shaman to pray for his recovery. As Confucians, the students disapproved strongly; they went and drove the shaman away with clubs. The king, furious, ordered a list of the students to be made and all but Yi Mok ran away; impressed by his sincerity, the king is said to have praised him and sent a gift of wine. However, Yi Mok was later sent in exile to Kongju for a time, returning to Seoul in his 21st year.

In his 25th year he went to study in Beijing for a short period. While he was in China he may well have been in contact with scholars who introduced him directly to the Ming dynasty practices of tea and to the main Chinese texts about tea, which clearly influenced his writing. He obviously wrote his great celebration of tea, the Ch'aBu 茶賦 Rhapsody to Tea, some time after this visit to China. It is a unique text, nothing like it can be found in Korea until Ch'o-Ui's TongCh'aSong in the 19th century

On returning, he took the Higher Examination and was awarded the highest place. In his 26th year he was appointed to a junior administrative position over the military in what is now South Hamgyŏng Province (North Korea) but in the following year he was given leave and continued his studies in private; in this year his son Yi Se-Jang 李世璋 (1497 ~ 1562 ) was born.

In 1494, the ill-fated Prince Yŏnsan 燕山君 (r. 1494-1506) came to the throne and 1498 saw the Muo Sahwa 戊午士禍, one of twelve violent “literati purges” caused by a power struggle between traditionalist, philosophical scholars known as sarim 士林 and more pragmatic, ambitious aristocrats called hun’gu 勳舊, that characterize this period of Korean history. In the Muo purge, the deceased Kim Chong-jik was Yŏnsan’s prime target, because Kim had written a veiled attack on the prince’s great-grandfather, King Sejo 世祖 (r 1455-1468), who instituted the purges of 1453-1455. The body of Kim was exhumed and decapitated and on the 26th day of the 7th month in 1498 Hanjae Yi Mok was executed. He is reported to have behaved with great courage, writing a final poem, then calmly going out to execution as if nothing special were happening to him.

In 1504, after Prince Yŏnsan learned that his mother had been executed by being forced to drink poison in 1482, he went berserk and ordered the Kapcha Sahwa 甲子士禍 purge, in which officials of both rival groups were executed. A second condemnation was delivered against the deceased Yi Mok and his bones were dug up, his grave demolished. Later in the year, Yŏnsan was deposed, sent into exile and died. After a change in factional power in 1552, Yi Mok’s reputation was restored. In 1717-22 various posthumous titles and honors were bestowed on him, including the title Ijop’ansŏ 吏曹判事 (Minister of Personnel). In 1726, under King Yŏngjo 英祖 (r 1724-1776), permission was given for him to be honored in a special shrine as well as in a Confucian academies in Kongju and Chŏnju.

 His cenotaph-grave with its memorial shrine in Kimp’o is still the site of regular ceremonies by his ancestors. Recently a grove of tea bushes has been planted there, from which tea is made for offerings in his shrine.

The writings left by Yi Mok were first collected by his son Yi Se-Jang and printed in the Yipyŏng-sajip 李評事集 A Collection of Commentaries by Yi Mok in 1631 by his grandson Yi Ch’ŏl 李鐵 (1540-1604). In modern times, an edition was published by his descendants in 1914 and this was republished in 1981. The most recent, very fully annotated edition and Korean-language translation of the Ch’aBu is that by Yi Pyŏng-In and Yi Yŏng-Kyŏng (Seoul: Ch’a wa saram, 2007).

Ch’aBu 茶賦 Rhapsody to Tea

The text begins with a Preface:
    Among all the things that people possess, sometimes enjoy and sometimes savor, if there is one that pleases a person through a whole lifetime, without ever growing tired of it, that will be because of its essential quality. Li Bai’s moon or Liu Bolun’s wine are different things but, in terms of the enjoyment they give, they are the same. I was not familiar with tea, but after reading Lu Yü’s Classic of Tea I discovered something of its true nature and came to value tea immensely.

This is followed by a list of names for (Chinese) tea and a list of tea-growing regions. Then comes a poetic evocation of the tea-growing landscapes:
    In the places where tea grows, the mountains are high and precipitous, very steep, with rocks towering sheer; deep, shady valleys abruptly open, then suddenly end, hiding the sun, winding and narrow.

The Ch'aBu next offers a unique version of the well-known verses on the 7 cups of tea, follwed by a list of tea's Five Merits and Six Virtues.

It ends with a poetic Epilogue:
    Now I will sing for joy:
Born into this world, when winds and waves are fierce, hoping to preserve my health, what could save me if I abandoned you? I cherish you, frequent you, drink you, you keep me company, on mornings when flowers bloom, on moonlit evenings, I am happy, no complaints.
    In my heart always there is fear and care: Life is the origin of death, death is the source of life. Keep control of your inward heart, for outward things wither and fade. Xi Kang speaks to this problem in his Theory of Nurturing Health. Wisdom is to float like an empty boat on water; Benevolence is to admire the trees and fruit of the mountain. When the spirit moves the heart, it enters the Wonderous, even without seeking pleasure, pleasure arises. This is the tea of my heart, it is needless to seek another.

The Empty tomb of Yi Mok in Kimp'o, west of Seoul.