How tea first came to be in Korea is a topic of much speculation and curiosity for those associated with Korean tea culture. This is partly due to two reasons. Firstly, early recorded history of Korea, like the early recorded history of virtually every other culture in the world, is a mix of both history and legend. This is the result of verbal retelling of historical events before they were recorded in written form. Most of what is known about early Korean history comes from famous writings during the Medieval times such as the Samguk Yusa and other eclectic volumes of Korean History.
Secondly, stemming from the historical uncertainty as to which origin story is 'true', the individual's philosophies and religious backgrounds influence what story they believe to be the 'true' origin of Korean tea. The following writings are mostly taken from factual sources, partially from verbal retellings, and are the end product of the outflow of the authors thoughts. Read them all, enjoy, learn, have fun, and decide for yourself as to which seems more likely...
Tea is the stuff of legends. It is so ingrained into the psyche of some Koreans that some say it was given to them by the gods. And as one sips ones cup of green, who could argue?
Steam slowly rolls out of my tea cooling bowl just as mist must have covered Heaven Lake atop the holy Mount Teabeck around 2333 B.C. It was at this time and place when Hawanin, 'the lord of heaven' with his son, Hwanung, and 3000 followers was said to have ministered from heaven. Accompanied by the clouds, rain, and wind, Hawain founded the city of god, enacted laws and moral codes, and imparted knowledge of art, medicine, and agriculture. This transmission of immeasurable knowledge surely contained in it how to grow, use, and enjoy tea?
It has been recorded that these pre-historic peoples first learned the basic principles of tea by steeping the tender first spring shoots of a flowering plant related to the flowering azalea that grew wild on the slopes surrounding Mount Teabeck. This tea is commonly known as 'baeksan cha' or 'white mountain tea' and although it is not of the family of Camella sinensis, it is picked, prepared, and consumed in a similar manner. The knowledge gained from drinking this herbal tea likely acted as a precursor to the eventual production of green tea in Korea.
So it was said that a tiger and a bear pleaded and prayed to Hwanung to become human. Upon hearing their pleas, Hwanung told them that if they could stay in a cave completely devoid of even the smallest crack of sunlight and feed on nothing but 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort for 100 days, they would have their prayers answered. The tiger unable to bear the horrible conditions left the cave after 20 days. The bear managed to stay the 100 days. When the bear left the cave it was apparent that it had transformed into a woman.
The bear-woman was grateful, she made offerings to Hwanung, and gave thanks to him. Although she was grateful, she became sad. She was unable to find a husband. Once again she pleaded and prayed, and Hwanung, feeling sorrow for her and extremely moved by her devotion, took her as his wife. Soon she bore a child named, Dangun Wanggeom.
Hwanung's son, Dangun Wanggeom, built many cities and towns, became the first King of the Korean Peninsula and founder of the Gojoseon Dynasty of Korea. His territory and influence is said to stretch far and wide. Is it too far fetched to imagine that his reach could have touched the seeds of the Camiella sinensis? With the knowledge gained from his heavenly grandfather, Hawain, and experience from cultivating herbal teas, could the tea bush have spread among the southern edges of his rule thereby giving birth to the Korean way of the tea?