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Beijing Teahouse Culture

Beijing teahouses epitomized the advantages of other local teahouses, and were noted for their great variety, complete functions, and rich and profound cultural aims.

Historically, there were many kinds of Beijing teahouses, including dachaguan (great teahouses), qingchaguan (teahouses serving tea without refreshments), shuchaguan (teahouses where storytelling was performed), erhunpu (teahouses selling both tea and wine and dinners, hongluguan (teahouses installed with red stoves) and yechaguan (teahouses in the country). There were also innumerable tea stalls and booths. The teahouses became the meeting place for people of all sorts. It was more convenient for people to carry out activities in teahouses than in formal hall or restaurants, for it cost less money, and one felt more at ease meeting friends in a teahouse than at home. Strangers without families could also relax in teahouses. Teahouses became popular because of the special composition of the population. Therefore, teahouses of various forms and with varied functions spread all over Beijing. I would like to introduce several varieties form the angle of their cultural and social functions.

Storytelling and folk literature in shuchaguan.

Novels of the Ming and Qing dynasties occupy an important place in the history of Chinese literature. However, unlike Western classical fiction, ancient Chinese novels, especially full-length masterpieces, were not written solely in the writers" studies, but were revised according to story-tellers' scripts. They became the oral literature of the performers in teahouses or restaurants. Such masterpieces included The Romance of Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh. Because ancient Chinese novels took root among the masses, they displayed a greater vitality than other literary works. Teahouse culture since the Song and Yuan dynasties made a special contribution to the development of the novel, and Beijing shuchaguan was the best evidence of the method of development.

In the old days, there were many shuchaguan in Beijing, where tea only acted as a medium, and people came there mainly to listen to storytelling. Storytelling was performed two times a day: from 3:00pm to 6:00pm or 7:00pm, and from 7:00pm or 8:00pm to 11:00pm or 12:00pm. Sometimes the storytelling started one or two hours earlier, providing opportunities for ordinary performers to practice. Before the performance started, tea was served without regiments so that passers-by could have a break and quench their thirst. After the storytelling began, the teahouses only received customers who listened to it. Customers would refresh themselves with tea while listening. They included all sorts of people, such as unlucky officials, politicians and office workers, shop managers land accountants, old ladies enjoying themselves, and the toiling passes. The bill was called payment for storytelling instead of payment for tea because customers went to the teahouses to listen to storytelling, while tea only acted as a supplement Famous shuchaguan were exquisitely furnished with cane or wooden tables chairs, and decorated with works of calligraphy and paintings to build an atmosphere for storytelling. A teahouse would invite a storyteller to perform well in advance. A long Story would last two or three months. The teahouse took 30 percent of the income, while the storyteller received 70 percent. As an intellectual, the storyteller was greatly respected by the teahouse manager. There were all kinds of stories, including historical stories, such as The Romances of Three Kingdoms, Records of the Eastern and Western Han Dynasties, and Romance of Sui and Tang Dynasties; tales of complicated legal cases, such as the Cases Handled by Lord Bao, and Cases Handled by Lord Peng; and stories about gods and spirits, such as The Journey to the West. The Biography of Lord Ji, and The Romance of the Canonized Gods. The Strange Tales from the Make Do Studio, which was full of beautiful love stories, had to be told in a way which suited both refined and popular taste, for if told in popular terms, its original intention was lost, while if recounted in refined terms, it was difficult to understand. Customers enjoyed themselves listening to the interesting stories about gods and spirits told by excellent story-tellers, who expanded the meanings of the stories to illustrate the fickleness of the world.

Various quyi (Chinese folk art forms) were performed in the shuchaguan in the Tianqiao area; they included meihua dagu, lihua dagu, and storytelling in Beijing and Tangshan dialects with drum accompaniment. The stories were either taken from voluminous storytelling books or newly-compiled in order to be fashionable and to suit the contemporary environment.

People drank tea in shuchaguan to increase their historical knowledge, kill time and amuse themselves. So shuchaguan were best suited to old people. I remembered that during the initial post-liberation period, my grandmother's old neighbor, who pulled a pedicab, used to take her to a teahouse in Gulou. After she listened to storytelling for several hours, the neighbor would pick her up and return her in the evening. Our family would invite him to have supper at home. At present, there are increasing problems of the aged. A revival of the Shuchaguan would be a nice place for today's old people.

