Saturday, January 4, 2014

Dado: The Way of Tea in Korea

Originally published in Kyoto Journal #71 

Dado: The Korean Way of Tea

No conversation about Korean culture is complete without tea ... drinking it and discussion about it. Not many people understand the “way” of tea, the “do” of da, much less understand that Korea has its own wonderful tradition and practice of enjoying tea, cha.

History explains that tea plants entered Korea with the Buddhist monks who traveled from China some 1500 years ago. Because of Korea’s harsh climate and unfavorable soil, not much of the species camelia sinensis, the tea plant, has been successfully cultivated on the peninsula, compared to other regions in Asia. But what domestic green tea can be found, either growing wild in the mountains or cultivated from Jeonju (North Jeolla Province) southward, is of exceptional quality. While it has remained closely connected with Buddhist monasteries, it fell out of favor for a very long time, long enough for Koreans to prefer coffee, and only recently has come back into favor by a broad section of the public.

In the last three years, Seoul Selection has published two wonderful books by Brother Anthony of Taizé (aka An Sonjae) and Hong Keyong-Hee, in English about Korean tea culture, of which one volume has had the benefit of collaboration by renowned tea historian Steven D. Owyoung. Both are indispensable for every library on Korean culture, not to mention for the extended enjoyment of tea lovers. Both books include lovely color photographs and other illustrations and seem companion to each other in design.

Every cup of tea begins with
two leaves and a bud, 
hand picked at the Panyaro plantation

The Korean Way of Tea: An Introductory Guide, is a wonderful primer and is an extension, not to mention physical manifestation, of Brother Anthony’s extensive website (also in English).  It includes introduction to the history, virtues, processing and brewing of tea as well as a little bit of tea literature and a brief history of tea in China. It further discusses a prominent, decidedly Seon (a.k.a. Zen) Buddhist approach to tea practice as codified by the Panyaro Tea Institute for the Way of Tea.

Panyaro Tea Institute’s Master Chae 
in the Insadong Training Center

Won-Hwa Chae Jeong-bok owns and operates this tea plantation in the Jirisan area and the tea school in the Insadong section of Seoul. Master Chae was a disciple in the way of tea of Venerable Hyodang, who was for many years the head monk of Dasolsa (Dasol Temple) near Hadong.

The latest book is Korean Tea Classics, the first translation into English of ancient and essential texts by Hanjae Yi Mok and The Venerable Cho-ui. While Korea’s soil may not be so forgiving to the plant, its literary culture has nurtured extraordinary poetry and a long-held practice of contemplative life.

According to the authors, “A legend claims that tea was first brought to Korea early in the Second Century CE by a princess from Ayodhya in India who married King Suro, the first king of Garak, a small kingdom at the far south-east tip of the peninsula.” There is an overview of history as it relates to the rise and decline of Buddhism in the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910), noting that in the present generation, the transmission of the Way of Tea “has been the work of the Buddhist community”.

As its title states, the book covers prose, poems, letters, and reflections by two of Korea’s most significant men of tea. Hanjae Yi Mok (1471 – 1498), the “Father of Korean Tea”, is represented here by his ChaBu (Rhapsody to Tea), considered the “most sophisticated and delicate of the Korean tea classics”. As a scholar who went to study in China, he was familiar with the Daoist dimensions of tea, too; tea has always been considered a medicinal herb and figures in the pharmacopoeia of traditional Oriental medicine. Centuries later, tea enjoyed a revival among groups of Korea’s famed literati class, and the Venerable Cho-ui Ui-sun (1786 – 1866) penned ChaSinJeon (Chronicle of the Spirit of Tea) and DongChaSong (Hymn in Praise of Korean Tea), both included in this book. Each section includes the original Chinese as well as the translations. In total, the texts extol tea’s virtues, explain proper ways of preparing and enjoying, and reflect on the history of tea as a precious commodity in the esteemed legacy of high culture that flowed from China and blossomed in Korea.

