Two Reviews of Books about Korean Tea

By Ásfríðr Ulfvíðardóttir/ Rebecca Lucas.

Originally written in my livejournal.

There seem to be two main books in English about Korean tea culture, and it is striking how different their goals and contents are, for an area the average person would have thought of as being pretty obscure.

The Book of Korean Tea is by Yoo Yang-Seok, and appears to be a shorter version of his textbook used at the Myungwon Cultural Foundation. The Korean Way of Tea by Brother Anthony of Taizé (aka An Sonjae) and Hong Kyeong-Hee, is less textbook, and more beautifully illustrated book discussing the relationship between Seon (Zen) Buddhism, Tea, and the Panyaro Institute.

My interest in tea, is more history than modern, so Yoo's book was by far and away a more academic and scholarly work, focusing on the history, classic literature, and archaeology of tea drinking. The really exciting bits are...

  • You get footnotes and a bibliography!
  • There are translated quotes, from the original documents. They're not the most useful quotes (simply because people at the time didn't write down what was bleedingly obvious to them), but it's a lot more informative of what we do and don't directly know from written sources, than the more generic phrasing of Brother Anthony and Hong.
  • Surprisingly, the relationship of Seon and tea was better expressed in this book, as was the likely interpretation of the philosophy of the time, in what would be expected when serving tea.This is confirmed, when you discover that towards the back, not only is Cho'ui's poetic Dongdasong translated, but Dashinjeon, with it's much more practical information about 19th century tea preparation and drinking practices.
  • Dated artwork, and photos of archaeological finds! with details about where the object is held in the index at the back!
The only criticism I can think of:
  • The text that you would think of as being bracketed (ie. clarifying points, providing translations) is instead a smaller font, with gold colouring. It can be a bit tricky to read, especially if you can't automatically recognise the hanja used.

Anthony and Hong's book is about 1/4 the size, and 1/2 the price as Yoo, so on those merits alone it may be tempting, however there are some worrying things about this book that really bothered me:

  • The Korean Way of Tea has no footnotes or bibliography, although it does credit a 1997 issue of Koreana Quarterly once, for some translations of poetry.
    This probably wouldn't be so bad, if every interesting historical fact I tried looking up on Google, quickly revealed that it had been copied without credit from the same Koreana issue. (Which is available online for free.) So, it is probably safe to say that the pre-19th century history of tea drinking is not this books' strong suit.
  • As mentioned earlier, the book is more focused on the Panyaro Institute and the 'Panyaro Way of Tea,' rather than historic rituals.
So, if you can only justify buying one book, or know of a nearby library with a copy, I would recommend The Book of Korean Tea by Yoo Yang-Seok, over Brother Anthony's writings.

Book Details

  • Brother Anthony of Taizé and Hong Kyeong-Hee The Korean way of tea : an introductory guide (Seoul, Korea : Seoul Selection, 2007.) ISBN: 9788991913172
    Brother Anthony's website is also interesting.
  • Yoo Yang-Seok The book of Korean tea : a guide to the history, culture and philosophy of Korean tea and the tea ceremony (Seoul, Korea : MyungWon Cultural Foundation, 2007.) ISBN: 9788995502129
    The MyungWon Cultural Foundation website has information about books in English, and step-by-step instructions about tea rituals.