When Yi Mok wrote the Ch’abu 茶賦 (Korean Ode to Tea) in the late fourteen hundreds, the Ode joined the long and illustrious history of tea. For centuries, Korean court annalists wrote of tea in the kingdom’s earliest records, and scholars and poets filled their literary compilations with belles lettres devoted to the herb. But until the Ode, there was no formal Korean treatment of tea. Yi Mok was the first to write in detail about tea on behalf of the literati, and for his contribution to the distinctive peninsular culture of tea, he is known as the Father of Tea Koreana.
Yi Mok lived during a time when the Korean throne and state were governed by a staunchly neo-Confucian ruler and bureaucracy. With the destruction of the Koryō dynasty (918-1392 A.D.), the Chosŏn (1392-1910 A.D.) government discredited and disbanded the Buddhist establishment, its priests defrocked or driven into seclusion. Few monasteries were sanctioned under the Chosŏn, and the diminished Buddhist hierarchy was strictly controlled by the Confucianist government. Tea survived in the remaining temples where abbots and priests used tea in ritual and ceremony and employed the herb as a meditational aid. As an aesthetic practice, tea was preserved within Buddhism by individual priests and small groups of monks living in remote mountain hermitages scattered throughout the country, especially in the distant south where terrain, climate, and warm ocean currents were favorable to wild and cultivated tea.
By comparison, tea flourished greatly in the royal palace and at court. Like the Koryō before them, the Chosŏn adopted tea, and early in the dynasty routines of tea were administered daily by a special office staffed by bureaucrats with specific grades and official titles. In 1474, the rites of state included tea in the conduct of major ceremonies. As tea was maintained as a ritual necessity at the government level, society and common etiquette prescribed tea for ceremonies at the coming of age, weddings, funerals, and memorials. Although observed as an essential part of official and daily life, tea as a form of beauty or pleasure or spiritual attainment gradually faded, except among the literati such as Yi Mok.
Hanjae Yi Mok 寒齋 李穆 (1471-1498 A.D.) was a member of the governing class of Confucian scholar-officials (yangban 兩班). His father, Yi Yun-Saeng 李閏生 (active ca. 15th century A.D.), served the royal court of King Sŏngjong 成宗 (née Yi Hyeŏl 李娎; reign 1469-1495) with the title of Third Minister. Yi Mok was a brilliant student. At the age of eighteen, he passed the State Examinations and was awarded the chinsa 進士 degree. Even as a young man, he was known for his strong moral convictions and courage, suffering exile late in 1489 for his stands against the throne; the following year, he was allowed to return to Seoul. But in 1498, Yi Mok was caught up in the Muo sahwa 戊午士禍, the first of several violent “literati purges” ordered by Prince Yŏnsan (Yŏnsan-gun 燕山君; né Yi Yong 李隆; reign 1494-1506 A.D.). Yi Mok was executed at the age of twenty-seven.
In his short life, Yi Mok experienced the art of tea from an early age as clan ritual as well as family ceremony and etiquette. The habit of tea was reinforced as a scheduled refreshment in the regimen of the Confucian academies he attended as a student and scholar. As an official, he took tea as a regular feature of government, an institutional nicety punctuating meetings throughout the bureaucratic day. He was likely taught to appreciate tea in the literati manner by his teachers and friends. But aside from the routine exposure to tea common to all Korean scholars of the time, Yi Mok admitted he did “not understand tea.” In the early Chosŏn, all major works on tea were from China. It was only after reading the Chajing 茶經 (Book of Tea, 780 A.D.) by the Chinese tea master Lu Yü that Yi Mok “gained a little” of tea’s “true nature” and came to “treasure it.” Through the Chajing and later Chinese writings, he gained a purely continental perspective on tea. In 1496, he was sent to China and spent some months in the Ming capital at Beijing where he learned more about tea from his academic sponsors, Chinese teachers and counterparts, and friends before returning to Korea. At some time between 1496 and1498, Yi Mok was moved to write the Ch’abu, a learned rhapsody of tea in a high literary prose that circulated among his family and friends in the scholarly and official communities in Korea as well as in China, where he undoubtedly maintained contacts.
As for the reasons why he wrote the Ch’abu, Yi Mok responded to critics who equated tea with burdensome taxes and the ills of the people, saying, “How can this be the intention of Heaven? No doubt, it is the fault of man, not tea.” He observed that the ancients made the things that pleased them better known. If viewing the moon or drinking wine were the source of pleasure, poets wrote rhapsodies and poetry about them; songs were sung and music composed about the delights of the zither or the beauty of chrysanthemums. Declaring that tea was the highest of all pleasures, he lamented that none thus far had extolled its virtues and likened the situation to the abuse of a worthy man. Luxuriating in the poetic moment, he waxed lyrical; warming with enthusiasm to his subject, Yi Mok exaggerated.
In truth, many Korean writers and poets had over the centuries contributed greatly to the art and philosophy of tea. The scholar Yi Kyu-bo 李奎報 (1168-1241) proclaimed that tea and the Way were the same, and Yi Saek 李檣 (1328-1396) promoted tea as as a spiritual discipline and a means to Enlightenment. Yi Kyu-bo and Yi Saek were intimately familiar with Chinese teas, referring to the many continental varieties in their poetry and writings. The poet Sŏ Kŏ-jŏng 徐居正 (1420-1488) wrote fondly of “birds’ tongue” tea and spent his time picking tender “buds of golden dew.” Brewing his tea in an ancient tripod, Sŏ Kŏ-jŏng compared his poems to the Song of Tea and himself to the Chinese Daoist Lu Tong 陸仝 (775-835). Tea had been cultivated in Korea since the ninth century and was sent periodically to the courts of China as tribute through the dynasties. In return, imperial Chinese emissaries presented to Korean kings gifts of tea and costly tea equipage and wares. Indeed, Yi Mok’s trip to Beijing was an example of the enduring relations between China and Korea, representing just a single instance amidst the countless cultural connections held in common by the empire and kingdom.
Returning home, Yi Mok resolved to write the Ode in order to “investigate the names of tea, examine their places of production, and judge their superior and inferior qualities.” He composed the Ch’abu in classical Chinese using an extremely elegant but highly literary style. Accepting completely the purely Daoist origins and uses of tea, Yi Mok referred exclusively to the apocrypha and ignored the proprietary claims of Buddhism on its practice. Such use of arcane Daoist figures and esoteric lore tested the knowledge of common academics: only the cognoscenti could fully comprehend the Ch’abu and appreciate Yi Mok’s scholarship and sensitivity to the art of tea. The literati were composed of members of the Confucian elite and, despite the intolerance of their religion in the early Chosŏn, included like minded Buddhist clerics and laity. The Ode was not only a work of literary merit, but also a rare fifteenth-century record of tea; moreover, it was on a par with the Chapu 茶譜 (Treatise on Tea, 1440) by the Chinese Ming imperial prince Zhu Qüan 朱權 (1378-1448).
Though thoroughly laced with Chinese allusions and imagery, the Ch’abu may be justifiably viewed as an essentially Korean expression of tea, a significant and distinguished work replete with the tastes, sentiments, and remarkable insights of the young but gifted master, Yi Mok.
Figure 1: Portrait of Cho Chae-ho 趙載法, Duke of Pungwon, 18th century
Korea: Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910)
album painting: ink and color on silk
35.5cm x 27.3cm, Mounted: 44.4cm x 33.2cm
The Cleveland Museum of Art