Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mulling over Green Tea

As opposed to many people's thinking, the centuries-old much stylized tea ceremony of Japan does not get the same ceremonial regard in Korea. The green tea ceremony in Korea was restricted primarily for the ancestors and the king, but the reality of drinking green tea was for the pleasure and luxury of relaxation.

Historical Decline of Korean Green Tea

Historically, green tea was popular in the Koguryeo Dynasty, but because monasteries were destroyed and Buddhist monks were forced to retreat to isolated mountains and forbidden to enter city gates in the Chosun Dynasty, the popular drink of Buddhists was not deemed acceptable by the Confucians; it was symbolic of a religious time period gone awry, and the drinking of tea gradually went out of fashion. Another reason for the decline in tea drinkers was that green tea was only grown in the warmer southern climate of the Korean peninsula, so with the decline of Buddhism and thus the diminishing demand for tea, the drink became only a local drink, but even the locals stopped cultivating and drinking it when in the 18th century a tea taxation was passed - yet another unwanted tax on the peasant class, and so those peasants with tea farms began abandoning them as the tax was more demanding than the demand for tea. By the 19th century, tea was little known to the common people and was basically drunk in the countryside for medicinal reasons because something so "nasty" had to be good for you.

During Japanese occupation, the Japanese imported Japanese tea roots for black tea and initiated new tea farms to imbue the conquering Japanese within colonial Korea aka Chosun. Whether the black tea farms/plantations have been replanted with green tea, I don't know; however, green tea is once again in demand. Korea is planting new green tea plantations and packaging their products for sale within the country. Ironically, the sale of Korean green tea is always in powder form and never in the form of loose tea leaves. Another irony and one which Korea seems to be aiming to correct is that Korea, known as a country that consumes green tea, does not export its product (as yet). If you go to a tea shop in another country and look at the wide variety of teas imported from various corners of the world, Korean green tea is virtually guaranteed to not be in the collection. This might change soon with the growing number of green tea plantations, especially on the more temperate island of Cheju.

Tea Poetry

Tea poetry has a long, long history in China and was borrowed by the Buddhist-dominated Korean society during the Goryeo Dynasty. The founding text for tea literature is "Classic of Tea" by YuLu who wrote in the 8th century in the Chinese Tang Dynasty. In the book he described the intricacies of making tea - the planting and picking of the leaves, the roasting process with the end product in small round briquettes for reconstituting and brewing tea... When tea was introduced into the Korean society, the tea drinking culture was re-transformed from the Chinese mainland into various societies to meet the different classes of people. Tea evolved:
- royal tea
- aristocratic tea
- monk's tea
- ancestral tea (which was very ceremonial as was tea to Buddhas in the temples)

In these modern times, people now substitute wine for tea. (Present-day Buddhists are supposed to be against fermented drink so I wonder if wine or soju really is used in Buddhists ceremonies. Hmm.)

Samples of tea poetry translated into English from a collection entitled "Rhapsody...":

"Bring out a jade bowl and wash it yourself; boil water from a rocky spring, then observe how the pale steam brims at the lip of the bowl like summer clouds issuing from mountain streams and peaks, and white billowing waves form as if dashing down a swollen river in spring."

"Wisdom is to float like an empty boat on water. Benevolence is to admire the trees and fruit of the mountain. When the spirit moves the heart, it enters the Wondrous, even without seeking pleasure, pleasure arises. This is the tea of my heart, it is needless to seek another."

In 1928, transcribed from the Chinese, Cha JinSeon transcribed a beautiful volume concerning the traditional way of Chinese tea.

In 1837 Dong ChaSong wrote a hymn in praise of Korean Tea with the opening lines combining nature and tea and that is the blend. Following are some selections:

The Horrors of Bad Tea - "Below is Chilbum Meditation Hall. Those meditating there often picked tea late, old leaves, and dried them in the sun. Using firewood, they cooked them over a brazier, like boiling vegetable soup. The brew was strong and turbid, reddish in color, the taste extremely bitter and astringent. As Jeong-So said: 'Heaven's good tea is often ruined by vulgar hands'." (DongChaSong stanza 12).

The Wonders of Good Tea - "The sound of bamboo oars and wind in pine trees, solitary and refreshing, penetrates my weary bones, awakens my mind, so clear and cool.
With no other guests but a white cloud and the bright moon, I am raised to a place higher than any immortal." This tongue-in-cheek selection suggests that tea awakens the mind and brings enlightenment, higher than the Buddhist immortal!

Confucians were scholarly and valued the pen and brush. Naming poems and writing in general was given deep thought, and when the scholar Chusa in about the 1820s was sent into exile, he wrote the name-board for a meditation hall in Daeheung Temple that had been built by the Venerable Cho-ui, a monk who taught meditation and the way of tea. The naming basically translates as: "The fire for making tea smells good."

This is just a fragment of the presentation given by Brother Anthony of Taize on "Scholars in Exile or Dead, Monks and Tea: Stories from Old Korea". Brother Anthony has been living in Korea since 1980, and is now emeritus professor of Sogang University and a chair-professor at Dankook University. He has published some 25 volumes of translations of Korean poetry and fiction, and is the author of The Korean Way of Tea as well as his recently published Korean Tea Classics, with translations of writings about tea by Yi Mok and the Venerable Choi-ui.

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