The Tea Bowl Festival – News from South Korea

Thanks to our friend – ceramist Peter Novak, I had a chance earlier this May to visit the Mungyeong Traditional Tea Bowl Festival in South Korea. The festival is held annually near the townlet of Mungyeong in the North Gyeongsang Province in the eastern-central part of South Korea. This place, with its strong tradition and a thousand-year history of teaware manufacture, is ideal for holding such events. Many important ceramists live nearby and in every village you will find the traditional big multi-chamber wood furnaces, where the masters fire their pottery.

Fairy-tale-like Pass
The festival itself takes place in the famous pass of Mungyeong Saejae. Saejae means „Bird Pass“ or a pass so high that even birds find it difficult to fly over. A historical trade route led here in the past, linking Busan and Seoul, south and north of the peninsula. Three old gates, which controlled traffic on the path, are an important tourist attraction today. At the first of the three gates, a replica of the historic town was built, looking as if it was from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film. The Tea Bowl Festival was held in this beautiful scenery.

The international platform for artists
The exhibitors were divided into two sections. Domestic, Korean ceramists exhibited mostly traditional Korean teaware made with well-established procedures and materials. Foreign exhibitors, coming from all over the world, presented a varied mosaic of different approaches, more or less close to the tea topic. We will gradually present some of the artists who were most interesting in their individual profiles in the next articles and if people are interested and we manage to negotiate good conditions, some of those interesting pieces might appear in our shop in the future.
The opening ceremony of the festival was a colourful show of Korean music, dance and theatre. Many local businessmen and politicians appeared there.

Preparing tea the Korean way
Throughout the festival, many accompanying events took place. The parade in historical costumes kept walking through the whole area accompanied with loud drumming; you could see the original crafts in a nearby village, have acupuncture, acupressure, try Buddhist meditation, and at many places you could enjoy a bowl of good tea. In a beautiful summer pavilion, lovely Korean ladies performed the tea ceremony in many ways. The most common way of serving tea in Korea is to drink Nok-cha tea from a traditional tea set (cha-gi). The ceramic set for tea preparation is more rustic than similar sets in Japan. It is designed for tea preparation for three to five people and consists of a teapot (cha-gwan or cha urineum jujeonja), which mostly has a lateral ear and resembles Japanese kyushu teapots. Then it contains cups (cha-jan or chat-jong), with bright glazing inside so that the tea can be seen, but it is rarely pure white. A cooler (suk-u, mul sikhim sabal or gwittae-geureut), in which water is cooled down before pouring over tea and where the liquor is poured after brewing for proper mixing (thus the liquor of the first cup is not weaker than the last cup). Cups are always placed on small, mostly wooden trays (jantak or chat-jan batchin). Tea is stored in a ceramic or wooden (sometimes lacquered) jar or served directly from the original packaging in which it is sold. The packaging is especially sophisticated in Korea. Cups are not touched with hands, but tongs are often used, like in China.
Various scoops and spoons for tea are also beautifully elaborate, mostly made of bamboo and rare woods. Sometimes, when the tea leaves are especially small, a small sieve must be used for pouring. When the tea set is not in use, it is covered with a piece of decorative cloth (chat-po or chat sang-po). The tea set may also include a larger container (toisu-geureut or toisu-gi) with hot water for teapot preheating and cup rinsing, and it usually stands on the ground. Tea is prepared and served on a low beautifully carved table (cha-sang or cha-damsang), which can have countless forms and usually is a wood-carved masterpiece. The host sits on one side, preparing tea, and the guests sit across the table. The cups, teapot and coolant are heated with hot water, tea is then inserted directly into the teapot, which is always kept with one hand by its ear and the other hand holds the lid. Water is cooled down, sometimes to fifty degrees and the tea is brewed for a relatively short time, about one minute. Depending on the quality, the tea can be infused several times. Between the individual infusions, sweets (chasik), rice cakes or small lozenges with scented pine pollen are often served.

Korean tea ceremony
Another way to prepare and serve tea in Korea is somewhat similar to the Japanese chanoju tea ceremony. This method is not as common as in the neighbouring Japan and it is far less official and ceremonial. Ground powdered tea (malcha or guru-cha) is mainly imported from Japan; Korean „malcha“ is rather rare. It is whisked with a bamboo whisk (cha-seon or chat-sol) in a large bowl (chat-sabal or chawan), which is also used for drinking it. This way of tea drinking came from China and was most widespread during the reign of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Today, the ceremony is more relaxed and casual in contrast to Japan. In Korea, you can also find non-traditional products from powdered tea quite often. You can try tea ice cream, green tea cake, various milk drinks, etc.

Exceptional masters, exceptionally high prices
Everything described above can be bought or seen at the Mungyeongu Festival. It was an incredibly diverse display of all tea accessories, mostly pottery, but also wood carving. Many highly esteemed masters displayed their products and skills, often surrounded by their pupils. We were intrigued by a store of an old master, who only made small bamboo spoons for powdered tea, in Japan known as chasaku. He had an incredible selection of all shapes, makes and artistic expressions. Unfortunately, the prices were more than astronomical, like with many other artisans.
There was quite a modest offer of teas. Several Chinese retailers of puehr, a Taiwanese grower with his business representative for Korea and a Korean seller of mostly Japanese teas. No big show of Korean teas. This was a little disappointing.

The festival lasted for nine days with hundreds of visitors coming every day. Both experts and laymen, artists, journalists, collectors, Buddhist monks, tourists, all showed great interest, discussed with the exhibiting artists, drank tea with them and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere. The ambience of the historic town, the surrounding hillsides full of blooming fruit trees, fresh spring air and smiling friendly people, all of this further enhanced the exceptional event. The Korean government, which finances the project, certainly deserves recognition for this. Not every country values its traditions and culture. Thanks to lucky circumstances, I discovered a completely new and fascinating world.

Comments are closed.

Klasek Tea
Přístavní 39
1710 00 Praha 7
tel.: +420 777 052 974

© Daniel Klásek / Design Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS)