London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Korean ceramic tea bowls and tea culture

Eunjung Shin continues her series on themes from the past, inspired by objects in the British Museum’s Korea Gallery.

Celadon tea bowl, Koryo dynasty, The British Museum
Celadon tea bowl, Koryo dynasty, The British Museum

One thousand years ago, drinking tea was an important social activity in Buddhist Korea. After Buddhism was introduced from China in the 4th century it flourished up until the end of the Koryo dynasty (935-1392) in the 14th century. Zen Buddhism, which placed emphasis on the importance of meditation, began to appear in the Unified Silla period (668-935). Tea became popular at this time because monks often drank tea to help stay awake during long periods of meditation. Tea drinking in the Koryo dynasty was not only a part of Buddhist ritual: in the royal court itself, tea ceremonies were also held by the King and his officials. According to contemporary court records, King Sungjong (r. 981-997) used to grind his own tea leaves with a stone grinder. Koryo kings also gave tea to officials and monks as a precious gift. Tea ceremonies were often used as a kind of opening ceremony for court events, and kings and aristocrats used celadon tea bowls during these ceremonies.

Koryo people followed a strict form of tea ceremony and used beautiful tea utensils. As a result, the production of these utensils became quite advanced during the Koryo period. Celadon tea bowls were used for important tea ceremonies because celadon was a rare and precious ceramic. It was not commonly used in Koryo society: only aristocrats and the royal family could afford to get this new and expensive utensil. Celadon ware was produced mainly in the royal kiln so common people would not have the opportunity to see it, and certainly couldn’t afford to buy their own. The colour of Koryo celadon was highly admired by Chinese aristocrats as well as local Koreans. One Chinese literati wrote that the colour of Koryo celadon is the best among the celadons. The Chinese thought of it as a secret colour because they did not know how the Koryo potters made the beautiful colour seen in Korean celadon.

In the beginning of celadon production in Koryo, Korean potters were probably influenced by Yue potters in southern China who fled to Koryo after the collapse of the Yue kingdom. Unlike Chinese celadon, Korean celadon was developed over a very short period. However, Koryo potters applied their own traditional inlaid techniques using black and white inlays thereby creating their own style. This inlaid technique was previously used in Korean lacquer and metal ware and was already quite advanced when celadon began to be produced in Korea.

Inlaid celadon tea bowl, Koryo dynasty, The Museum of Oriental ceramics, Osaka
Inlaid celadon tea bowl, Koryo dynasty, The Museum of Oriental ceramics, Osaka

Powdered tea was popular during the Koryo period in Korea. This type of tea is often a rich green colour so aristocrats used the similarly coloured celadon tea bowl when drinking it. In the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), leaf tea was more popular and Joseon people used smaller white porcelain vessels, rather than celadon, so they could appreciate the lighter colour of leaf tea.

In contrast to the complicated and formalized Koryo tea culture, Confucian Joseon culture emphasized a simple, humble tea culture. The taste of the tea was regarded as more important than the way it was drunk in this period.

Tea house Iljiam in Daehengsa Temple in Korea (from Korean Cultural Insights)
Tea house ‘Iljiam’ in Daeheungsa Temple in Korea (from Korean Cultural Insights)

In the 15th century Japanese monks came to Joseon and stayed in a special area for Japanese traders. During their stay they visited many Buddhist temples in Korea. The Japanese tea house is very similar to the humble Korean style tea house of the Joseon dynasty, and this is no doubt as a result of the influence received from Japanese visitors to Korea such as these monks. Also many monks in Joseon fled to Japan because the Confucian Joseon court did not support them, and tried to remove many Buddhist temples. This two-way exchange of Korean influence was an important influence in the development of the Japanese tea tradition.

Bibliography

Yoo, Yangseok, The book of Korean tea, Seoul, 2007

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