Korean Tea History Rewritten  

A new approach to the history of tea in the Joseon era has recently been proposed by Professor Jeong Min of Hanyang University, Seoul. His research on the writings of Dasan Jeong Yak-yong made him aware of a great lack of deep scholarship among the Korean tea community. While he himself is deeply versed in Classical Chinese, and in the history of the 18th and 19th centuries, many things affirmed as fact by Korean tea masters seemed to him to be without foundation. In recent years he has discovered vital new texts, and translated accurately for the first time a large number of Korean texts about tea. What follows is the start of my attempts to translate some of his work into English.

Korean tea masters tend to affirm that Korean tea culture continued from Goryeo into Joseon (at the end of the 1300s) without great dislocation, then gradually disappeared in later centuries, but that a way of tea continued to be practiced in certain temples while country folk in the southern regions always knew the medicinal value of tea. This underlies the narrative according to which Dasan Jeong Yak-yong learned about tea from the Ven. Hyejang and then from the Ven. Cho-ui after meeting them in Gangjin, where he had been sent in exile. Professor Jeong can find no documentary support for this picture and prefers to maintain that the use of Korean tea ceased almost completely at the start of Joseon. After that, any mention of tea usually refers to Chinese tea although the regulations and official geographical surveys continued to mention tea and required it to be sent in tribute from those places where it once grew. Then in the later 18th century a few writings that mention tea appear as upper-class people rediscover the medical virtues of tea. According to his reading of the poems exchanged between Dasan and Hyejang, it was clearly Dasan who taught Hyejang about tea, and then introduced it to Cho-ui. There is no mention of any tea growing or being used around Daeheung-sa, where both monks hailed from, until the 19th century, when Cho-ui was residing in his Ilchi-am hermitage and making caked tea in the manner taught by Dasan.

Among the texts that illustrate this new version of Korea's tea history are:

1) First, obviously, Yi Mok's ChaBu (from before 1498) which never mentions Korean tea but only celebrates the tea grown in China.

2) In contrast, Yi Mok's teacher, Jeompilje Kim Jong-jik (1431 - 1492), left a record of a new tea field he had planted, including a 2-stanza poem “Tea field” (茶園). But this mainly shows that, very early in Joseon, tea was being demanded as a tribute offering without any concern for reality. Tea had long vanished from Hamyang, to the east of Jiri-san, where he was magistrate, and he had much difficulty in finding any seeds or plants. Instead, the town had been purchasing tea from somewhere in Jeolla to send up to the palace. It was the mention of tea seeds from China being planted in Jiri-san that he had read in the Sam-Guk-Sa-Gi that gave him the idea of trying to bring tea back to life in his area, uniquely so that leaves could be sent to Seoul as required by law. A few other texts equally show that Joseon was completely ignorant of tea.

3) The first sign of a renewed interest in tea comes with 扶風 鄕茶譜 茶本 Bupung Hyangcha Bo (Record of native tea made at Buan c1756) by Pilseon Yi Un-hae (1710 - ?). This text, almost certainly a set of extracts from a longer original, was preserved by being copied into the diary of Hwang Yun-seok (黃胤錫 1729-1791) which survived unedited in his home in Gochang, South Jeolla province. Most interesting of all is the set of drawings of the utensils used to make the tea, which consisted of tea leaves combined with other medicinal herbs.

4) Most significant is the 東茶記 DongChaGi (Record of Korean Tea) written by Yi Deok-ni (1728 - ?) in about 1785 while in exile in Jindo, South Jeolla Province. This text was mentioned once by the Ven. Cho-ui in the later part of DongChaSong but until recently it was considered to have been a lost text written by Dasan. The Ven. Yongun found and published a fragemtary text before Prof. Jeong Min discovered in Gangjin an apparently complete text in a volume of works by Yi Deok-ni copied out later by Yi Si-heon (1803 - 1860), who had been a pupil of Jeong Yak-yong during his exile in Gangjin. This is the longest text about tea before DongChaSong. It is less about drying and drinking tea for pleasure than a kind of memoir intended for the government, urging the state to cash in on the availability of tea in the south by selling it to the Manchurian and northern tribes who are desperate for it. Two particularly interesting facts emerge. In 1743 the author, then a young man, was given tea to drink by Kim Gwang-su, a noted painter and scholar with a great love of refined living. The tea, like the utensils, was almost certainly Chinese. Then in 1760, he records, a Chinese ship landed somewhere in the southern or western regions with a large cargo of tea. This tea was sold to the literati and spread across the country, making quite an impression. Stocks seem to have lasted nearly 10 years. At the same time, Yi writes,: after that supply was exhausted, "nobody knows how to pick and make more. Since tea is not so important for our countrymen, it is obvious that they are unconcerned whether it exists here or not." A little later he says: "It grows in hedges and on steps but is considered to be good-for-nothing stuff. Indeed, even its name has been forgotten."

5) In 1801, the great scholar Jeong Yak-yong was sent into exile in Gangjin, South Jeolla. He was a noted Silhak (Practical Learning) scholar while his brothers with many of his associates had adopted Catholicism. Silhak and especially Catholicism were anathema to the faction that came to power on the death of the enlightened king Jeongjo. The Catholics were executed, the others were exiled. After several years living a spartan life in a poor inn, Jeong Yak-yong's digestion was ruined. In the 4th lunar month of 1805, hearing perhaps that a learned monk had arrived there, he visited the nearby temple of Baengyeon-sa, chatted with Hyejang, then left without revealing his name. The monk suddenly realized who he was, forced him to return and spend the night. Most important, only a few days later Jeong Yak-yong (not yet known as Dasan) sent Hyejang a poem telling him that tea was growing behind his temple and asking for some to treat his disordered digestion. "If I roast and dry the tea correctly, my complexion will become clear as in childhood." Obviously, he did not need Hyejang to teach him anything about tea, he already knew. A series of other poems mentioning tea followed, many of which have recently been discovered.

6) What seems unclear is where Dasan (as he became after moving into a cottage on a hill where tea grows, known as Da-san) learned to make caked tea. Was it simply from Lu Yu's Tea Classic? In 1830, the Ven Cho-ui visited Seoul and brought gifts of caked tea with him, which he gave to various scholars he met. Obviously this was a great novelty and made a considerable impression. He gave one pack to the scholar Yi San-jung who, perhaps not knowing what it was for, gave it to the younger scholar Geumryeong Bak Yeong-bo. After drinking some, Bak composed a set of poetic lines, 南茶幷序 NamCha ByeongSeo (Preface and Poem of Southern Tea) which he sent to Cho-ui in thanks. They met and became close friends and it is possible that his poem, and admiration, opened the hearts of other nobles in Seoul, including the calligrapher Chusa Kim Jeong-hui who became one of Cho-ui's closest friends.

7) Dasan also visited the temple Borim-sa not far from Gangjin and taught the monks there how to make caked tea using the wild tea growing around their temple. Later, a Gangjin scholar, Yi Yu-won (李裕元, 1814 - 1888), wrote a long poem “Jukno-cha(竹 露茶) (bamboo dew tea) about the tea made at Borim-sa temple following the method taught by Dasan.

8) It is important to note that at least one person in Gangjin continued to make caked tea in the same way into the middle of the 20th century. Yi Han-yeoung (1868-1956) made and sold a caked tea called Baekun-okpan-cha; he was interviewed and photographed in 1939 by the Japanese forestry worker Ieiri Gazu. See: 朝鮮の茶と禪 “The Tea and Zen of Chosen” by Morooka Tamotsu & Kazuo Ieiri, published in Japanese in 1940.   this book became the foundation text for the post-1945 Korean tea revival.