"Since 1997, every summer I stay in teahouses. I have visited all kinds of teahouses, had all kinds of conversations with the teahouse owner, and ask them why [it is that] until today, Chengdu probably still has the largest number of teahouses."
Wang Di is a man who spends much of his time visiting, thinking about, reading about, and writing about teahouses. An associate professor of history at Texas A&M University, he's also one of a small number of academics publishing scholarly works in English about Chengdu.
To date, Wang has published two books in English about modern Chengdu's urban history. The latter, The Teahouses: Public Life in Twentieth-Century Chengdu, is the first part of a projected two-volume series examining "the interactions of teahouses, public life, and local politics in Chengdu" from 1900 to 2000—"kind of the history of 100 years of teahouses in Chengdu."
Much ado is made about Chengdu's teahouses—though, perhaps strangely, not so much its tea—and it's never quite explained why the teahouses are so central to Chengdu's identity. We figure Wang would be the right person to help us understand. When we contact him asking if we can ask some questions over e-mail, he readily agrees. And then, in a lucky coincidence, he surprises us with a follow-up e-mail. Actually, he says, he'll be in Chengdu within a few weeks and would we like to meet in person?
Naturally, we meet over tea, in a teahouse in the campus of Wang's alma mater, Sichuan University. Wang Di was born in and grew up in Chengdu, was sent to Meishan for re-education as a teenager, earned degrees and taught at Sichuan University throughout the 1980s, and left for the U.S. in 1991. Today, Wang specializes in East Asian history, particularly modern Chinese history, and comes back to China every summer to give public lectures and graduate seminars on urban history. "The first half of my life I spent in Chengdu," he says. "I assume I know everything about Chengdu's past, especially [with] my research on teahouse and street-life culture."
His first English-language book, Street Culture in Chengdu: Public Space, Urban Commoners, and Local Politics, 1870-1930 was published in 2003 and translated into Chinese in 2006. Although it garnered critical acclaim, it did not sell well in the U.S. The Chinese translation, in contrast, sold over 10,000 copies in China within the first few months of its 2005 release. "Chinese and Chengdunese understand Chengdu's past through that book," says Wang. "Chinese historians have not paid a lot of attention to the common people; all the books are about emperors, government, politics, local gentry, not ordinary people."
Wang is tall and sports spectacles and a friendly smile. He issues his sentence in that particular way professors do when delivering lectures. "Teahouses today are a little bit different from the past," he begins, with little prompting. He gestures toward the walls. "Today, [teahouses are] more just like this, closed, but in the past, the majority of teahouses were open to the street, even without a door."
The rise of the teahouse, argues Wang, is due to a certain set of circumstances that were particular to Chengdu during its development. These circumstances, and the teahouses themselves, have played a vital role in cementing the region's (in?)famous "leisurely lifestyle."
How Much is Rent? And Where's the Nearest Teahouse?
Limited or no access to fresh drinking water was one of the main factors that propelled the popularity of the teahouse in Chengdu, Wang believes. Wells were common but supplied alkaline water that was bitter to the taste. River water was preferred, but most people lived too far from the river to be able to conveniently transport it. Furthermore, high fuel costs meant that wood and coal were reserved for cooking only. That all meant that the cheapest, most convenient way to obtain hot water was to buy it from the neighborhood teahouse.
The impact of the teahouse on people's daily lives was so profound, in fact, that it often played a deciding factor in where one would choose to live, says Wang. "If you wanted to rent a place to live, the first thing you wanted to know was whether or not nearby there was a teahouse."
For thousands of years, the Chengdu Plain has been the "Land of Abundance"—in no small part thanks to the Dujiangyan irrigation system as well as the relative rarity of natural disasters in the region. With favorable conditions for food production, the Chengdunese didn't need to toil all day to ensure the harvest, and the Chengdu reputation for "leisure" gradually took hold. Teahouses became not only a place to fetch water but also to hang out, conduct business, and socialize.
Chengdu has a "kind of slow-paced lifestyle. The people in Kunming also believe they are relaxed, like people in Chengdu, but Chengdu has been very long known for its relaxed lifestyle—not only today, but in the past." Among Wang's research he's found records dating back to the late Qing Dynasty—the late 19th and early 20th centuries—that document this laid-back lifestyle, with teahouses "full of people with nothing to do, just chatting and relaxing. Until today, basically, when you see people playing majiang, that is actually from 100 years ago, and it hasn't changed much."
Wang describes lively venues where customers are also vendors, the latest gossip is being passed around, and friends are visiting with one another. "People sit there with nothing to do other than watching what's happening. I believe it's just like watching TV today. Sometimes something happens on the street; beautiful girls are walking down the street; there's a fight; peddlers are selling items, bargaining, discussing. Even if you don't have company, you can watch what the people are doing. Many teahouses have two floors—the chalou—the tea balcony, you can look down on people coming and going on the street below. Most of the ordinary residents did not have a very good living room to treat guests in, so they chose to meet at the teahouse."
