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60 Partners : 60 Days : An Introduction to South Korean Tea

In the next part of our #60partners#60days we move to South Korea.  It would be fair to say that of all the regions we work with this is the least familiar to our customers which for us [and hopefully you] is exciting, so much to be discovered, so many stories to be told.  

Compared with the rest of Asia, Korea produces a very small amount of tea per year, and a limited amount is exported.   There are four major tea-growing regions: Mount Jiri, Boseong, Jeonnam and Jeju Island and a whole host of new tea names and terminology to learn nokcha, jaksul, ujeon, sejak, joongjak, daejak as well as many oxidized teas also made in Korea, known as ‘fermented teas’ often referred to as balhyocha.  Hopefully we have whetted your appetite to learn more! [Rob will share more on this through his trip]


We focus on South Korea this week because as we write this Rob is on his way to Seoul to travel, drink tea, learn from and exchange with the people that we will introduce you to. 

Rob will start his journey in the Tea Houses of Seoul before heading to Boseong County [in South Jeolla Province] and Hadong county [in South Gyeongsang Province] both famous for their green teas. Here he will explore the tea gardens and renowned pottery studios meeting and spending time with tea teachers, growers, renowned ceramicists and those involved in spreading the word about South Korean tea to the world.

Much of our social media over the next days will be from this trip so it seems a good time to make a brief introduction - and we will keep it brief as Rob will no doubt share more as he travels. 

Firstly lets orientate ourselves.  Korea sits below China, and is separated from Japan by the Korea Strait and Sea of Japan. With such influential neighbours, it’s no surprise that Korea’s tea history is entwined with theirs.  It is said that tea first reached what is now North and South Korea back in 108 BC, when the country was known as Gojoseon. At this time the Han Chinese took over the country, influencing every aspect of indigenous culture, including the introduction of tea.

Tea did not become fully established until the sixth or seventh centuries, in the middle of the Three Kingdoms Period, which corresponds with the Chinese Tang dynasty (618–907). At this time, Korea’s monks and scholars were visiting the growing number of Chinese schools of Buddhism, where they were introduced to tea drinking traditions long established in China. 

The tea fields in South Korea we see today [below pictured Soo Soo's tea fields in Boseong] and the teas we enjoy have emerged from a turbulent journey - which we offer a whistle-stop tour of below.  For more history of tea in Korea you will need to pick up our book or for a far more detailed read also check out a number of books recommended to us by our Korean friends : [1] The Korean Way of Tea: An Introductory Guide [2] Korean Tea Classics by Hanjae Yi Mok and the Venerable Cho-ui

Lets start in the Goryeo (Koryeo) dynasty (918–1392) a period which saw tea become important to all classes of the population [unlike in China and Japan] something that reflected in its use and saw increased teaware production and tea becoming an intrinsic part of poetry, song, art and drama.  The Joseon dynasty was less positive for tea (1392–1897) as the country turned to Chinese Confucianism which put an end to many buddhist ceremonies and the destruction of monastries.  The few tea fields that were left in the South faced further destruction in the seven year war with Japan (1592–8) a period where many craftspeople were also exiled to Japan [which would definitely have benefited from this surge in knowledge.] 

A resurgence in interest is noted in the late 1800s but this was to be disturbed by the Japanese occupation (1910–45), World War II and the Korean War (1950–3) From then until now there have not been any significant hurdles preventing the rebuilding of Korea’s tea culture and by the 1960s farmers were growing tea as a business rather than for religious purpose - a major shift.  One man who you can read about far more widely in the literature above and online is Ch’oi Pom-sul (later the Venerable Hyo Dang).  He was a driving force in this restoration of tea in Korea. Head monk of the Dasol-Sa Temple in the Jiri mountains, he wrote the first comprehensive modern study of tea in Korea, Hangukui Chado (‘The Korean Way of Tea’) in 1973. He founded the ‘Korean Association for the Way of Tea’ to promote the understanding and study of all aspects of his country’s tea and also had a part to play in the teaching of all the modern tea masters who are continuing his work on the revival of Korean tea.

One important element to end on - because you will see it reflected in the stories in the book and the stories we will share from our partners - is that Hyo Dang insisted that tea was to be ‘drunk quite naturally, in the course of daily life, and should not be made the subject of unnecessary constraints’.   In contrast to the complex rituals enjoyed elsewhere in the world in South Korea greater importance is placed on remaining natural while drinking tea with others. 

That, we think, sounds like a beautiful moment.  And one we would certainly like to share with all of you.  Stay tuned to meet our partners : 



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