On a bright Sunday morning, the courtyard of the Wenshu Teahouse in Chengdu was bustling. A group of women chattered away noisily as they munched on sunflower seeds, cracking their shells between their teeth and then piling them in a heap on the tabletop.
Nearby, a shaven-headed man peered over his customer before sliding a metal pole down into the latter’s ear. Another man leaned back in his creaking bamboo chair, put his feet up on the table in front, and spread out a big newspaper to read. A large group cried out excitedly as they threw playing cards down onto the table. A white haired waiter came dancing between these different groups, refilling their white porcelain cups of tea with the long spout of large, battered metal teapot.
These are every day scenes at the Chinese teahouses of Chengdu. It is estimated that there are more than 3000 teahouses in the city, the Wenshu temple teahouse being one of the largest. Teahouses play an important role in the city’s society, serving as places to socialise, to meet, to do business, even to look for a husband or wife.
“Few other institutions in the first half of twentieth-century Chengdu were more important in everyday life than teahouses,” says Di Wang, author of The Teahouse: Small Business, Everyday Culture, and Public Politics in Chengdu. “And no other city in China had as many teahouses as Chengdu.”
The first teahouses probably opened in Chengdu during the Tang dynasty, over a thousand years ago. They immediately proved extremely popular in the city and the number has been steadily growing ever since. Wang argues that the teahouses were especially successful in Chengdu because the city had limited access to fresh drinking water and lacked other social spaces.
Chengdu’s teahouses grew to become a vital part of city society. They were the places people would go to negotiate a business deal, to relax with family and friends, and above all to play mahjong, a game about which local residents are crazy. Teahouses played host to almost every aspect of life.
“People used the teahouses for leisure, entertainment and socialising,” said Wang. They “met their friends or watched performances, while varied social groups such as students, labourers, gangs and associations conducted their activities there….the teahouse [also] became a political arena.”
Wang feels that the diversity of activities in the teahouses makes them a microcosm of Chengdu society as a whole, from which one can take the register of how people live. The Wenshu teahouse does seem to embody the laid back approach to life which has been said to characterise Chengdu culture, distinguishing it from eastern cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Even today, a huge range of people visit them.
“Today the teahouse provides convenience and custom,” Wang explained in an article on the teahouses in Chengdoo Magazine. “[If] you invite people to your home, you must prepare, clean, boil the water, provide snacks or even lunch or dinner. But in the teahouse you don’t have to worry about it, you just go there and relax.”
Chengdu’s rapid development and the demolition of old neighborhoods has in some ways threatened the teahouses’ survival. Many of the more established teahouses were at the heart of these older districts. But there are also signs that the strength of the teahouse culture is helping to carry it through the city’s changes.
“This city is expanding rapidly,” comments Jieru Yang, a student who has grown up in Chengdu. “Every time a new neighborhood is built, one or a couple of teahouses will be accordingly opened in the neighborhood… I haven’t seen any teahouse closed in Chengdu.”
Rather than closing down, it may be that the city’s teahouses are evolving in order to keep up with the times and to compete with coffee shops and other newer meeting places that have sprung up more recently. Wang argues that there are now two kinds of teahouses — a modern version, popular with younger people, and a more traditional style.
At the Wenshu temple teahouse, however, things appear to have changed very little. It’s possible to imagine the same scenes taking place here a hundred or two hundred years ago. Two old ladies sit in bamboo chairs in the shade. Both have fallen asleep, their wrinkled faces slumped down and the knitting they were doing fallen in their laps.
The noise from a group of people playing cards at the next table doesn’t disturb them much. The young women there chatter loudly with each other in rapid, sharp Mandarin. The men slouch back in their chairs, lazily throwing down their cards and smoking cigarette after cigarette, the smoke drifting out into the bright sunlight.
Tags: Cafés, Chengdu, China