Learning the Korean Way of Tea
-Episode One
Passing on The Way of Tea with The Master-Protégé System

By Hooi Yoke Lien
I attended the Korean Way of Tea class under Madam Chung-hee Moon and her daughter Seoung-jin Lee; Madam Moon is a protégé of Madam Ok-ja Seol.  Madam Moon was a history teacher when the school master of the high school invited Madam Seol to conduct training in 1983. All lady teachers were requested to attend her sessions on traditional etiquette and tea brewing. That was how Madam Moon began learning from her mentor; later, she would attend private lessons conducted by Madam Seol. (Madam Seol now stays home most of the time owing to indisposition. After we dined out one evening, Madam Moon and her family made it a point to show me where Madam Seol stayed. They detoured to the place and told me she lived upstairs. )

Madam Moon opened the Korean Traditional Culture Centre upon retiring from her teaching career. The children classes cover etiquette, tea brewing, pastry making and the traditional lifestyle. For teenagers, she teaches them the proper way to walk and sit, the way to address the others, etiquette at school, funeral customs and rituals, how to put on traditional casual attire, tea brewing, pastry-making, cooking, needlework and embroidery, the way to wear traditional costumes, and traditional weddings. Besides these two major curricula, classes are also conducted at the schools. The centre offers classes for adults as well. I was introduced to Madam Moon through an acquaintance, and signed up for one-on-one private tuitions.

Madam moon is currently the President of the Traditional Etiquette Academy and a director of the Federation of the Korean Tea Fraternity. The Korean Traditional Culture Centre, which she established, is a privately-run tutorial centre; there is no tea house or tea shop attached to it (that is, it does not operate tea drinking or tea sale businesses). I attend classes in a newly-completed four-storey building, which serves as the centre’s headquarters.  The ground floor houses the facilities and materials essential for the teaching traditional lifestyle. The first floor is dedicated to the traditional costumes and etiquette. The second floor is the venue for teaching pastry-making. The third floor is reserved for tea brewing classes. In between classes, Madam Moon’s daughter Seoung-jin will be manning the reception and making arrangement for class registration.

Seoung-jin said, she had attended Madam Seol’s classes at school, after which, she learned from her mother by being her protégé.  She became a qualified teacher of the Korean Way of Tea after seven years.
I asked Seoung-jin how I should address her. She asked me to call her Ms Lee. I asked Madam Moon how I should address her, she asked to call her Madam Moon. When I asked her the name of the brewing method, Madam Moon said it is called the Ok-ja Seol style.

It is safe to say that the Korean Way of Tea pays much emphasis on the master-protégé system. Ok-ja Seol is widely recognised as among the first generation tea masters of modern tea culture in Korea. She used to give lectures in schools nationwide.  Many students have attended her lectures; but they are not her protégés.  Protégés are those who personally ask the masters to let them learn by their side, either in the studio, private tutorial centres or at home.  In effect, they are apprentices to whom the masters have committed to teaching them over an extended period of time (a minimum of three years, but it may also extend to eight to ten years, and in some cases, a lifelong training). These apprentices will have to practise tea brewing demonstration at fixed times. By then, the protégés may address their teachers as masters.  ‘Teacher’ is a general term; ‘master’ is used exclusively by those who have been accepted by the teacher. This way, the system is clearly in place for the Way of Tea to be passed on. Seoung-jin Lee is Chung-hee Moon’s protégé, and Chung-hee Moon is Ok-ja Seol’s protégé.  By right, Seoung-jin Lee is my teacher because she has conducted one lesson for me; but she asks me to address her as ‘Ms Lee’ because age-wise, I am her senior and I am also a teacher by profession.

Why is it necessary to have such a clearly-defined system? The reason lies in the essence of the Korean Way of Tea – it means a lot more than tea brewing. It encompasses the proper attire to be in, the etiquette to be observed between the senior and the junior, and the men and women, among others.  Tea brewing and rituals are inseparable; as such, the order of seniority and the proper way of addressing the others must be strictly followed. This way, standardisation and acknowledgement of the professionalism and hierarchy of the Way of Tea will be passed on from generation to generation.