Thursday, September 13, 2012

Challenging Assumptions: A Groundbreaking English Research Paper on the History of Korean Tea

In a recent article in the journal, Transaction of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, Volume 86, 2011, ISSN 1220-0009, by the foremost English authority on Korean tea, Brother Anthony of Taize, published a piece which challenges some older assumptions about the history of Korean tea. The paper is ground breaking as it slightly shifts the lens of which we can view Korean tea culture, in particular tea in the Late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). The article looks at the actual historical literature of this period, some of which has just been recently discovered. The following post looks at five previous assumptions about Korean tea that are challenged in this thought provoking article.

Assumption #1: It was the suppression of all things Buddhist, including tea drinking, by the ruling Confucian Joseon Dynasty which contributed to the decline of tea culture in Korea.

"When we turn to the history of Korean tea, the first difficulty we face is the lack of documents from the Goryeo period [918-1392]. It is usually assumed that tea-drinking, which had been introduced from China along with Buddhism in the earlier Silla period [57BC-935], continued to be widely practiced in the strongly Buddhist Goryeo period. Tea trees had been planted near temples in the southern areas early on. Yet from the early Joseon period, when records start to become more plentiful, there is no sign of tea being drunk as a sophisticated or civilized pursuit anywhere, in the court, by scholars or by monks. It might be that this decline had already begun under Goryeo."

The first mention that tea was drank in such as way came, according to Brother Anthony, is from a poem by Jeom Pil Je, Kim Jong-jik (1431-1492) in 1481 where he suggests two important points. First, that tea production has declined, at least in his area of Hamyang. In the maps and detailed geological records from 1454-1530 called Sejong Shilrok Jiriji or The Cultural Geography in the Veritable Records of King Sejong Of the Joseon Period, show that there were over 30 areas of tea production in Southren South Korea, with Hamyang being one of them. Secondly, the Korean Kings demanded tribute tea from certain areas of Korea, and likely had some refined way of enjoying their tribute.

This shows us that although there is a record that showed that tea grew abundantly in Korea, there is no record of a sophisticated tea culture and therefore no proof that it indeed existed in the Early Joseon Dynasty at all.

Assumption #2: Yi Mok's (1471-1492) ChaBu (Rhapsody to Tea) is evidence of sophisticated tea culture in Korea and suggests the depth of Korean tea culture.

"There is no indication as to when or why he [Yi Mok] composed the ChaBu (Rhapsody to Tea), which is unlike any other text devoted to the Way of Tea found in Korea or China, although the influence of the Classic of Tea and other Taoist Chinese tea texts is evident in it. The most striking absence is the total lack of any mention of tea being grown or drunk in Korea. The text is only about the Chinese Tradition."

This suggests that Yi Mok's ChaBu was strongly based on Chinese tea culture and contains no evidence of tea culture in Korea.

Assumption #3: Korean tea culture was kept alive throughout the Joseon Dynasty at Buddhist Temples.

"Tea, we may say with some assurance, was only known in the Joseon dynasty when scholars and diplomats brought some back from China. There is no record indicating that anyone made and drank it for pleasure in Korea. The first extensive text about Korean tea making known from the Joseon Dynasty is Bupung Hyangcha Bo (Record of Native Tea Made At Buan c. 1756) by Pil Seon Yi Un-Hae [1710-?]."

Pil Seon Yi Un-Hae, states in this record, "I heard that there was famous tea growing at Seonun-sa Temple in Bupung. Neither officials nor ordinary folk knew how to drink it, they treated the bushes as mere weeds and used them for kindling, so they were in a bad state."

Yi Deok-ni's Record of Korean Tea states, "In our Eastern land (Korea) tea grows in various localities of Honam (the South-west) and Yeongnam (the South-East). The places listed in the (offical geographical texts) Dongguk yeoji seungnam and the Gosa chwalyo etc are only one tenth, one hundredth of the total. It is customary in our land to use what is known as "jakseol" in medicines but most people do not realize that "cha" and "jakseol" are the same thing. The reason is that for a long time now nobody has made "cha" (tea) or drunk tea. Supposing some dilletante buys tea at a market in China and brings it back, nobody knows how to appreciate it."

It goes on to say, "Once tea reached Korea by ship in Gyeongjin year (1760), the whole country learned what tea looks like. It was drunk widely for the next ten years, and although stocks were exhausted a long time ago now, nobody knows how to pick and make more. Since tea is not so important for our countrymen, it is obvious that they are unconcerned wheather it exists here or not."

Brother Anthony reiterates this message, "It is clear [by interpretation of Stanza 12 of DongChaSong] that he [Cho'Ui, the Saint of Korean tea (1786-1866),] felt the art of making good tea was barely known anywhere in Korea, even among monks."

"There is an often repeated claim among Korean tea experts that it was Hyejang [a monk] who introduced Dasan [1762-1836] [a Confucian] to tea; recently, however, Professor Jeong Min of Hanyang University has argued convincingly that the opposite was the case. Certainly in the poem [of their first meeting] Dasan implies that he knows what to do with tea leaves once he has them, he does not ask Hyejang to give him already dried tea and indeed it is clear from later texts that Hyejang knew nothing about tea except for what he learned from Dasan."

