|My Appreciation for Korean
Green Tea and its Culture
an Essay by Professor David A. Mason -- Page Two
Despite its remote location, we came back to visit Ilchi-am several times, having tea with the current Abbott using some of
Cho-eui’s own pottery, and even sleeping overnight in the wonderful tea-pavilion. Around that time, at the end of the 1980s,
I became a disciple of the famous folklorist “Horae” Zo Zayong (Jo Ja-yong), who had applied his professional training and
experience in Western architecture to traditional Korean culture. I studied about the San-shin [Mountain-spirits] from him
until his death in 2000. You can imagine my delight when I discovered six years later that my mentor “Horae” had been the
architect and builder of Ilchi-am’s excellent tea-pavilion! He had never mentioned that to me – out of his humility, I suppose.
Korea's tea-traditions were re-awakened in the late 20th Century, by devoted students of culture.
Master Hyodang-seunim (Choi Beom-sul) heroically participated in the Korean Independence Movement, imprisoned for awhile
by the Japanese, and then founded a university and several schools after Liberation. He was particularly devoted to the unifying,
no-barriers philosophy of Wonhyo-daesa (7th Century), one of Korea's greatest Buddhist Masters. He planted tea seeds
obtained from Hwagye at his temple Dasol-sa (near the south coast, on the western border of Sacheon City, just SE of Jiri-san) and
made a habit of serving green tea to his guests, in Cho-eui's style. He served as abbot of the great Haein-sa Monastery from
1947 to 1952, years of great national crisis (he is credited with saving it from military destruction by communist partisans in 1951).
Just as South Korea began to industrialize, he launched another revival of Korea's Buddhist green tea traditions. He published
the first real book on Han-guk Chado (named that, The Korean Way of Tea) in 1973, bringing Cho-eui’s methods and thought
back to life, updated for the modern age; it is still widely read by those interested in this subject. He became the teacher of most
of Korea's leading contemporary Tea-Masters, founding the "Korean Association for Studying the Way of Tea” which was the first
of its kind. Its first meeting was held on the First Full Moon of 1977, at Dasol-sa, with 100 cultural adepts attending. However, he
was stripped of his position as Abbott of Dasol-sa later that year due to government repression. Moving to Seoul, he founded the
"Tea Meditation Association" there in May 1978. He passed away and was cremated in the Buddhist style in 1979, and his
ashes were initially put in a budo at Dasol-sa but in 1996 were moved to the National Patriot's Cemetery in Daejeon.
As Cho-eui-seonsa wrote in poetry:
The teas of Korea are as good as those from China,
their color, scent and taste compete for the highest merit.
Luan tea’s taste and Mengshan tea’s healing-powers are famous,
but the great tea masters of the past
would highly appreciate Korean tea,
which includes both qualities.
How can I teach the wonderful functions of Korean tea,
with its nine difficulties and four fragrances,
to the Seon monks sitting in the Jade Pavillion of Chilbul-sa?
If the nine difficulties are overcome,
the four sorts of fragrance will develop fully.
Its perfect taste can be presented as an offering
within the nine walls of the royal palace.
When tea’s blue waves and green fragrance enter the court of the heart,
intelligence and brightness reach everywhere unimpeded.
Then your spiritual roots will rest on divine mountains,
though in appearance immortals may seem a different species.
(both also translated by Jinwol-seunim; edited)
A large tea plantation was established
under the Japanese colonial authorities
in Boseong County on the south coast,
and another gigantic one was created
30 years ago by the Sulloc-cha
Company on western Jeju Island, and
those two farms are responsible for
most of the low-quality tea in tea-bags
that is now found in every Korean office
and in many homes.
Those commercial plantations also
produce a small amount of high-quality
green teas. They also now serve as
popular tourist-destinations for their
counties, with their own annual festivals.
Left: a plantation-field in Boseong
Hadong-gun County is very proud of this area, and has established this website about their tea. The
original tea field from 828 was restored by the County government, and several stone monuments
honoring its history have been erected there. Hadong has held an excellent annual Green Tea Festival
– one of Korea's best tradition-oriented events – since the Spring of 2001. Colorful annual rituals
honoring the 'Spirit of Tea' are now held there every April and May. One photo is on the right, others
are on that same Hwagye-dong page. Many new food-products and other products utilizing tea in
attractive, entertaining and/or health-giving ways have been designed and created by local residents
and related scholars and entrepreneurs, and they are displayed and sold at the Festival.