Entertainment in Beijing's qingchaguan and qichaguan (teahouses in which people played chess):

Though shuchaguan had a strong atmosphere of folk culture, they were monotonous. There were many qingchaguan in Beijing, providing places for people from all walks of life to entertain themselves elegantly. Tea was served without refreshments in these teahouses. Most of them were simply furnished with elegant square tables and wooden chairs, and teacups with covers were used. In spring, summer and autumn, a shelter would be set outside or in the courtyard of the teahouse. The seats in the front shelter were for ordinary customers, while those in the room were for regular customers. Comfortable seats were set in the courtyard. Wooden signboards with characters such as maojian, yuqian, queshe, and dafang were hung in front of the gate or under the roof of the shelter to show that the teahouse was selling first-class tea. The teahouses opened at five every morning. Most of the customers were idlers, including the old and young survivors of the late Qing Dynasty, children of families in decline, and common people. Residents of old Peking were accustomed to getting up early to do exercises, which were called liuzao. They would go for a walk in (quiet places with their birds in cages,then do exercises by reed marshes or on the banks of the moat. When they and the birds [breathed enough fresh air, they would return to the town and enter teahouses. They would hang the birdcages on a pole and drink tea while appreciating the birds' calls. The trained larks, babblers, hongdian, landian and other species could call in more than 10 ways, and imitate the cries of magpies, titmice, hawks, cuckoos, wild geese and babies. The old customers then talked about their experiences of cultivating tea and keeping pets, engaged in small talk, or commented on current events. They developed a unique method of integrating tea and nature. The shopkeepers of qingchaguan helped well-known pet keepers to organize chaniaohui (parties to appreciate both tea and birds) to solicit customers. They would send invitation cards on fancy stationery Hand red envelopes to old customers, and put up posters on the street. The pet keepers would go to the parties and old customers took pleasure in them, while teahouses could reap great profit. In winter, besides warming themselves and chatting in teahouses, customers liked appreciate butterflies spreading their wings, and watch cricketfights, activities which added vitality to the bleak winter, and made their Me more colorful. It was an unique scene in Beijing. In the afternoon, these old customers were replaced by businessmen or pedlars, who negotiated business at teahouses.

There were also qichaguan in Beijing where customers played chess. Oichaguan were simply furnished with timber or lumps of wood painted with chessboards, which were partly buried in the ground, or chessboards with benches on both sides. More than 10 customers would drink tea in a qichaguan while playing chess each afternoon. People of Beijing in old times, even the poor, had refined hobbies. Qichaguan was an example. When they played chess while drinking scented tea or other ordinary tea, the chessboard was like an battlefield of life, and they would temporarily forget about their sufferings. Because of this quality, tea was also called wangyoujun (Mr. Worry-free).

People went to Yechaguan (teahouses in the country) and seasonal tea sheds for outings to appreciate beautiful gardens. People of Beijing in old times loved going for outings. They went out to enjoy the beautiful scenery in spring,in summer to appreciate the lotus flowers, in autumn the maple leaves and in winter the Western Hills shimmering with snow. Some old people loved the melon sheds, bean poles, vineyards and fishponds on the outskirts of the city, so yechaguan appeared in these beautiful areas. For example, the Maizi Teashop at Chaoyangmenwai was established in a peaceful and secluded place surrounded by reeds and many ponds. Skillful fish farmers often went there to net water fleas. When the sun was sinking in the west, old men walked on crisscross footpaths between the fields, and gathered at the teahouse. The teahouse at Liupukang was surrounded by melon sheds and bean poles. Customers could appreciate rustic sights such as the flowers of cucumbers and eggplants, and butterflies while drinking tea, just as Lu Fangweng (Lu You) had taken great pleasure in chatting about the cultivation of mulberries and hemps with old farmers. People recovered their original simplicity in such an environment. The Vineyard Teahouse at Chaoyangmenwai was close to a clear stream in the west, ling and tea ponds to the east and south and many grape trellises and towering old trees surrounded by low fences to the north. Scholars often went there to play chess, solve riddles or write poems.