Hong Kyeong-Hee sharing tea at home 
with a guest from Taiwan

A note about the authors:

Oxford educated Brother Anthony arrived in Korea in 1980, invited by Cardinal Kim Sou-Hwan, and has lived and practiced his vocation as a brother in the Community of Taize in Seoul for over 28 years. Emeritus Professor, Department of English Language and Literature at Sogang University in Seoul, he is also an author and prolific, honored translator of Korean literature, especially the contemporary poetry of Ko Un. He has dedicated a scholar’s capacity for extensive research and writing about tea, as his website demonstrates. He allows time to enjoy the annual cycle of tea production and daily enjoyment of its preparation, often with Hong Kyeong-Hee, a high school history teacher and graduate of the Panyaro Institute, for which he is an instructor. Mr. Hong lives in the Anguk-dong neighborhood of Seoul in a hanok, traditional architecture, in which he has created unique spaces for the enjoyment of various types of green tea. Like his mentor, Master Chae, he makes his own tea on the slopes of Jiri-san every spring.

Steven D. Owyoung, a native of the USA and a retired museum curator of Asian art, has dedicated himself fully to the study and the history of tea in East Asia. He is currently writing a long-anticipated book of the translation of the ChaJing, Lu Yu’s Book of Tea, circa Tang Dynasty.

                                                            An Insadong Tea Room

Other Information on Korean Tea

Kyung Hee University Professor David Mason’s growing body of writing and research on tea in Korea, especially as it relates to Buddhism, is also worth noting.

Fortunately, Korean tea is becoming more available outside of Korea. In Los Angeles, for example, Chasaengwan, a branch of the Hangook Tea Company that operates several plantations, including the Honam Tea Estate for over 50 years, exclusively sells fine tea as well as the appropriate utensils for casual and ritual preparation.

The Korean Tea Ritual Association of Los Angeles offers classes and demonstrations regularly. A search online has also uncovered Franchia, a stunningly beautiful Korean tea shop and cafe in New York City.

Seoul’s Insadong area has many, many tearooms, more like hidden nooks and warrens that accommodate very tiny groups (or maybe only one tiny group!) who will stop and spend a bit of time away from the otherwise frenzied pace of the city. While they may serve nokcha, green tea, many also serve the popular herbal and fruit teas.

An Anguk-dong Tea Room

When I’m in Seoul, I usually meet up with Brother Anthony at Kwichon in Insadong. Among the smallest of all of the area’s cafes it was established by the late Mok Sun-ok, devotee and later wife of the late poet Ch’on San-pyong, and is famous for fresh persimmon tea, a library of poetry books, and loyal patrons who come to discuss literature or just sit quietly after a day in the city.

Mok Sun-Ok, Hong Kyeong-Hee and Yi Ho Yeong
during springtime tea picking and processing in Jirisan.
Photograph by Brother Anthony

Note: Brother Anthony wrote the following obituary about Mrs. Mok:

In 1985, the widow of the poet Chon Sang-Pyong opened the little cafe “Kwichon” in Seoul's Insa-dong and had kept it open every day of the year until very recently. (The original shack was demolished and replaced by a concrete bunker several years ago, with loss of most of the original charm.) Her niece operates a second "Kwichon" cafe in Insadong, serving the same home-made fruit teas, but for many people Mok Sun-Ok was a unique witness to a bygone Seoul, expressed by the flow of older writers, artists, musicians and younger workers and students coming to pay their respects to the family. Mok Sun-Ok’s autobiography chronicling her life with Chon Sang-Pyong, translated from Korean into English as "My Husband the Poet", is a remarkable tale. Having survived the Hiroshima atom bomb which killed her father, she agreed to become the wife / caretaker of the poet, her brother's friend, after the latter’s 1971 breakdown, and shared his poverty until he died in 1993. After that, she played the leading role in maintaining and promoting his memory, which finally resulted in the annual arts festival bearing his name held in Uijeongbu (Metropolitan Seoul) each April.