This suggests the opposite is actually true, where confucians likely knew more about tea durring the Joson Dynasty than the Buddhists. Their knowledge likely came through close trade ties to China.

Assumption #4: Tea was drank in a loose leaf form durring the Joseon Dynasty because of the sophistication of the literi which preferred it this way over the more Buddhist cake style of drinking tea. Afterall, the use of loose leaf tea was described in the ChaSinJeon which Cho'Ui, the Saint of Korean tea, made a copy of it.

In Bupung Hyangcha Bo (Record of Native Tea Made At Buan c. 1756) by Pil Seon Yi Un-Hae states that, "many buds are picked, pounded, formed into cakes and roasted."

Brother Anthony states, "Rather strangely, the Ming style tea described in the Chinese text is leaf-tea, and the text was not revised to refer to the caked variety of tea that Cho-ui had learned from Dasan. It seems from various writings of Cho-ui that he only began to make tea around this time. The method he used was that which he must have learned from Dasan years before, that know as "caked tea"

In the Epilogue of the article Brother Anthony states, "Yi Han-yeong (1868-1956), who continued to make and sell caked tea in Gangjin during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) in a manner he always claimed to have inherited from the practice of Dasan and his students. He called his tea Baekun-okpan-cha. He was the only person known to have been producing and selling a specifically Korean form of tea during the Japanese colonial period."

This suggests that tea was consumed in Korea with very little sophistication, tea not as fine loose leaves but produced as medicine, likely in a form similar to ddok cha.

Assumption #5: Korea developed and used its own tea implements for appreciating tea.

In Yi Deok-ni's DongChaGi he states, "In the spring of Gyehae year (1743)... Our host had prepared places beneath the pines, close to a tea-brazier; brazier and utensils were all Chinese antiques and we each enjoyed a cup."

This shows us that Korean tea implements were not used in the consumption and appreciation of fine tea, which was not local tea but that imported from China.

Besides challenging these old beliefs about Korean tea, Brother Anthony's article gives those interested deep historical background to which we can understand the Korean classics in a more complete way. Highly recommended reading.



Trent said...

Matt - I first came across your blog back in 2008 (when I was only 15), and very much enjoyed reading your posts for a couple years. Fast forward to 2012 and, after a little over a year of little/no tea consumption, my interest has been rekindled. Glad to see you're still at it and blogging. - Trent

Matt said...


Hundreds of posts later... hahaha

Nice to hear from you too. Hope to see some action from your blog as well?


Trent said...

Being a philosophy major who intends eventually to become a philosophy professor, I spend far too much time immersed in written language. Though I may occasionally blog on tea in conjunction with philosophy, literature, art, and/or music, I doubt I'll post tasting notes. Tea sessions, for me, act as a much needed escape from written language and flight into the realm of the sensual. (Well, and into qi... I'm not sure whether to call that aspect sensual, emotional or what).

Matt said...


Feel free to philosophize about tea here whenever you feel fit.


Evan said...

Hey Matt, Brother Anthony's paper is available for free at

You know, for those of us who aren't members of the Royal Asiatic Society....

Matt said...


Thanks for that link!

(full out kiss the floor royal bow)


Evan said...

Don't thank me, thank Brother Anthony. He told me to send it to you. I was trying not to brag, but you made it worse ;)

Anonymous said...

i don't mean to disparage the work this particular expert has been engaged with.

instead, i'll use another example.

another scholar, equally renown, dominates the english academic field of korean buddhism in the same way that the author is this piece dominates the english field of korean tea.

this scholar says with absolute assurance that the writing of the siddham script has died out among korean monks. and yet, a quick flickr search reveals that this is not the case. this same scholar makes similar assertions about lineages and other mundane matters that are at odds with the korean academic knowledge.

the source of the disputes are textual. western scholars instinctively only allow as legitimate sources official documents and a small band of writings from within the elite milieu. everything else is deemed 'folk', 'heresay', and not validated, especially since 'folk' writings are often written in a poetic, epic style. in the korean case, this happens to be quite sinocentric and also quite tilted towards the views of the government or imperial forces.

as claude levi-strauss rightly notes, the origins of writing don't bode well ... writing emerges as a tool for governments to manage war and taxation, essentially.

within buddhism, the rejection of the reification of the written language is a common theme.

i urge all readers of this post to download the amazing, free translation set located at one of the western scholars who worked on the project's website -

for those with more time, the first book - the writings of wonhyo - make it quite clear that there is a emphasis on the failure of language within a sotoriological framework. for this with less time, the chapter two of volume 5, the treatise by myongho, makes this point even more clearly and succinctly.

simply because things are written by elites does not make these things true for all people who are not elites, and especially for people who reject language as the primary means of preserving tradition. imagine if the current writings of american conservatives were all the remained of us society? could one say to know anything completely about america from purusing through a handful of those documents?

globalization has already won, and the small traditions that we have been able to preserve are shrinking every day - preserved only in re-ified and distant forms. the primacy of imperial letters over whats remained of a living tradition that has survived through so much suffering should also be considered by readers of this post.