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Ba-Shu Culture and Sichuan Teahouses

Teahouses, those public places in cities and towns where people gathered to drink tea, took shape during the Tang Dynasty, and flourished during the Song Dynasty. They were popular in South China, for southerners loved drinking tea, and they could also be found everywhere in North China. There were various types of teahouse. Many varieties of tea were served in teahouses, including ordinary tea, ginger tea with seasonings, peppermint tea and plum tea. In terms of their social function, the teahouses of the Tang and Song dynasties, however, only acted as meeting places for townspeople.

Ba-Shu is one of China's earliest famous tea producing areas. The local people have kept up the hobby of drinking tea until the present. As the proverb goes, 'there are few clear days, but many teahouses in Sichuan Province, Chengdu City was most noted for its teahouses of various sizes. The large ones had hundreds of seats, while the small ones, only a few, Sichuan teahouses stressed good service, elegant styles of shop fronts,and excellent tea, cast iron tea sets and operation skills. Traditional Sichuan teahouses served customers with red copper teapots, tin saucers, teacups with covers made of Jingdezhen porcelain, tuocha - a bowl-shaped compressed tea leaves - and tearoom keepers expert at all manner of work.

However, Sichuan teahouses not only attracted peopled attention with their great number and excellent service, but also with their social functions.

Sichuan Province, a beautiful place, is rich in resources, and its local culture flourished in ancient times. During the Three Kingdoms Period, Zhuge Liang helped Liu Bei establish the State of Shu in Sichuan, which played an important role in the development of Ba-Shu culture, and Sichuanese preserved the tradition of concerning themselves with state affairs. Because Sichuan was difficult of access, it was hard for local people to get information about state affairs The Sichuan teahouses played an important role in spreading this information. The local people went to teahouses not only to drink tea, but also to exchange information The most important function of the teahouses was that people could chat with each other there. Each large teahouse was a society in microcosm. Teahouses could be found everywhere in Chongqing, Chengdu, and other large and small cities and towns throughout Sichuan Province. In the old days, many Chongqing people liked to linger in teahouses. They would go there immediately after they got up, and some of them even washed their faces there. They would drink tea and have breakfast, and then chat with each other. Though simply furnished, Sichuan teahouses were elegant yet informal, making people feel at home. Customers could sit at tables or lie on bamboo deck chairs while drinking tea, Whenever a customer entered a teahouse, and lay on a deck chair, the waiter would greet him warmly, and make tea for him. The tearoom keeper would take off the cover of the Japanese teacup with his left hand, while making tea with the right hand. His two hands worked very well together, and dozens of cups would be filled with tea in an instant without a single drop being spilled. The manoeuvre reflected the tradition of "even cream" in the tea culture,and also demonstrated beautify rhythm and superb skill. Sichuanese liked drinking tuocha, the bowl-shaped compressed mass of tea leaves with a strong taste and delicate fragrance, especially when they talked for a long time, as toucha's qualities were very long-lasting. Some people would drink from early morning till noon, and ask the tearoom keeper to keep their teacups so that they could continue to drink after lunch. Quick-witted, and skilled in debates, the Sichuanese could talk with old or new friends about everything in an accomplished way. Sichuan teahouses served as information exchange centers, which was their most important function.

They also served as unofficial courts. Local people would gather at a teahouse, and ask the powerful security group heads, rural elites or the Paoge Master (a secret society in the provinces in the southwest part of China in the old days, or its member) to settle a dispute. God knew whether the resolution was fair or not However, the practice showed that Sichuanese regarded teahouses as fair places to settle disputes. Compared with teahouses elsewhere, Sichuan teahouses had more obvious political and social functions.

It was not true that Sichuan teahouses were always vulgar, for many scholars often went there. It is said that some Sichuan authors liked to write in teahouses, for they could "keep quiet in a noisy neighborhood," and draw their inspiration from teahouses. On fair days, the seats of a local teahouse would be placed outside so that people could appreciate Sichuan opera, qingyin (a type of ballad-singing popular in Sichuan Province), shuochang (a genre of popular entertainment mainly including talking and singing), and puppet shows. The teahouses served as public places for holding folk cultural activities.

Sidiuan teahouses also served as economic exchanges, an important function which was often ignored. Special teahouses for businessmen in Chengdu City were installed with comfortable seats, where tea was served with light refreshments, and people could order dishes at any time. They were very convenient for people to negotiate business. In the old days, people also purchased official positions and sought higher rank in teahouses. Businessmen also often gathered at village teahouses.