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Tea in Korea and Japan

In Korea, the drinking of tea seems to have been introduced in the sixth or seventh centuries, probably by Buddhist monks returning from China, where the many schools of Buddhism attracted some of Korea's finest scholars. There are reports in the early chronicle-histories known as Samkuk-yusa and Samkuk-sagi that Queen Sondok of Silla (ruled 632-47) drank tea and that King Munmu in 661 ordered tea to be used during ceremonial offerings; King Sinmun advocated the use of tea in order to purify the mind, while King Heundok is reported to have obtained tea seeds from Tang China for planting in 828, but these may not have been the first.

In Japan the first record of brick tea being used dates from around 593, and the first planting of seeds is said to have occurred in 805. The modern history of tea in Japan is said to have originated with the monk Eisai (1141-1215), who introduced the Rinzai Zen tradition to Japan. He brought tea with him upon his return from study in China. He also wrote a treatise called the Kissa Yojoki, which extolled the properties of tea in promoting both physical and spiritual health. Eisai's interest in tea was shared by his renowned disciple Dogen (1200-53), the patriarch of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan. When Dogen returned from China in 1227, he brought with him many tea utensils, and gave instructions for tea ceremonies in the rules which he drew up for regulating daily life at Eiheiji, the temple founded by him. Eisai is reported to have brought back tea seeds which were the origin of most of the tea planted subsequently across Japan as the fashion for tea-drinking spread among social classes not previously touched by it. This grew into the tea ceremony practiced by the samurai during the Shogunate period..

During the Korean Goryeo Dynasty (in the 10th -13th centuries) tea was made the subject of some of Korea's oldest recorded poems. Tea was long offered in the ancestral ceremonies, which are still known as Ch'a-rye although tea has not been offered in them for centuries. Likewise there were regular ceremonies known as Hon-ta in which cups of green tea were offered before the statues of the Buddha in the temples.

Why is Korea not well known for its tea culture?

The culture of tea was so deeply identified with Buddhism that when Buddhism was replaced by Confucianism as the main official religious tradition at the end of the Goryeo dynasty in the 14th century, the Buddhist way of drinking tea was repressed at the same time as most temples were destroyed and many monks returned to civilian life. It may have continued weakly at the start of the new Joseon Dynasty, for in the royal palaces a special department remained responsible for tea. However, the first great celebration of tea by a Korean, the Ch'aBu, Rhapsody to Tea, written in the 1490s by the young scholar Yi Mok (1471 - 1498), who was executed in the 1498 Muo purge, never mentions Korean tea. It is a splendid text, and has earned its author the title of "Father of Korean Tea," but it is entirely devoted to Chinese tea in its lists of names of tea-producing regions and names of teas. We find several indications that tea was no longer known among the ruling classes early in the Joseon period.

In the 1590s the Japanese invaded Korea and forced hundreds of the best Korean potters to go and work in Japan. Many of the finest bowls used in Japanese tea ceremonies were made in Korea or were produced in Japan by potters of Korean descent. The Korean forms of tea ceremony, of tea equipment, and of simple building style for tea-rooms, are probably the origin of the entire Japanese tea tradition. This is a fact that is well-known in Korea and, like so many other aspects of Japan's cultural debt to Korea, has been systematically denied by Japanese 'historians' intent on creating a purely Japanese pedigree for everything Japanese.

After this disaster, when virtually every significant building in Korea--palaces, temples, local administrative compounds--was burned by the Japanese invaders, tea culture continued to be moribund. Late in the 18th century we find a couple of texts that mention tea, saying that nobody in Korea drinks it or even knows what plant it is when they see it. Then in the early 19th century we find the great scholar Dasan, Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836), drinking tea for his health during his exile in Gangjin, in the far south-west of the country. He developed a method of making caked tea. He first obtained tea leaves after meeting a monk, the Venerable Hyejang, at the Baengnyeon-sa temple in Gangjin.  In 1809, a young Buddhist monk, Cho-ui (1786-1866), visited Dasan, stayed several months studying with him, and must have drunk tea with him. Known as the great restorer of the Way of Tea in Korea, Ch'o-ui later built the hermitage known as Ilji-am (one-branch hermitage) above the temple now called Taehung-sa near Haenam, in the far south of Korea, and lived there for many years. He began to make caked tea in the Dasan manner in about 1828. During his visit to Seoul in 1830, he gave presents of caked tea to a number of scholars who responded with great enthusiasm to this new drink. He brought tea to his friend the great scholar and calligrapher Kim Jeong-hui during his exile in Jeju Island during the 1840s.

The tea-room and hermitage now visible at Ilji-am (above and below) are modern reconstructions. In 1836, the year of Tasan's death, Ch'o-ii composed the Dongdasong, a great poem in celebration of tea. (See: our book, Korean Tea Classics. Read the basic text of the poem in our translation) He also wrote other poems that mention tea, some of which have been translated into English by the Ven. Jinwol and are available here. Click here for more pictures of places associated with the Ven. Cho-ui

Yet despite the example of Cho-ui, the Way of Tea remained almost unknown in Korea, even among monks, until its restoration in the course of recent decades, a restoration due in large part to the efforts of the Venerable HyoDang, Choi Beom-sul. He might be considered to be the "Cho-ui of the 20th century," for he wrote the first full length study of tea to be published in modern Korea and taught many people about the various aspects of tea. He was active in the Korean Independence Movement, and founded several schools and a university after 1945, as well as being the teacher of virtually all the leading figures in the modern Korean tea revival. His way of making Panyaro tea, continued by Chae Won-Hwa, is described in the following pages.

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