Beware of tea, the demon weedNo Chinese adult is without his cup of tea. Japan is thick with tea gardens. Think Oriental culture, and you think tea.
But in Korea, with tea-soaked China on one side, tea-sodden Japan on the other, the drink of choice is plainly coffee. Even if you go to a “tea house,” proper tea is only one item on the menu. The rest is all herbal infusions: quince, ginger, cinnamon, arrowroot.
Korea grows fine tea, on the slopes of Mount Jiri, on Jeju Island and around Gwangju.
And tea was once as valued in Korea as in China or Japan. Some credit it to Dangun, founder of the nation. Queen Seondeok of Silla was famous for tea consumption. Munmu, first king of unified Korea, gave tea as an offering to the gods. One entire Goryeo ministry of state dealt with rules for the tea ceremony.
Then came Prohibition.
It was the very popularity of tea during the Goryeo Dynasty that caused its downfall. For Goryeo, all agreed, had grown corrupt, effete, frivolous. Many blamed tea, that noxious weed, for this tendency. Others blamed Goryeo’s devout Buddhism.
For in Korea, as throughout the East, tea is a Buddhist drink. Buddhists say the first tea plant sprang from the eyelids of Bodhidharma, who flung them away so sleep would not interrupt his meditation.
This, of course, explains why tea keeps us awake. Buddhist monks have always used it for alertness during meditation. The famous tea ceremony began as a Buddhist ritual.
Tea produced a complex of Buddhist-based philosophy and aesthetics, in Korea as in Japan and China: “tea culture.” Its core philosophy is summarized in Kakuzo Okakura’s celebrated “Book of Tea”: “Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”
To the connoisseur (as to the British granny) the essence of tea was a conviction that nothing in particular mattered much. Plainly decadent, dangerous and socially undesirable.
The neo-Confucian Joseon Dynasty began as a reform movement. Sweeping away Goryeo decadence, it naturally targeted tea. Similar reformers in 1920s America targeted alcohol, or in 1950s America, marijuana. Tea drinkers were beatniks, bohemians.
At Joseon’s apex, the great King Yongjo banned tea outright, along with alcohol, for the same reasons.
Then, just as during American Prohibition, the acceptable excuse for drinking tea was “for medicinal purposes only.” Many soon were stricken with appropriate minor, chronic illnesses. As the ban and stigma lifted, they retained their taste for these brews; just as many Americans drink liqueurs like Benedictine, Chartreuse, or goldwasser, though all were originally medicines.
Hence the herbal teas in every Korean tabang, grocery, or restaurant. A Chinese meal is served with tea; a Korean meal is served with bori cha, an infusion of roasted barley. Barley reduces heavy metals and prevent cancer. Ginseng (insam) tea, famously, gives stamina. Citron (yuja) tea is for colds and sore throats. Then there are ssanghwa, omija, jujube (daechu) and Job’s tears (yulmu) tea: The menu in a Korean tabang is the inventory of traditional Korean medicine.
All in small doses, admittedly; but have no doubt, this is serious medicine. The story is told of a Chinese scholar long ago wandering in distant parts. He came upon a young girl beating an old man viciously. Horrified, he rushed to stop her.
“What has he done,” he inquired, “that you beat him?”
“He keeps forgetting his gugija tea. See how old it makes him look.”
“Is that any reason to beat your elder?”
“Elder? I’m his mother. And even I am only 300!”
For obvious reasons, you might want to try gugija (matrimony vine) tea yourself. Look for it in any corner store. Improbably failing that, any imaginable botanical can be found in the Gyongdong herb market. Take subway line No. 1 to Cheongnyangni Station. Walk west to Gosanja-ro.
by Stephen K. Roney
Stephen Roney teaches at the University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops, British Columbia.