The Unique History and Culture of Korean Tea

      Though tea and tea culture in China and Japan are well known and well cataloged, the tea and tea culture of Korea is often a different story. Korea’s tea and tea culture have certainly been influenced by its two neighbors but it has also developed and is redeveloping and rediscovering its tea and tea culture, too. Korean tea has gone through several forms of evolution and continues to evolve and develop every day.

The History of Korean Tea

      According to historical texts like the Samguk Yusa, the origins of Korean tea go back to the Three Kingdoms of Korea but it is possible the history of Korean tea may go back a bit further. Korea’s original tea culture featured not Camellia Sinensis or true tea at first but rather lots of herbal, floral, and fruit teas. These types of teas are known more commonly as tisanes. 

       This is an interesting thing to note because modern South Koreans consume lots of these types of teas, potentially even more herbal and fruit teas than green or black teas today. These early tisanes were consumed for health and for ritual purposes. According to some historical texts, the semi-legendary Queen Heo Hwang-Ok, who was originally from Ayodhya in India, brought Camellia Sinensis var. Assamica or Assamese tea to Korea’s Gaya kingdom. 

     However, most experts and historians seem to agree that the first tangible evidence of Camellia Sinensis var Sinensis of tea plants making an appearance on the Korean peninsula came when Chinese and Indian Buddhist monks from China or Korean monks who were returning to Korea from China from their studies brought green tea plants. 

      Green tea had become part of Chinese Buddhist liturgy and ritual by the 6th and 7th centuries when Buddhism from China had become more and more entrenched in Korean culture as the three major kingdoms on the peninsula Baekje, Goguryeo, and Silla each adopted Buddhism one after the other. 

     Eventually, the Silla kingdom would unite the peninsula under their rule. It was Silla’s illustrious Queen Seondeok who was not only a fabulous female ruler and patron of Buddhism, science, and the arts but she was also a tea enthusiast who began importing bricks of tea from China. Tea seeds would also be imported into Korea during the Silla era, with some of these original seeds being planted on Korea’s Jirisan, which today is still a haven for green tea cultivation. Jirisan’s Hadong tea farm is one of the major centers of tea in Korea to this day.

      In the Goryeo era (918 ad- 1392), Buddhism and tea become inseparable with tea ceremonies performed for the Buddha and for deceased ancestors. Two major tea ceremonies developed at this time, the Yeondeonghoe- a ceremony performed in veneration of the Buddha, and the Palwanghoe- a ceremony done for the benefit of the kingdom and its people. 

     By this time, tea was widespread and tea towns had developed around temples. Temples served as the main centers of tea production and at this time Koreans would drink tea 3 or more times per day. Sometimes for ritual purposes and sometimes just for health or as a social custom when receiving guests. 

     In the modern era, most South Koreans still imbibe a caffeinated beverage but instead that beverage is coffee (more on that a little later)! Goryeo’s tea culture, one which most likely had a lot of similarities to Japanese tea ceremonies today and potential the Chinese Gong Fu ceremony as well, persisted into the Joseon era. 

      Joseon saw a shift from Buddhism as the main state religion to Confucianism and then Neo-Confucianism. These two religious philosophies focus on making the mundane spiritual but sometimes at the cost of turning once religious things into more common or even secular practices. Once an art of the gentry, aristocrats, clergy, and royalty, tea rites became more commonplace. The common people also started doing tea rites known as darye or charye which mean “rites/etiquette of tea”. 

      Today, the offering table for ancestor worship and other rituals is the “charyeseong” or literally “tea rites table” even though food is the main subject on these rather than tea for the most part. As culture shifted from more Buddhist perspectives to Confucian ones, tea rites were performed for ancestors rather than the Buddha. 

     Tea cultivation and culture were still preserved at Buddhist temples. Korean ceramics and teaware were still highly renowned in Asia at this time too. So much so that the Imjin Wars, which were the various invasions of Korea by the Japanese in the 1500s are sometimes referred to as the “Pottery Wars”. This is because so many Korean ceramics, teawares, and even potters and masons themselves were taken hostage back to Japan. One can see how a lot of the mak and bieum aesthetics in Korean ceramics influenced or played a role in accelerating Japan’s wabi-sabi aesthetics in tea ware that we see today. 

     Another interesting tea trend that occurred during Joseon was the style of tea leaf processing. While Ming and Qing China moved from tea bricks to pan-fired tea leaves, Joseon continued to pack their tea leaves into brick form up into the Korean Empire and colonial periods. The reason this is of note is that while brick tea was commonplace until somewhat recently, finding brick tea in Korea today is rather challenging! The brick teas known as “tteokcha” (rice cake tea) and “doncha” (money/coin tea) are produced but difficult to find outside of tea farms and regions like Boseong, Hadong, and Borimsa. Borimsa is a temple in South Jeolla province that keeps the art of brick tea alive, even packing black tea, too! 

