A Perfect Cup of Tea

Writer: Grace Noh

Tea Party ,  Wen Zhengming (  1470–1559), National Palace Museum, Taipei. 

Tea PartyWen Zhengming (1470–1559), National Palace Museum, Taipei. 

Imagine you are strolling in a tranquil garden filled with trees and flowers. While a cup of tea pleasantly rests on your hands, the gentle breeze blows the hot steam of the tea for you to drink with ease. How would such experience make you feel?


Tea is the flower of Soo.

The budding leaves

Fill with their murmur every fragrant garden.

Here, while my golden kettle gently sings,

I brew your gift and slowly sip,

While perfumed steam ascends

On such a cloud a poet's spirit soars,

Surely my soul will touch the clouded heights

And come again with sweet immortal songs.

Or why should such a drink - the wine of gods-

Refresh a humble scholar like myself?

Choe Chiwon (최치원 崔致遠, 867 - 10th century)


Written by a noted Korean Confucian philosopher and poet in the ninth century, the poem presents the poet’s appreciation of tea he has received as a gift from Tang China. The experience of tea not only involves the indulgence of the scent and the taste of tea, but also refreshes the mind and soul of the tea drinker. Whether it is experienced by someone from the ninth century or the present time, tea is a pleasant enjoyment to body and mind.

A young apprentice is brewing tea while the intellectuals enjoy music and discussions in nature . Kunhyundo (군현도 群賢圖),  Kim Hong-do (1745 - 1806).

A young apprentice is brewing tea while the intellectuals enjoy music and discussions in nature. Kunhyundo (군현도 群賢圖), Kim Hong-do (1745 - 1806).

From scholars having heavy discussions to poets reading poetry and playing musical instruments, Kim Hong-do's Kunhyundo depicts tea as an important linkage of the different figures in the painting as they interact with tea in an aesthetic surrounding of nature. It reflects an aesthetic principle of harmonization of spirit and matter that inspired men for centuries. 


“[pouring too much tea] Your Highness. Don't you see your true self reflected in this tea? Your heart is overflowing with ambition. It's too full to let other people in. You've carried this full heart to Red Cliff. Someone here shall pour that heart onto the floor.” In Red Cliff (2008), a character named Xiao Qiao gently and yet powerfully warns Cao Cao of his overflowing ambition through the demonstration of tea drinking. The beauty of tea requires the harmony with nature and self-cultivation of heart and mind. Without understanding its beauty, tea cannot be fully enjoyed. 

Images from  Red Cliff  (2008). 

Images from Red Cliff (2008). 

Tea ceremonies, with its roots in the Chinese tea culture, spread to Korea and Japan, which played an important role not only in the tea culture but also in the art, philosophical, and political cultures. The tea ceremony is explained as “art of tea” in China, “etiquette for tea” in Korea, and “way of tea” in Japan. The three philosophies of tea ceremony slightly differ and yet share the essence of appreciating tea, 茶.

Image from: antiquealive.com

Image from: antiquealive.com

Tea has always been part of my life as well. For special occasions, my family would receive rare teas and teaware. I never thought they were special until I was away from Korea long enough to miss the small little things I used to enjoy with my family. I recall using a small white tea cup that gave a swirling appearance to the tea inside like a rock thrown in a pond. It never seemed to have bored me waiting for the tea to cool down. Holding the side of the warm bowl tingled my fingers and seeing small residues of the tea leafs sinking to the bottom of the bowl took away my attention.  

Sometimes with its rusticity, sometimes with its quiet taste, and sometimes with its refined elegance, tea inspires and comforts us with its beauty. As the tea bowl reflects one's heart, I hope that I will "meet" my very own tea bowl I would fully enjoy and would share with someone as it represents the unity of hearts and mind. After all, what could be a better way to enjoy a calm morning, engage in a pleasant conversation, or be in a creative mode of artistic making than having a perfect cup of tea?