Korean tea ceremony

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Asian Art Museum: Korean tea ceremony

The Korean tea ceremony (darye/ 다례/茶禮/etiquette or rite of tea) is the traditional mode of preparing and consuming tea in Korea. The Korean tea ceremony has been practiced and developed from the time camellia sinensis tea was introduced to the peninsula. These earlier forms of the tea ceremony were in the form of ritual offerings to deceased kings, gods, spirits, ancestors, and within the Buddhist religious context with offerings to the Buddha, bodhisattvas and eminent or deceased monks. With the rise of Confucianism and subsequently Neo-Confucianism in Korea, Confucian philosophy and modes of proper ritual conduct began to influence the Korean tea ceremony. The Korean tea ceremony places an emphasis on harmonizing naturalness, ease, and relaxation with formality, ritual, and interpersonal etiquette. The Korean tea ceremony, along with Korean tea and tea culture have been experiencing a revival in the modern era.

History of Korean tea ceremony

The preparation and consumption of herbal teas and tisanes in Korea may predate the consumption of camellia sinensis tea. However, the first historical evidence of camellia sinensis tea and its role in a ritual and ceremonial context can be traced to the year 661, during Korea’s Three Kingdoms period. This tea rite held in 661 was to commemorate the spirit of King Suro of Gaya.

The Gaya kingdom's significance in the development of Korean tea and tea culture are also relayed in an additional, albeit semi-mythical account. The Record of Gaya claims that the legendary queen Heo Hwang-Ok, originally a princess from Ayodhya in India, introduced the camellia sinensis var. assamica to Korea. It was claimed that the tea plant introduced by queen Heo was planted on Baegwol mountain situated near the city of Changwon. Regardless of the aforementioned tale's authenticity, evidence suggests that the first camellia sinensis tea consumed in the Korean peninsula was black tea in the form of bricks and cakes similar to pu'erh as found in China today.

Sometime after this period, Buddhist monks from China began transmitting both the Buddhist religion and Chinese tea culture to the Korean peninsula. Other transmissions and developments in the evolution of early Korean tea culture and the tea ceremony occurred during the Silla dynasty (57 BCE-935 CE). During the reign of Queen Seondeok of Silla two varieties of tea bricks began to be imported into Korea from Tang China.

Tang China’s interactions with Silla helped to introduce and inform Korean Buddhist tea ceremonies before they eventually started developing into their own uniquely Korean forms as can be witnessed today. Tea and tea culture in Korea continued to flourish during the Goryeo dynasty (918 CE-1392 CE). During national and public rituals, tea ceremonies formed part of the ritual procedures.

By the 1200's CE the Korean tea ceremony became heavily influenced by Korean Seon (Korean: 선, Chinese: Chan, Japanese: Zen) Buddhism. The scholar-bureaucrats of the Goryeo era also left an impression on the Korean tea ceremony. Various arts developed around tea-drinking including tea poetry (dasi/다시/茶詩) and special tea meetings (dahoe/다회/茶會). The trends in tea followed the Chinese standards throughout much of Korea's tea culture. Moving from tea bricks to powdered tea similar to matcha, to whole loose leaf tea, which is the form of tea featured in the Korean tea ceremony even in the modern era.

A special department was created for overseeing tea drinking and rites during the Goryeo dynasty known as the Tabang which continued into the reign of the incumbent Joseon dynasty. Initially, during the Joseon period which reigned from 1392 until 1910, tea-drinking among the common and lower classes and in the ritual and religious context continued as it had in prior dynastic reigns. The ruling Yi clan even observed a “Day Tea Rite” which was a simple daytime ritual as well as a “Special Tea Rite” which was more elaborate and practiced only for particular occasions.

Korean teaware and pottery became coveted commodities due to their craftsmanship and wide range of aesthetic details and levels of expression, many of which featured naturalistic weathered designs as became predominant in the Japanese wabi sabi aesthetic. During the Imjin War (1592-1598), many Korean teawares and even the potters themselves were taken as hostages by the Japanese and brought back to Japan where the Korean craftsmen influenced Japanese teaware aesthetics.

