My mom recently gave me Korean green tea, and told me it’s a good quality green tea that I shouldn’t waste. That sparked my curiosity about Korean green tea, and so I decided to start reading about them. The more I learned about Korean green tea, the more I realized how tightly it’s connected to Korean history.

The earliest official record of green tea in Korea reads that an Emperor of Tang (present China) gave tea plants to one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea in early 800s. Tea quickly became popular in Korea that in one Kingdom, there was a specailized royal office that overlooked tea (and alcohol and medicine) used for various ceremonies. It's amazing that tea was put in the same category as medicine and alcohol.

In Goryeo, the kingdom that came after the Three Kingdoms, Buddhism was chosen as the national religion. Tea ceremony was considered one of the meditation methods, and so Buddhist monks dedicated much time studying, growing, and supplying tea. In some regions where tea plants grew well, tea was even collected as a form of tax.

By the end of Goryeo era, Buddhism was very corrupt, kind of like how the churches were corrupt in the medievals in Europe. The country stopped thriving, and so a group of activists decided to form a new kingdom, called Joseon. And they decided to have a fresh start!

Joseon decided to persecute Buddhism and promote Confucianism, because new country, new religion, new start. As a result, the Buddhist monks didn’t have the time or money to tend the tea plants. The bureacrats and the royals picked up green tea culture as their hobby for a bit. Making Korean green tea is a laborous process (there are 4 harvest seasons, and at least six ways to process it), so I can see how that could be fun. But soon green tea lost its popualarity as it was considered a luxury, and Confucianism encouraged modesty and frugality.

As a result of Confusianism which considered learning a very high priority, many good things happened in Korea, such as the invention of han-gul 한글 the Korean characters, lots of science, and art. Some bad things (in my opinion) also happened, including women losing much of their rights; the mother in a family had a lower status than her toddler son, for example.

But then by mid-Joseon in 1500s, buddhist monks who were struggling with the kingdom’s persecutions but keeping their culture, and the bureaucrats started interacting with each other to exchange knowledge. So the green tea culture made a come back!

The green tea culture faced a huge change yet again as Japan colonized Korea in the early 1900s. As food became scarce, tea farm owners stopped tending the tea plants to cultivate food. Meanwhile, Japanese made an attempt to create huge tea farms in Korea to supply tea to Japan, which they didn’t succeed.

After Japan surrendered in World War II, Korean land owners got their farms back, and started cultivating tea plants again. These days, there are many tourism around tea farms, where tourists can help farmers harvest, create tea, and stay overnight in rural parts of the country.

And that’s how I got to taste the Korean green tea! The type I had is called sejak 세작, which literally means sparrow’s tongue. Apparently new tea leaves as small as a sparrow’s tongue are hand picked in the late spring to create this blend. Interesting facts!

reference | History of Korean Tea Culture - Persecution of Buddhism
photo credit | Bo-sung, a popular tea growing city in Korea