Seven years ago I was the tour-guide for a group of American-based Daoists (led by a Master of a lineage on
Taiwan) on a three-week visit to Korea, and experimental variation on their usual annual trip to China. These folks
were totally into green tea, deep experts on every aspect of it. I took them to this Jiri-san Hwagye-dong area for a
day of sampling at the many small outlets there. I told them that
Cho-eui-seonsa had praised Hwagae tea as having the best
sort of color and fragrance, and had written:
“Tea grown in a rocky valley is the best;
the tea fields of Hwagae are crowded with rough rocks
in a deep valley,
and therefore the quality of Hwagae tea is quite excellent.
Sacred roots were entrusted to this sacred mountain (Jiri-san).
These tea plants have the appearance of Daoist hermits
and the disposition of Seonbi [noble scholars].
The green shoots and sprouts reach the clouds;
they sway in the breeze like the ripples on the water."
They were indeed astounded and delighted at the fantastic quality of the tea, the spiritual devotion with which it
is prepared at every step, and especially at the relatively low prices it was being sold for – repeatedly exclaiming
that tea leaves of that level would cost several times more in China, and even more in Taiwan or Japan. On the
spot, they arranged with several of those producers to import their tea to their organization in California.
In June 2006 I visited the second annual “World Tea Exhibition” held in a hall at the COEX center in southern
Seoul, and found it very interesting. Korean green tea was displayed along with powdered, oolong and black
teas from China, Japan and Taiwan, with displays and products for sale – the majority were Korean of course,
and I didn't pay much attention to the foreign ones. Several herbal teas that are now being commercially
produced in Korea made from lotus flowers, chrysanthemum flowers, persimmon leaves and mugwort herb were
also been offered, with strong health-benefits claimed for them.
Some growers were claiming their green teas as “organic” in English, a good development showing awareness
of modern concerns. All teas were offered at around 50% of the usual retail price, which was delightful. Also on
display was the wide variety of cultural products associated with Tea and its Way – handmade ceramic pots,
cups and bowls, innovative water-heaters wooden implements, accessories and little tables. These items,
reflecting the rapid modernization of Korea's ancient tea-culture, selling for w1000 up to w10,000,000 each,
were often of heart-stopping artistry and elegant spiritual depth. I found many of them were highly tempting to
take home with me; perhaps it was good that I hadn't brought too much money along.
Altogether, this exhibition and the annual Festivals in Hadong and Boseong are great displays of how Han-guk
Chado has so successfully been transmitted into our ultra-modern times by the lineage of cultural heroes such
as “Hanjae” Yi Mok, Cho-eui-seonsa, "Myeongwon" Kim Mi-hi, Hyodang-seunim, Chae Won-hwa and Zo
Zayong – I bow to them in sincere gratitude every time I sip a delicious and enlightening cup of Korean nokcha.
the Tea-pavilion at Ilji-am, 1989
Traditional Korean tea-ware: a full set
of red/white baekja with a new-style
"Korean" side-handle pot, and an
antique Joseon buncheong-style bowl
Korea now produces some of the world’s best green tea, mostly all grown / picked / dried by small companies run
by aficionados on the southern slopes of Jiri-san. Despite its high quality, it is still sold at very reasonable prices
because it remains relatively unknown to the outside world, hardly ever exported – and still under-appreciated
domestically. Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese teas of comparable quality are more expensive.
When I first visited Jiri-san’s Hwagye-dong Valley there was once only ordinary rural poverty to be seen, but
there is now a vibrant industry and one of Korea's best cultural-tourism destinations. There are still wild tea-
bushes up on the steep slopes on both sides, descendents of the original ones – just 20 years ago, most of the
small amount of gourmet-quality tea produced here was picked from those wild bushes, by a few devotees
such as Hyodang-seunim who “rediscovered” them after the destinations of the Korean War. Today, with the
growing fame of and high demand for this exquisite green tea, many carefully-tended medium-sized fields have
been created by small family-run businesses, running all the way up this very long valley. They try to grow the
best possible tea in devoted harmony with nature, using as little fertilizers or other chemicals as possible, and
the resulting product is known as Yasaeng-cha [Wild Tea].
Mrs. Kang Yeong-suk of the
Jiri-san Jedawon enjoys tea
outdoors in a meditative
style together with another
longtime follower of this
path, in Hwagye-dong Valley.
