The world of tea in Korea is one with a long established history spanning two thousand years. Although far less known and popular than that of Japan and China, Korean tea culture is nonetheless both revered and celebrated. As is clear to any casual observer, Korea’s tea industry has very much shifted in the past two decades, now heavily leaning towards the coffee trade. However, remnants of Korea’s relationship with tea remain and are worthy of study. Tea had once been of great significance in Korea, having little competition, and it was even used in special ceremonies. More and more these days, the Korean people are looking back to their relationship with tea and how reconnecting with their roots can bring great benefits.
It is most commonly known that tea was first introduced and popularized in Korea by Buddhist monks in the 7th century. Consequently, as many Buddhists studied in China, they brought the Chinese tea culture across the Yellow Sea to Korea, and taught its ways to the Korean people. However, according to the historical document “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms” or “삼국유사”, it is also speculated that tea was first brought in by Heo Hwang Ok (허황옥). She was the first queen of Geumgwan Gaya and is famously known to be of Indian descent. Thereafter, when she first married King Suro (수로왕) and visited Korea, she brought a tea plant with her and planted it. Despite this, it is widely believed that it was the Buddhist monks whose influence gave rise to Korea adopting the tea culture from China, thus implementing it in rituals.
While China has the Gongfu tea ceremony and Japan has its infamous Chanoyu, Korea also has its own. It is known to be called Darye (다례) which is made up of the Chinese characters 茶禮. The word Darye literally means “tea rite”. This Korean tea ceremony has been practiced for over a thousand years. In its early stages it was mainly used during rituals as an offering to gods and for religious purposes. Buddhists also performed the ceremony as an offering to dead spirits, like those of past kings. Later, however, during the Joseon Dynasty, the tea culture in Korean shifted. It started to become a common practice, not just for monks, but for royalty and commoners. The royals would perform Darye as a simple way to enjoy tea in formal settings. The commoners would implement it during a jesa (제사). A jesa is a ceremony held at the anniversary of an ancestor’s death. During this ceremony, the family would prepare a full table of foods to offer the ancestor. In the past, tea would be included, however in modern day Korea it is not common to do so. Sometimes, when holding a tea ceremony in Korea, people would use some special pottery. Mostly commonly, people would use white ceramics – however, bronze-colored or jade green pottery would also be used depending on the occasion. The ceremony, though different depending on the occasion, is most commonly known to consist of the process of the host preparing the tea on a low table. This process is not rushed but down slowly and with taste so one can appreciate the tea. The host might also converse with the customer and have a light chat with them. Darye, at the time, proved to offer a formal yet harmonious means of connecting with others, whether it was with the dead in rituals, or with the living.
In the old days, Korea mostly consumed “tea bricks” or “tea cakes” made of black tea. However, later on as Korea familiarized itself more with the tea culture of China, different kinds of tea started to be used. Some of those include chrysanthemum tea and mugwort tea. Later on Korea started to make its own sort of teas like the yujacha (유자차), which is made of the fruit yuja. Now there are many teas like the yujacha that are stored in sugar and made into a marmalade-like syrup. Many are also made from different sorts of fruits and have great health benefits for the body. Some of them have even become very popular in other countries like Japan.
In present day South Korea, it is not as common as it was in the past for people to drink tea. Due to the rise in popularity of coffee, South Korean people find themselves drinking coffee more often than not. And yet, despite the booming coffee industry, more and more these days has there been a rise of interest in tea and tea ceremonies. As South Korea becomes more economically efficient, the typical worker has become really stressed and pressured to keep going. Therefore, in seek of peace and relief, many people are getting familiar with the routine of drinking tea or going to tea ceremonies to have a moment of solace. Increasingly more people in South Korea are turning to the culture of tea as a remedy for not just the body but the soul. At times however, certain teas are commonly consumed as a healthy drink when one is sick. Also, some teas are more fitting than others to drink in certain seasons. For example, yujacha is consumed more during the winter.
Tea in Korea has long held a place of importance in its culture. Although it has lost its mark in the last couple of decades, it is still considered to be a significant part of Korea’s food culture. With a great range of variety, Korean tea offers a different taste for those who seek it. It has even been divided into five specific tastes to cater to the consumer: bitterness, sweetness, astringency, saltiness and sourness. Given its healing powers; how it relieves the stresses of the modern world, and the depth of its flavour, it is of no surprise that tea has made a comeback in South Korea, adding a slice of tranquility to an otherwise hectic modern world.
Featured Image Source: © Nokchawon, 29.12.2017, http://nokchawon.co.kr/en/2015/02/04/녹차원-한국의-녹차/
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