     But as Korea became a colony of Japan, most of the tea fields, which had fallen into disuse as Joseon moved from Buddhist tea to Neo-Confucian wine as a ritual libation (and for fun!), were instead used to make tea for the war effort. Between the colonial period, the Korean War, and the rebuilding eras, a ton of Korean tea and tea culture were unfortunately lost. From physical destruction, shifts in culture, and even erasure of cultural identity. 

      Luckily, Korean tea culture was not completely lost, with Korean tea and tea culture coming back into vogue. There is even the Korean Tea Expo in Seoul hosted at COEX which features tons of amazing, innovative, and traditional tea, tea wares, and even Korean tea ceremonies being performed, too! Lots of Korean tea and tea culture had to be reconstructed from old texts, and preserved traditions that had luckily been maintained through the turmoil of the last 100 years on the peninsula. 

      The Korean tea ceremony has also been rehabilitated. One can find tea ceremonies in both a formal and a more relaxed style in Buddhist temples performed by monks- the perennial stewards of tea culture in Korea. One can also find secular/Confucian-style tea ceremonies that differ from their Japanese and Chinese counterparts in many significant ways. 

      The discussion of Korean tea ceremonies warrants its own article, but some significant ways it differs from China and Japan include the attitudes and atmosphere that is present in the ceremony, the wearing of Korean Hanbok, the use of Joseon and Goryeo style tea wares, and the use of whole leaf green tea as opposed to matcha, for example.

      Today in modern South Korea, coffee is often the drink of choice. Cafes are more than ubiquitous with usually 1-3 cafes or coffee shops on the same block. Sometimes two Starbucks locations are even across the street! But this doesn’t mean tea is off the menu, no, far from it! 

      Korea is a place of innovation and change but also valued traditions. Korean culture still follows a traditional 24-cycle calendar, at least at a very symbolic level. Thus, there are different herbal and fruit teas for each season and for certain times of the year. 

      For example, during different equinoxes, certain crops or foods that are seasonal will be served as special promotional teas at cafes all over, even at big chain cafes. Green tea is by far the most popular used form of Camellia Sinensis tea, usually appearing in the form of lattes. Black tea is also usually enjoyed in the form of non-Korean modes of tea like British or Hong Kong-style milk teas. 

List of Popular Teas in Korea

     Though the world of Korean tea is vast and the catalog of both historic and contemporary teas are quite long, the selected list below is some of the most common teas one will find at cafes, supermarkets, offices, and in people’s pantry at home! As one can see, lots of herbal, fruit and floral teas are very popular in Korean tea culture.

  • Green tea – nokcha
  • Black tea – hongcha
  • Mugwort tea – ssukcha
  • Korean pine needle tea – Solipcha
  • Chrysanthemum tea – Gukhwacha
  • Jujube tea – Daechuja
  • Pumpkin tea – Hobakcha
  • Plum tea – Maeshilcha
  • Magnolia berries tea – Omicha
  • Yuzu citrin tea – Yujacha
  • Barley tea – Boricha
  • Brown rice tea – Hyeonmicha
  • Brown rice and green tea – Hyeonmi nokcha
  • Corn kernel tea – Oksusucha
  • Job’s tears tea – Yulmucha
  • Angelica root tea – Danguicha
  • Balloon root tea – Dorajicha
  • Solomon’s Seal tea – Donggulraecha
  • Red ginseng tea – Hongsamcha
  • Korean ginseng tea – Insamcha
  • Ginger tea – Saenggangcha
  • Burdock tea – Uongcha
  • Ssanghwatang – Traditional tea made of 9 different herbs and spices that are believed to have medicinal properties including licorice, angelica root, and others. This tea is very strong and bitter tasting.
  • Sujeonggwa – Another traditional tea made of fruit, herbs, and spices and also with believed medicinal properties. While Ssanghwatang is very bitter with an almost coffee-like body and flavor profile, sujeongghwa is very spicy and sweet. It is made from ingredients like cinnamon, dried persimmon, ginger, and others.

The World of Korean Tea

    This is just scratching the surface of the illustrious and exciting world of Korean tea. Korean tea and tea culture have endured time and turmoil to emerge into a modern era of innovation and renewed appreciation. Many herbal, fruit teas and tisanes have persisted and can be found in canned form in supermarkets, for seasonal promotions at cafes, and are brewed at home. The world of green tea is also being reappraised with the Korean tea ceremony being rehabilitated by both Buddhist monks and secular/Confucian/Neo-Confucian tea masters. The world of Korean tea is a living and breathing world, for sure!

The featured image at the beginning of this post is from Manseok_Kim of PixaBay.

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