A two-person tea-set in modern buncheong white
with a new-style "Korean" side-handle pot, and
an antique early-Joseon buncheong-style bowl
Tourism to this area has greatly increased over the
past decade due to all the activities, and the entire
Hwagye-dong area has become quite noticeably
prosperous. Included in this phenomenon are gradually
increasing numbers of foreign visitors -- primarily
Japanese, Chinese and Westerners -- who are
interested in tea from various angles, and come here to
experience Korea's unique traditions and high-quality
products. Hadong County's official tourist numbers show
strong increases, achieving a much higher new level
since the Festival started in 2001 (Visit Korea Year):
a traditional Korean kiln, near Jiri-san
There are many related aspects of this cultural revival centered around green tea. One of them is a
strong increase in the number of ceramic artists making a living designing and producing very high-
quality traditional Korean tea-pottery, in an astounding variety of shapes, colors and motifs.
|Tea-fields on the steep slopes of Hwagye-dong Valley
Above row: Korea containers for dried tea,
from the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties
Sides: 11th-Cen Goryeo Celadon teacups,
for use in Buddhist temple rituals.
Lower row: Korean tea bowls of Goryeo
Celadon and Joseon Buncheong & Porcelin
Another significant aspect of the revival is the increasingly-spreading teaching of nearly-forgotten manners and customs
associated with green tea ceremonies, including formal Korean clothing, traditional etiquette (modernized to remove
some of the now-useless-and-offensive sexist and classist aspects), Seon [Zen] meditation while drinking tea, Neo-
Confucian family and community rituals, and more. Korea's younger generations, having grown up with no knowledge
of these things, find it attractive to learn about them from the modern tea-masters, in the context of daily consumption of
the "health giving" beverage. The FKSTM claims that over 5 million South Koreans drink green tea three or more times
per week, and that this is helping to preserve traditional culture. Green Tea is once again being ritually-prepared and
offered to enshrined spirits such as San-shin, as was done in the Goryeo Dynasty (see bottom of this page).
Hyodang's philosophy has been summed up by his disciples as “Chado-mumun” [The Way of Tea is without doorways] – meaning
that the physical, aesthetic and spiritual benefits of drinking tea should once again be open to all Koreans as an authentic part of
their national heritage, not reserved for only a few Buddhist insiders. He taught that the Way of Tea offers peaceful wisdom to all of
humanity, if they could only learn how to use it with insight. I am one among the many who have greatly enjoyed and benefited from
the results of his teachings and efforts.
These were carried forward by Master Chae Won-hwa, a student of Korean history & philosophy at Yonsei University who became
the wife and chief disciple of Hyodang-seunim, thoroughly mastering and then expanding upon his teachings, including his method
of drying the green tea that he called Banya-ro [Dew of Wisdom]. In July of 1983 she inaugurated the "Panyaro Institute for the
Promotion of the Way of Tea" on the upper floors of a brick building in Insa-dong (Seoul's traditional-culture district). Since then
she has been one of the primary teachers of tea-culture in Korea, from a deep Seon-Buddhist point of view. more info
The afore-mentioned "Myeongwon" Kim Mi-hi preserved and taught the Joseon royal tea-customs from the 1950s through the
1980s. Besides Ilji-am she led or assisted in the preservation and restoration of historic sites of Korean tea culture such as
Chilbul-sa, Dasan Chodang and Daedun-sa, and the Korean tea rooms at Kookmin University. She taught many of today's
Korean tea-masters. She was the first and so far only person to be awarded a "Presidential Order of Merit for Cultural Contri-
bution" for Korea's Tea-Culture. Her second daughter Kim Eui-jung founded and is still the Chairwoman of the Myeongwon
Cultural Foundation, which carries on, promotes and expands upon Kim Mi-hi's teachings, with hundreds of students every year.
Businessman Park Dong-seon (Tongsun Park, infamous in the "Korea-gate" scandal in Washington
DC at the end of the 1970s) founded the Federation of Korean Tea Masters in 1979, and in
2000 was elected Chairman of it. The FKTM federation claims a current membership of
over 100,000 green-tea lovers, and holds ongoing public promotional activities.
tea-set, of the
kind so beloved
by the Japanese.
Right: Mrs. Kim
& teacher of tea.
with thanks to the source of these images: Myeongwon Teaware Museum
|In the Buddhist Sanshin-je Ceremony at the Jungak-dan Shrine during the 1999 Gyeryong-san Sanshin-je Festival, green tea is
ritually-prepared and then offered to the Spirit of the Rooster-Dragon Mountain, in what is thought to be an old Korean style.
|Contemporary tea master Chae Won-hwa, founder of the Banya-ro [Wisdom-Dew] company and
institute, leader of the combination of Seon Buddhist meditation & culture with the Korean Way of Tea.
The late "Hyodang" Chae Beom-sul,
master of Seon Buddhism who saved
Haein-sa during the Korean War and
then renounced his monkhood, Chae's
teacher and husband, founder of the
Banya-ro [Wisdom-Dew] Way of Tea.
|Master Chae conducting a tea ceremony on the shore of Cheonji Lake
at the peak of Baekdu-san in 2005.