However, there is some evidence that tea and tea culture may have begun falling into its initial decline at this time, at least among the aristocracy and royal family. King Seonjo, who reigned during the Imjin war remarked to a Ming commander that, "we [the Joseon people] do not have a tea-drinking custom in our country".

Heavy taxes on tea raised the price of tea as a commodity for commoners, with the yangban aristocracy and the royal family having access to the now expensive resource. Tea was also accessible for Buddhist clergy or communities located in proximity to tea fields and forests. While the aristocracy and royal family during the mid-Joseon period moved closer to Neo-Confucian rites and practices officially, their use and observance of tea ceremonies would decrease, instead opting for rice wine and fruit wine as their libations of choice.

Tea was seen by the Neo-Confucian elite of Joseon as a legacy of Buddhism and they would seek to transition away from Buddhist style rituals to fit with orthodox concepts of Neo-Confucian practices. the Korean Seon Buddhist monastic institutions, however, would preserve much of Korean tea, tea culture, and the tea ceremony into the modern era. Many tea fields were located near and even owned, run or administered by monasteries.

As tea fell out of favor with the elite, it became more accessible for the common classes. In later Joseon, the common people even used tea for the ancestral rites, known as charye (차례/ 茶禮). Tea ceremonies would also be incorporated into wedding ceremonies. During the later centuries of the Joseon dynasty, tea and tea culture would experience a revival spearheaded by many Silhak scholars who wanted to revive traditional customs. These scholar-officials, known as Seonbi, Confucian gentlemen or sages known for their virtue and wisdom, began to correspond and interact with Buddhist abbots and the leadership at temples and monasteries, leading a more enriched and comprehensive development of the tea ceremony.

Tea rooms or dabang (다방) would become popular establishments during the 1800s, with tea rooms being added onto establishments like grocery stores in the 1920s. After the upheaval and subsequent rebuilding efforts following both the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea and the Korean War, Korean tea, tea culture, and the tea ceremony have all witnessed a marked revival of interest and scholarship. One modern institution, in particular, overseeing the research and promotion of Korean tea culture is the Panyaro Institute for the Promotion of the Way of Tea, which was founded in 1983 in Insa-dong in Seoul.

Today, one can experience Korean tea culture and tea ceremonies in many locations across South Korea. The Insa-dong area of Seoul features traditional hanok (한옥) style teahouses and cafes where guests can also wear traditional Joseon-era clothing called hanbok (한복). In addition, there are more formal tea ceremonies hosted at Buddhist temples, on holidays or for commemorating particular events and even showcased at cultural festivals or events such as the Tea World Festival hosted in Seoul and at famous tea growing areas in Korea such as Boseong and Hadong counties.

Equipment for Korean tea ceremony

The utensils and equipment used for Korean tea ceremonies will be indicative of the season, with wider bowls used in the summer to help cool the tea, while in the Autumn and winter, taller, narrower bowls would be used to retain heat. The color schemes, texture, and patterns of the chosen teaware may also be chosen to match with the season. The philosophical and religious context of the tea ceremony may also influence the equipment used. Within the Confucian context of tea ceremonies white, smooth, uniform and modest tea ware would be used. In Buddhist tea ceremonies, celadon tea ware potentially displaying more naturalistic and stoneware styles may be used.

Equipment used during Korean tea ceremonies include a large pot of hot water, a pouring bowl, a teapot often sporting a side handled "kyusu" style design, a tea jar, teacups in the rounded handle-less design, a bamboo tea scoop, and a water basin for discarding water or cold tea, tea trays, and tea cloths.

