It is of peculiar history how Jirisan became the place known for Korean green tea.
It all starts with a thief.
His name, Kim De-Ryeum, a man on an envoy mission to Tang China.
It is 828 A.D., and although there has been traces of history in small scale tea cultivation in regions of Korea, there hasn’t been a significant recorded movement for tea culture. Prior to this date, green tea was primarily grown and harvested in very small quantities by hermit monks or select farmers. Access to high quality green tea was usually limited to diplomatic gifts received from China.
During this era, the Tang Dynasty of China was very strict. There were absolutely no Chinese goods that were allowed to be exported, especially their prized tea seeds. It is unclear if King Heung-Deok, of the Shilla Kingdom had planned for Kim to smuggle tea seeds or not, but that’s exactly what Kim did -he sowed seeds into the hems of his sleeves and risked it all. This would’ve been very problematic for both Kim and the Kingdom of Shilla if Kim had been caught by Chinese officials. Luckily, our little Korean thief had made it back home safe, and King Heung-Deok was very pleased.
The seeds were ordered to be planted at Ssang-ge-sa temple located on the southern part of Jirisan, and the monk Jin-Gam was ordered to cultivate them. Jin-Gam was a revered monk and scholar that was educated in Tang China. Tea cultivation was one of his specialties and he had helped develop tea plantations grow rapidly in neighbouring regions.
Jirisan has one of the oldest tea cultivation methods in Korea, and has insisted on maintaining it. While other regions commercialized production by acquiring larger land mass to increase quantity and machineries to to speed up processing, farmers of Jirisan to this day handpick and hand-process their tea. Unlike Chinese or Japanese methods, artificial shading is not used -the tea bushes are naturally shaded periodically by the mountain. The result is a very distinctively unique Korean green tea.
An After Thought.
There may be some nationalists after reading this article that may come after us for calling Kim De-Ryeum a ‘thief’. Many Koreans, including myself, think of Kim’s actions as patriotic. I recall first learning of him while I was in elementary school and reflected on his actions on my walk home. I found the irony funny in regards that depending on perspective, Kim may either be a hero or a villain. Still to this day, I tell my non-Korean friends of Kim De-Ryeum’s story and how a thief is one of our national heroes. That said, I hope you understand that I’m only poking fun by calling Kim a ‘thief’.
Merchant of Seoul