In addition to its roles as marketplace and water distributor, the teahouse provided a social platform for residents. In contrast to northern China, where most farmers lived in villages of 100 or 200 households, houses in the Chengdu Plain houses were built next to the field, with just a handful of families scattered nearby. That kind of separation made the teahouses in small towns near Chengdu very important. The farmers who lived outside the city wall went to the market when they wanted to sell or buy anything. The market might have been open three or five out of every 10 days. "Even if they don't have anything to buy or sell they go to the market. Because it's the only socialization and social life they have." And, of course, after business, they would wind down at the teahouse.
As a young man, Wang himself was sent to the Meishan countryside for a year during the Cultural Revolution to live among the peasants. It was perhaps this experience that spurred his interest in the urban sphere. "Almost every week I went to the market, of course to buy some necessities or vegetables, but [regardless], you want to go there, you feel you need to go. That was kind of the only entertainment I had."
In the early 1950s the government started to limit the number of teahouses, and the closures lasted for many years. During the Cultural Revolution, says Wang, "The only teahouse kept open were in the parks. Teahouses were regarded as old and backwards, not [in line with] the revolutionary spirit."
"In Western histographies it's believed that China has changed dramatically, but I want to point out that—of course China has changed, Chengdu has changed—but still there is a cultural continuity. In the past we heard too much about change, but culture changes much slower than economy or politics, right? So I believe some lifestyle, some culture, still remains today, include majiang and the teahouse."
Wang's fascination with teahouses has led him to research that ever-present counterpart to teahouses: majiang. In 2000, China's first-ever lawsuit involving majiang arose after a woman unsuccessfully requested that her residential complex place restrictions on the noise level in the communal majiang room, which was downstairs from her apartment. Her pleas were ignored. One night, in a rage, she cut the power to the room. The next day, the residential committee stopped her on her way out the gate. They told her she must give an explanation; the police came, and a couple days later, the residential committee held a meeting. Over 100 people were present to vote whether or not to shut down the room. "It's kind of democracy," says Wang. "Chinese-style democracy. Only that lady voted against."
Faced with this dilemma, she went to court. The case captured the nation's attention. Newspaper and TV journalists interviewed lawyers and professors as well as ordinary citizens and asked their opinions on who was right and who was wrong and, further, how the problem should be solved.
The case raised the question of individual interest versus public welfare. "I think it's very interesting because we can see what's happening today—social transformation. People start looking at their individual rights, but how to balance the individual rights and the collective rights? These retired people can't afford expensive entertainment; playing majiang is their only option. If the activity room is closed, what can they do?" Wang explains.
The media lost interest in the lawsuit before its outcome had been decided. After seven or eight years, an astute journalist suddenly recalled the case and went to follow up. The still-perturbed residents at the compound told the journalist that the woman had moved away. The journalist persevered and finally found her. She had won the case. But, she said, she was the ultimate loser: Because of the lawsuit, her boyfriend had left her, she'd had to leave the apartment she'd purchased behind because her neighbors gave her spiteful looks when they passed her, believing that she'd brought disrepute to their area.
Majiang is a particularly sticky topic because it is often correlated with corruption. Losing a majiang game to a governmental official with whom one wants to curry favor is a common bribing method, favored for its subtlety. As a result, however, governmental regulations have been put in place that forbid officials from playing majiang during working hours. And, compared to a decade ago, when on-duty officials extending their lunch-break majiang game past 1 p.m. was standard practice, the ban is mostly enforced these days: Not long ago, several Sichuanese officials were jailed for failing to comply.
During his research on majiang, Wang says, he read about a number of cases of other professionals distracted by their games, including doctors failing to rush to the emergency room when called because they were about to win their game.
It's not only in recent times that the playing of majiang has been something of a controversial activity in China. Even during the late Qing Dynasty, there were new policies to rebuild and modernize the image of Chinese cities; this new image had no room for street-corner majiang tables. Later, when the Guomindang came into power, majiang was explicitly labeled unhealthy because of its ties to gambling. Anybody who played majiang was suspected of being a gambler, and, officially, gambling was—and is—illegal. And under the reign of Chairman Mao, majiang hit a low. "According to Mao's revolutionary standard or spirit, majiang was included in the Four Olds," says Wang. "Nobody really dared to play it in public, and nobody dared to keep a majiang box. My parents had a box and threw it away during the Cultural Revolution."
As anyone who has walked around Chengdu's small streets can tell you, that was certainly not the end of majiang. "That's another point," explains Wang. "Local lifestyle and old culture is basically always flexible and extremely vital. [Teahouses and majiang houses] suffered attacks from a number of governments—late Imperial, nationalist, communist, yet they survived. That shows real strength. These small establishments may appear weak because in the face of governmental control they wield no power and can be shut down in an instant, but underneath you see their power. They come back, and fast."