The host may wear Korean traditional clothing known as hanbok and sit on the floor as people would during the Joseon era. Screens displaying calligraphy or traditional artwork may also be displayed. In Buddhist temples, the monk or nun administering the tea ceremony will wear their distinctive gray robes. Korean tea ceremonies predominantly use whole loose leaf green teas like the domestic Woojeon and Jeoncha teas. Herbal teas such as chrysanthemum, mugwort, and persimmon tea may also be featured.

Procedures of Korean tea ceremony

The Korean tea ceremony has developed over time and has been heavily influenced by both Seon Buddhist and Confucian perspectives, principles, and etiquette. An emphasis on ease, naturalness, conviviality, and harmony all existing within a formalized structure feature into the ethos of the Korean tea ceremony.

Most tea ceremonies begin with the teaware arranged from top to bottom, the teapot in front of the host or tea master with the serving bowl to the hosts’ right and the source of hot water further to the right. Following Confucian social rules, the cup on the top, furthest from the host is for the oldest or highest-ranking guest while the cup closest to the host is their cup.

The cap is removed from the teapot, and the hot water is poured into the serving bowl. A folded white sheet is held in one hand to hold the hot water source’s lid on. Next, the hot water in the serving bowl is carefully poured with two hands into the teapot. The lid is placed back on the teapot and after waiting for a few seconds more hot water is poured into the serving bowl.

The teapot, filled with only hot water, is then used to pour hot water into each of the guest’s teacups. This is to ensure the cups are hot when the tea is poured in and it doesn’t cool off too quickly. The top cup is poured first so it can maintain heat for the longest duration. The tea scoop is then cleaned with a special cloth, and used to either catch tea leaves rolled onto the scoop with the tea jar, or by being shoveled out of the tea jar with the tea scoop. The tea leaves are then poured into the teapot. The hot water from the serving bowl is then carefully poured in on top of the leaves. The host places the top of the teapot back on. While waiting for the tea to brew, the host, carefully, using two hands pours the hot water from each of the guest’s cups into the basin.

The order is bottom to top so the top cup remains hot the longest. Tea is then poured into the host’s cup first, to check the tea’s color and to make certain the tea is fully steeped.

The host then pours short streams of tea into each cup from the bottom cup to the top cup. The host will pour small amounts of tea into each cup in rotation to make sure the taste is even and all the tea is completely used in the first steeping.

The host will serve the guests by keeping one hand below the other, to keep the long sleeves of their hanbok from dipping into the teacups and to show respect for their guests.

The cups are placed onto coasters. If a coaster sports pictures, images, sayings or phrases, the host will turn the coaster towards their guest so they can appreciate and admire the art. Teacups on coasters are then set on a tray to be served to guests. The host takes the first sip to check the tea’s quality and will invite guests to drink their tea as well. When drinking tea, one hand holds the cup and the other hand holds and supports the bottom of the cup.

In some settings, such as in tea ceremonies administered by Buddhist clergy, tea is to be finished in three sips on the first steeping. The first sip is to taste the tea’s head and aroma. The second sip is to appreciate the body and its full flavor and richness, while the third sip is to enjoy the aftertaste and get a sense of the tea’s terroir.

Tea snacks such as tteok (떡) or Korean soft rice cakes may be enjoyed. Rice snacks may be enjoyed during the first steeping, to serve as a treat and palate cleanser between sips or tea steepings. Korean Buddhist tea ceremonies will often include or be demonstrative of a dharma talk or discussion of Buddhist teachings by a monk or nun. For example, the clergy person in question may explain the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and rebirth vis the three sips method of enjoying tea. The first sip represents birth, the second, life, the third, death, and the second steeping of the tea as rebirth.

While Korean Seon Buddhist theology and philosophy may appear solemn or reverent, in the context of the Korean tea ceremony the tone can often be light and even feature humorous and jocular themes or stories from the monk or nun hosting the ceremony.

In non-Buddhist contexts, tea ceremonies are also intended to promote friendly and natural conversations and experiences between the guests and the host.

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