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  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 7, November 26 - December 2

Teahouse Ayi

Hey Oi Ayi,

At home we all head out to the pub if we want a good laugh, but here in China everyone keeps going on about teahouses. I was even invited to see a play entitled Teahouse. Can you please explain what all the fuss is about?

Tifa Too

Dear Tifa,

The teahouse craze might be a bit strange, but being from a tea drinking nation yourself, I thought you might be a bit more appreciative of a night out on the Oolong as opposed to the Newcastle Brown. However, as always your understanding Ayi is here to guide you in times of bewilderment and confusion.

Since arriving in China, if you have left the shining metropolis even once then you will know that in most rural towns you will find at least a handful of traditional teahouses. Historically, they have been at the center of social life for the men of the community, a place where, regardless of social status, you can enjoy a cup of tea, have a bite to eat and relax with friends. It also serves as a gathering place for retirees; in fact, very much like a modern day bingo hall. Yet it is not just a place to wile away the hours with idle banter. The teahouse also acts as a forum for discussion, a sort of Chinese Hyde Park, where you can exchange views and discuss affairs of the day. Merchants, brokers and lawyers meet their
clients to discuss business. In fact in certain areas the term shang chaguanr (lit: 'go to the teahouse') means 'to settle a dispute' and many a business deal is clinched over a nice cup of jasmine tea.

And yes you are right, there is a play called Teahouse, a revival of which is now playing nightly at the Capital Theater on Wangfujing. Lao She, one of China's great novelists and playwrights, captured the idea of the teahouse as the center of the community in his famous play Chaguan (Teahouse). Lao She saw the teahouse as the nucleus of Chinese society, a place where people from all walks of life came together. The story traces the changing lives of some seventy characters who regularly frequent the Yutai teahouse. The characters range from the manipulative pimp Liu and the aging court eunuch Pang who buys his wife out of poverty, to the upright and honest teahouse owner Wang Lifa and his business companions. As the characters struggle through progressively chaotic historical events, starting from the end of the Qing dynasty to post-Liberation, the teahouse soon becomes the battleground for the friendship, betrayal, bribery and hardship that besets their lives.

Such old-style teahouses as depicted in Lao She's play continued to thrive throughout the 1950s and early 1960s in Beijing. However, during the (1966-76) Cultural Revolution such places were attacked as being too 'bourgeois' and an upper-class stigma was attached to the idleness of spending all day drinking tea. Once China opened its doors to the West in the 1980s, young urbanites started to view coffee-drinking as a more modern, fashionable pastime. However, after a decade of non-stop modernization traditional-style teahouses have started to reappear nationwide. In rural areas, teahouses have been set up as small enterprises, and even in the image-conscious cities many Chinese are beginning to rediscover tea culture.

Teahouses today, however, are quite different from the ones in Lao She's time. Now they are filled only with the quiet buzz of leisurely chat and are devoid of the unsavory characters that once lurked in many a teahouse corner. Entertainment and recreation is determined by locality, as is the custom of drinking tea. In Sichuan, where the practice of tea-drinking is thought to have originated, old men sit at long school-desks crammed into small halls often shouting over the opera performances taking place on stage. The waitstaff weave their way between them, pouring water into large tea cups through long-spouted jugs. In Canton it is customary to hit the fingertips on the table to signify thanks after receiving your tea.

Appropriately enough, one of the first in the renaissance of authentic old-style teahouses to open in Beijing was called the 'Lao She Teahouse,' andcame complete with 'old Beijing'-style drum players and folk singers. In Fujian and Taiwan, the appreciation of tea or pin cha (lit: imbibing tea), involves more ceremony, and teahouses from these regions have been the most popular in major cities. Oolong tea is sipped from thimble-sized ceramic cups, and strained at least twice before drinking.

However, in order to fully appreciate teahouses, your Ayi would recommend trying one out for yourself. So I am providing you with the names of a couple of teahouses which may just persuade you that a night out on the town can also involve a nice cuppa cha.

Beijing Qingxin Court Teahouse
No. Jia 53, Dongdaqiao Road, Chaoyang District
A quiet traditional teahouse near the busy Silk Market
Tel: 6507-0487

Lao She Tea House
3rd floor, 3 Qianmenxi Dajie, Xuanwu District
Regular nightly performances of traditional Chinese Opera
Tel: 6303-6830

Ji Gu Ge Teahouse
132-136 Liulichang, Xuanwu District
Traditional pottery and gift tea sets for sale
Tel: 6301-7849

Sanwei Bookstore
60 Fuxingmenwai Dajie, Xuanwu District
Teahouse-bookstore with live music on Friday and Saturday evenings
Tel: 6601-3204

Tian Hai Teahouse
Sanlitun Road, 20 meters north of Gongrentiyuchang Beilu
Chaoyang District Intersection
Performances of traditional music by local artists on Friday and Saturday evenings.

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