Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fire, Water, & the Art of Charcoal: Part 3- The Cultural Charcoal Traditions of Korea

Historically, Korea's use of charcoal for heating the water for tea was similar to its neighbour China. Small portable braziers were often used with small pieces of charcoal that were fanned. This was done outside as the quality of charcoal wasn't as refined as it is today. This method of preparing charcoal must have been practiced until sometime quite recent as it is pictured in the paintings of the late Joseon Dynasty. Throughout history, perhaps through the exchange of technologies with neighboring Japanese, Korea refined its charcoal making. Kilns were set up to primarily supply high grade charcoal that was virtually smokeless and odourless. Korea uses a local oak species to make high quality charcoal for tea often refered to as white charcoal. Nowadays, Korea is the source of much research on the benefits and usages of charcoal. Most of this research is carried out by the Korean White Charcoal Research Institute. The use of charcoal in Korea is wide and diverse and can be seen not only for cooking but also as decorative air deodourizers in most restaurants, in cosmetics found in department stores, and in shoe insoles in sporting good stores. Yet it is rarely seen nowadays to heat water for tea.

Its use today is mainly seen by those rare tea purists, tea shop owners, and teamasters who honour the laterati style of drinking tea or scholar tea ceremony. This style of drinking tea involves drinking tea throughout the day while pursuing noble leisure activities such as study and art. It emulates the life of the Confucian Yangban or scholar class during the Joseon Dynasty in Korea. This style of drinking tea has a laid back fluidity and feel to it and is flexible if any tea guests happen to stop by. The brazier is always placed to the immediate right of the person preparing the tea because the right size harmonizes with yang energy, with action, and with fire. It lies next to the low lying table that is so low to the ground that you must sit on the floor. On cold days it feels as if you are cuddling up to its warmth sitting contently cross-legged in contemplation.

Those who practice this style use braziers that are larger than Chinese tea stoves and sometimes even larger than Japanese styles. This large size is used to support larger sized charcoal than both the Chinese and the Japanese. There is no formulaic size for Korean charcoal used in Korean style braziers however Korean oak is always used (such as the pieces pictured above). The nature of this style dictates that the charcoals are continuously burning so there is kind of an unspoken rhythm between the teamaster, water, and fire. This rhythm involves always being aware of the strength of the fire and continually adding fresh water to the kettle or tang gwan to maintain the waters vibrancy and removing it from the fire when necessary. It also involves adding more pieces to the fire at the right time to maintain intensity. In essence the teamaster becomes one with these elements, with nature, and with the Dao. There is little that is more comforting than to spend a day drinking tea next to a charcoal brazier and a teamaster which knows this rhythm.


Disclaimer: Using any flammable substance such as charcoal comes with some level of risk. MattCha's Blog takes no responsibly for any harm done by readers of this blog. Please use common sense and take reasonable safety precautions when using charcoal. Always make sure there is adequate ventilation if burning charcoal inside.

Double Peace

Fire, Water, & the Art of Charcoal: Part 1- Introduction

Fire, Water, & the Art of Charcoal: Part 2- The Cultural Charcoal Traditions of China

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