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Tea in Korea: Korean Tea Is Green, Chinese Tea Is Not

By An Sonjae

In most traditional Korean tea houses, the menu offers a choice between a variety of Korean green teas and Chinese Oolong tea. The green teas are often listed under various poetic names, the most commonly used being Chaksolcha which, you may be told, means `sparrow tongues' to indicate that it is made with the smallest leaves. More complications arise from various subdivisions but the first question must be why Korean tea is always described as `green' and what is the difference between green tea and Oolong?

We already saw that while they ruled China, the Mongols did nothing to encourage elegant tea-drinking. When the Chinese once again began to cultivate the drinking of tea as a refined activity among the higher classes, with the advent of the Ming dynasty (1368-1643), they did not go back to the Sung taste for powdered brick-tea. Instead they promoted the more natural form of loose-leaf tea that simple people in the southern regions had probably been enjoying for centuries.

The freshly sprouting leaves were gathered in the early springtime and dried rapidly by being heated in an iron pot over a fire. Without being allowed to burn, the leaves were stirred and turned until they were completely dried, either retaining their original form or rubbed and rolled until they were tightly curled on themselves. This is the form known most commonly as Green Tea. The younger the leaves, the finer the taste.

Soon a variety of methods were discovered by which the delicacy of the taste could be accentuated. The most important of these depended on the amazing change that occurs if the leaves are allowed to wilt during a slower drying process. The complex oils contained in the fresh leaves are highly sensitive to exposure to the air. If the leaves are first lightly bruised and softened, the oils begin to oxidize. The sophisticated Chinese tea-makers soon learned that the taste of the tea varied enormously, depending on the degree of oxidizing allowed before the final drying process. The result was the great range of teas known collectively as Oolong (black dragon) in Chinese, Oryong in Korean..

The color of the tea made from the dried leaves varies, as well as the taste. The young leaves dried at once without being allowed to wilt (green tea) produce a green liquid. The Oloong teas yield a variety of shades of yellow. At the far end of the spectrum, the most fully oxidized leaves produce a strongly-flavored red-tinted brew that the Chinese and Koreans call hongcha (red tea) and the English often term`black tea.' This kind is the source of England's national beverage, since it is the only kind of tea produced in India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya.

As for the modern history of tea in Korea, after centuries of neglect, early in the 19th century, the great Confucian scholar Tasan (Chong Yag-yong) was exiled for many years to his mother's home at Kangjin in South Cholla Province. There he seems to have learned the old ways of preparing tea leaves and drinking tea from the monks in a nearby temple.

For several months he gave hospitality to a young Buddhist monk, Cho Ui, who later established a hermitage known as Ilchi-am in the hills above Taehung-sa temple near Haenam. Cho Ui cultivated the Way of Tea and in about 1836 he wrote a famous poem, Dongdasong, in praise of tea.

That hermitage rotted away after Cho Ui died in 1866 but in the late 1970s it was rebuilt as a result of a new revival of interest in Korean tea, inspired largely by the Venerable Hyo Dang, Choi Pom-sul. He might be considered to be the Cho Ui of the 20th century, for in 1975 he produced the first full length book about the Way of Tea to be published in modern Korea. He played a major role in the Korean Independence Movement, and founded several schools and a university after 1945, as well as being the teacher of virtually all the leading figures in the modern Korean tea revival.

The teaching of the Venerable Hyo Dang can be summed up in one phrase: Chadomumun (The Way of Tea has no doors). He liked to stress that tea-drinking should not be seen as an arcane mystery reserved for Buddhist monks and initiated experts; he wanted tea to be restored to all Koreans as part of their authentic national heritage, for he was convinced that the Way of Tea could bring wisdom and insight to people of every social background.

Adapted from:



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