Good-quality water was rare in Bering, and most of the city water was bitter. The Qing Palaces took water from the sweet and fresh spring at the Jade Spring Hill in the northwest part of Beijing. Because of the poor quality city water it was best to build yechaguan in beautiful places near excellent springs. The Shanglong and Xialong teahouses at Andingmenwai were such teahouses. They were only about 100 paces apart. The Prosperity Temple was situated there in the Qing Dynasty, and there was a dozen mu of pond to the north. When the 300-year-old "memorial tiee to King Wen" blossomed, the fragrance spread all over the courtyard. There was also a well with sweet, refreshing and clear water outside the temple. Rich with cultural relics, beautiful views and excellent water, it was an excellent place to drink tea. The shopkeeper built a canopy near the well to sell tea, wine and Reamed buns. The teahouse was a small earthen structure standing on the slope. When customers drank tea with the water from the Shanglong Well while looking out the windows at the old trees in the courtyard and near the well,at the reeds and lings in the pond, and the sun dipping to the Western Hills, and while listening to the bells from the old temple, the roosters crowing and the dogs barking in the village, they could feel the sweetness and bitterness of life. The teahouses by the Gaoliangqiao and Baishiqiao bridges flourished because pleasure-boats passed there during the Qing Dynasty. Yechaguan, quiet spots away from the noisy city, enlivened the people's life and added natural interest to tea-drinking. Although not as secluded and quiet as the teahouses by the West Lake in Hangzhou City, they were simple and unadorned and, thus, closer to the true spiritual qualities of the Chinese tea ceremony.

Such teahouses also included seasonal tea sheds in parks. The most famous ones were situated at Little Western Heaven by the North Lake, in which lotuses grew. Almond tea, mashed peas and suzao meat were also served.

People had social contacts in Dachaguan (great teahouses) with catering services. The old Beijing dachaguan had various functions. They served tea and food, and provided excellent service to people in various trades, such as businessmen and scholars. Teahouse, the famous opera written by Lao She, described the model of the old Beijing dachaguan. The Lao She Teahouse at Qianmen has carried on the tradition and opened a way for those who follow. Dachaguan became popular because of their multiple functions and good service.

Tianhuixuan Teahouse at Dianmenwai was the most famous old Beijing dachaguan; Huifengxuan Teahouse at Donganmenwai was second only to it.

The teahouses were tastefully furnished. The first counter at the entrance was in charge of take-outs and the accounts for the front hall, the second counter, for the accounts of the yaoshuan or middle hall connecting the front and back halls, and the back counter, the back hall and comfortable seats. Each counter received different types of customer. In some dachaguan, the back and middle halls ware connected with each other while, in some^ the halls were separated by a courtyard.

The teahouses served customers with gongfu tea sets. Teacups with covers kept the tea sanitary and warm. Pekinese stressed etiquette while drinking tea. They used the covers of teacups to stir tea and cover their mouths. Waiters would take good care of customers, tea sets and seats so that they could continue to drink after lunch.

In terms of service, Beijing dachaguan also included hongluguan (teahouses installed with red stoves), wowoguan (teahouses serving tea with refreshments), and banhuguan (teahouses installed with a large copper pot).

Hongluguan were installed with red stoves which baked Manchurian and Chinese pastries. They served all kinds of pastries,which were smaller and more exquisite than those made by pastry shops. Customers could drink tea while sampling these pastries-served various refreshments, including steamed sponge cakes, paicha, pengao and sesame seed cakes.

Characterized by a large copper pot, banhuguan suited both refined and popular taste.

Erhunpu served tea without refrestoents,but provided dining and wining facilities. It supplied customers food cooked from raw materials provided by itself or brought by customers. For example, educational circles used to gather at the Longhaixuan Teahouse on Changanjie Street. During the late Qing Dynasty, new-type schools appeared suddenly in Baoding,and disputes often occurred between the Beijing and Baoding types. On such occasions, adherents of the Beijing type would hold a principal joint meeting at the teahouse to discuss countermeasures. This custom led to the Beijing type of education being sometimes called Longhai Type.

Dachaguan had many functions-people could drink tea, dine, make social contact, and entertain themselves there. They were broader in scope, and had a more profound influence than other teahouses. Lao She Teahouse is still popular among people from all walks of life today. Tea acted as a medium of contact and had great social functions in the dachaguan.