Even during wartime, says Wang, the Chengdunese could not be pulled out of their teahouses. During World War II, when Chinese living on the east coast were withdrawing from the front lines, many found refuge in Chengdu. "Here," says Wang, "they found that during wartime, when China was in danger, and the national fate was undecided, that the people of Chengdu were still relaxing in the teahouse. The easterners could not understand this way of thinking; they published articles criticizing this lifestyle. In response, one article came back trying to defend the teahouse." But even the author of that article had to conclude that the teahouse would, sooner or later, at some point in China's development, automatically disappear.
Yet after half a century and thorough modernization, with all kinds of entertainment and public spaces available—coffee houses, Internet cafés, cinemas, theaters, resorts—teahouses have not only not disappeared but have also reached a peak.
During imperial times, Chengdu's teahouses hovered between 500 and 600 in number. In 2000, Chengdu had over 3,000 teahouses. Wang Di estimates that there are as many as 5,000 today.
The Teahouse Today
But if all the historical reasons for the rise of teahouses are no longer valid, what explains the persistence of the teahouse in Chengdu? "Today I think the teahouse provides convenience and custom, because treating guests at home is too much work. You invite the guest to your home, you must prepare, clean, boil the water, provide snacks or even lunch or dinner," says Wang. "But in the teahouse you don't have to worry about it, you just go there and relax. If you live in different corners of the city, you can choose a teahouse in the middle."
Plus, he says, "Teahouses have another advantage: You don't have to be there on time. Chengdu people don't care much about time. In the U.S. if I waited for 10 minutes probably I would leave, because I don't know whether or not you will come. But in the teahouse, some people just talk, one hour doesn't matter, because we enjoy it here and have a conversation, relax and drink a tea."
Nowadays, says Wang, there are two kind of teahouses: the modern style for younger and middle-aged people, and the traditional variety, catering to the older people. "Today in Chengdu, the best teahouses are old style—they have a tea cup, bowl, lid. The teahouse in Renmin Gongyuan, Hemin Chaguan, that's the best. The chairs and tables are old-style." He points to the large, padded wicker chairs we're sitting on. "Not like this one. That's more today's fashion."
"I went to the teahouse at Wenshufang. It didn't give me a good impression, too commercialized. Hemin teahouse is 10 yuan, even 5 yuan, you can get a cup of tea. Kuan/Zhai Xiangzi used to be very good also. Today it's totally commercialized and very expensive—30 yuan, 40 yuan for a cup of tea. It's totally different now—it's for rich people, travelers who want to get some impression, not for ordinary people. That's an unfortunate situation. I criticized this so-called 'rebuilt' city."
So does Wang go to Starbucks? "Sometimes, since in the U.S. we don't have teahouses, but only very short, just for business—we meet someone, drink coffee, half an hour, one hour. In the teahouse people stay there the whole day! At Starbucks that's almost impossible."
But in Chengdu, of course, it's only teahouses for Wang. "You go to the coffee house, it's more expensive, you go to a restaurant, it's more expensive, but you go the teahouse, it's cheap—10 yuan, 15 yuan, 5 yuan even. A couple of years ago, I went to a teahouse—2 yuan for a cup of tea! Two yuan for a cup of tea! In 2003, I found tea for 1 mao a cup! Of course, that tea was not very good. My brother and I were going to Huanglongxi, but he missed the way, so he drove down a small, unpaved road, and by the road, probably every 200 meters was a teahouse against the wall, bamboo chairs and wooden tables, very simple and crude. So we asked for directions, but I was curious and asked about the price of tea, and they said 1 mao! I was very surprised. Even 2 yuan for some people is probably kind of expensive. But 1 mao is easy for everyone. If you use the restroom it's 5 mao today, right? I regretted that I couldn't stay, buy a cup of tea, and have a conversation. But we were in a rush to get to Huanglongxi."
54 Huaxing Jie (near the Wangfujing on Zongfu Lu, north of Chunxi Lu)
悦来茶馆 | 华兴街54号
Yuelai is a traditional teahouse, established 1905 and still standing today, despite its disappearance during the Cultural Revolution. Says Wang, "The price is low, and old people like to go there." Open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. with Sichuan opera performances every Saturday at 2 p.m. (RMB18 to 33 with cup of tea) and traditional folk performances every Monday to Thursday (RMB6 with cup of tea).
Inside Renmin Gongyuan (People's Park)
"If you go to the teahouses in the parks, old people, young people, class reunions, they always go to the teahouse. After the teahouse they go to the restaurant, and then they go back to the teahouse. That's a normal procedure in Chengdu." A cup of tea runs from RMB5 to 20 at Heming.