Sunday, May 17, 2009

No, the Japanese did not invent green tea

I love green tea, though (famously) not green tea ice cream, green tea latte, etc., etc. Give me the purity of steeped leaves in all the glory of their bitter aftertaste. That shows that the salutary effect is working.

Anyhoo, the Los Angeles Times has a quite interesting write-up on the green tea fields of Posŏng County [보성군/寶城郡; aka Boseong-gun], along the southeastern coast of Chŏlla-namdo. It describes the 1500-year-old tea-drinking tradition and the modern revival of the joys of green tea.

An excerpt:
The fields of Boseong have a less peaceful history. During their occupation of Korea in the 1930s, the Japanese noticed that Boseong had the perfect combination of temperature, humidity and soil for growing green tea. Having conquered the country, the Japanese established the first commercial tea plantation there to grow the coveted leaves and ship them back to Japan. But when the Japanese were defeated and forced to leave Korea in 1945, production came to a standstill. The fields became overgrown with weeds and lay fallow for years.

In 1957, Jang Young-seob, a visionary entrepreneur, bought the land and established the Daehan Tea Plantation (Daehan Dawon), the largest in the area, restoring green tea production in Jeolla-do. Now Boseong, famous for growing quality tea leaves, produces over a third of South Korea's green tea.

The Boseong region is to green tea what the Napa Valley is to wine. There are hundreds of tiny producers in the area. Visiting the plantations, I was struck by the pungent aroma of the leaves even before I caught sight of the fields. But it was the view that took my breath away. The soft rolling rows of tea plants stretching up along the hillside stood majestically in the morning fog.
This place, along with Ullŭngdo, is at the top of my list of places I should have gone to long ago but haven't. Which is weird, because I've been everywhere, like Lonely Planet Korea guide everywhere.

I think it would be great if Posŏng earned some international acclaim for its product, perhaps becoming a raison de visiter for folks to come to Korea. Toward that end, it grates me even more that the spelling "Boseong" has become so common. Even now, the NAKL version of Romanization, the Retrograde Romanization Korean (that's not really what they call it, but they should), just bugs me. The seeds for a future post on it are here.

Someone unfamiliar with Korean language picking up "Boseong Tea" will likely pronounce it boh-see-ahng. If they're more familiar with how "e" is pronounced in most other languages, they might produce boh-seh-ahng. No one unfamiliar with this major shortcoming of RRK would guess that the fantasy vowel combination of "eo" represents the vowel sound in son, fun, ton, or the first syllable of computer.

The tendency that "Boseong" creates for people to pronounce the first syllable like 뽀 instead of an unaspirated "po" is not as bad, though it will contribute to that visitor's rendition of Korean NOT being understood when he/she is actually trying to get to Posŏng. Really, it's that wholly fantastical bigraph's way of mucking up 어 that really is so grating. Like someone pronouncing the "J" in San Jose like the first letter of Joseph.

I'm not pulling this criticism out of my butt: For my work we did studies and the non-Korean speakers were understood better, and understood Korean speakers better, when McCune-Reischauer (the one with the brĕvĕs) spellings were used, even when the use of the breves was not explained and even when the breves were not used.

This point was really driven home for me during an encounter at Hong Kong's new airport back in 2001, talking with the gentleman in front of me about comparisons between the two new airports. He actually thought that we in Korea had changed the name of the city from 인천 (or 인찬) to 인치안, hence the spelling change. I did explain that the powers-that-be thought that Incheon was a "better" spelling than Inchon, which frankly did not inspire much confidence in the Korean government.

My solution? Write it as "Posong," with or without the diacritical breve over the "o." Sure, some will pronounce it as 포상, but in terms of audio aesthetics and — more importantly — in terms of being understood, that's miles better than 뽀씨앙.

Rant over, for now. Maybe I need some tea myself right now.


  1. Dude,

    Your use of the older, outmoded, spellings is really confusing and gives me a headache. I bet I'm not the only one.

  2. Sorry, but when it comes to imposing a system that leads thousands of newcomers to serially mispronounce and misunderstand Korean, I refuse to be an enabler.

  3. Not to mention that it leads to inconsistency, since Korean Studies academia and North Korea continue to use McCune-Reischauer, as do a number of news organizations and other resources.

    It was a poorly thought-out move to put back in place a tried-and-failed system with extremely little input from the people who would actually use the system most.


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