Tea Drinking in Old Beijing

Tea Drinking in Old Beijing

When we talk about tea drinking in old Beijing, we should start with the history of lea, tea leaves and teahouses.

The history of tea drinking in Beijing dates back to the Sui and Tang dynasties. After the completion of the Grand Canal tea leaves were taken to Beijing by boats and sold in the street, Gradually tea drinking became popular.

From the Tang Dynasty until today tea has been the most famous variety of tea leaves in Beijing and loved by Beijing tea drinkers. Jasmine tea is made by flavoring green tea leaves with jasmine flowers.

Jasmine tea has been popular in Beijing because of two reasons. One is that in old days transportation was slow. New tea leaves picked in south China around Qing-ming Festival contained moisture. On their way to Beijing over more than a month, weather became wanner and warmer. The moisture confined in the tight packages would take away some of the fresh fragrance of the tea leaves.

After a great amount of thinking Beijing tea merchants came up with a good idea to flavor the tea leaves with jasmine flowers. The tea leaves flavored with jasmine flowers have a very nice aroma. The other reason is that in old times Beijing residents drank well water. The water from most of the wells tasted bitter and astringent. It spoiled any tea leaves in it. A tea merchant named Chen Guqiu put some dry jasmine flowers in the hot water with tea leaves and the concoction tasted no more bitter and astringent. Tap water appeared in the late Qing Dynasty. Though tap water has a better quality, it is still hard water. It cannot make the tea taste better. Also Beijing residents had become accustomed to jasmine tea. They believed the jasmine tea was the best of ail the tea varieties.

Potable water for the imperial and noble families in Beijing came from the springs in the mountains to the northwest of Beijing or from the several wells with "sweet"water in the city. They could drink tea of better varieties such as the "Dragon Well" from West Lake, "Spring Green Snail" from Donating Lake, "Melon Slice" from Liu'an and "Iron Guanyin" from Fujian Province.

Beijing has had a big population for a long time. The composition of its residents is complex. People from different social status have different requirements for the tea. there used to be various teahouses and their number was once the largest in China.

The earliest teahouses appeared in Beijing during the Yuan Dynasty. They developed fast during the Ming Dynasty and saw their heyday during the Qing Dynasty.

During the Qing Dynasty and the Republic period teahouses could be found everywhere in the city. They were divided into "Grand Teahouses", "Pure Teahouses", "Storytelling Teahouses", "Chess Teahouses", "Wine Teahouses” and Wild Teahouses".

Most customers to those in the category of "Grand Teahouses" were government officials, merchants, men of letters and people from the higher social status. They drank tea there as a kind of social activities. One reason was that they felt freer than they did at home or in a guild house; the other reason was that the cost in the teahouse was lower than that in a restaurant.

In old Beijing there were eight famous teahouses: "Tianquan", "Tianren" and "Tianqi" on Qianmen Street; "Tianhui" near Di'anmen Gate, "Tianfu", "Tiande" and "Tianyi" near Fucheng-men Gate, "Tianshou" at Beixinqiao Bridge, Most of them had a large front shop by the street and a courtyard behind it where people could drink tea.

Large teahouses had a huge red brass kettle imprinted with their emblem. It was nearly two meters high and one meter wide, with a mouth called “Flying dragon spilling water" and a handle called “Divine Guardian holding up the sky". The total girdle of the kettle came to more than three meters. A stove burning charcoal was put under the kettle to keep the water boiling. The kettle was used as an advertisement too. Every teahouse regarded it as its household treasure.

Many scholars would hold "poetry get-togethers", "pen get-togethers" and "riddle get-togethers" in the teahouses. They gave the teahouses an air of fine cultural tastes and attracted many tea drinkers interested in culture.

The main business of a "Pure Teahouse" was to sell tea without the accompaniment of refreshments. Those in the category of "Pure Teahouse" were quiet without storytelling and music playing. Hanging in front of their entrance were lacquered beards written on which the tea brands they served, such as "Fluffy Tips" or "Green Spring Snails". Attached to the boards were bright red tassels. Most of the customers in these teahouses were idlers, including young men from rich families. They came there to talk about birds or just chit-chat. Some people came there to talk about business exchange information or look for jobs.

In a "Story-telling, teahouse the customers listened to story telling over a cup of tea. Those of this category had the characteristics particular to Beijing. The most well-known such teahouses were the "Guangqingxuan" in Yiliu Lane near Di,anmen Gate and the "Dongyuexuan" outside Donghuamen Gate. Both the storyteller and the customer had refined tastes. No accomplished storytellers dared to work in these teahouses because when they made a mistake the customers would point it out.

The teahouse opened to business usually ia the afternoon and at evening. Its owner would invite some entertainers to perform in his teahouse. Most of them were storytellers. They would tell stories adopted from novels such as "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms", "Pilgrimage to the West", "Deification" and "Legend of Monk Jigong". At the closing time of the teahouse they would round up their narration at a crucial moment of the story the story with the words: "Come to find out the outcome next The customers were anxious to find out the outcome of the story. so. they would come the next day. The customers paid the teahouse owner for the tea as well as the service of the storyteller. Sometimes the teahouse owner would invite opera singers or folk vocal artists to perform. A man would collect money from the audience after each episode was over. The charge was not high, only one or two copper coins.

Those in the category of "Chess Teahouses" were places for chess games or discussion of cultural subjects. Traditionally the chess play and tea drinking are closely related in China. During the Qing Dynasty some chess teahouses around Shichahai served exclusively scholars and court officials. Cool breeze from the lake came in (through the window. In a clear day green mountains were visible in distance. Tea became more enjoyable in such a nice environment, Most of the chairs in these teahouses ware made of bamboo or rattan. The customers might spend a whole day there drinking tea and playing chess.

During the Republic period, with the disappearance of the court officials,the chess teahouses declined and degraded. The low-grade chess teahouses were concentrated at the Tianqiao area and most of their customers were people of low social status. A feature of the chess culture is that the chess can be played by people of all social strata, low or high. There are many good chess players among the common people. These chess teahouses had simple and crude furniture. The chessboard was a square wooden board propped up by bricks or wooden stakes. Customers played the chess while drinking tea. Such teahouses only charged for the tea leaves. Most of the customers came to them in the afternoon and leave at dusk. The business was slack.

Wine teahouses sold tea as well as wine. They had only refreshments to accompany the wine and tea. When a customer wanted to have something solid to eat, the boss would send a waiter to buy some meat and vegetable at the market and let the teahouse kitchen cook them for the customer. The customer would pay for the cooking. Customers would buy some wine from the teahouse to go with the dishes.

Some wine teahouses did not cook for the customers. They sold only tea and wine. Some peddlers would prop up a stall and sell cooked sheep head and donkey meat and beef. Tea drinkers would buy some meat and bring it into the teahouse to accompany the wine.

Some wine teahouses did not cook for the customers. They sold only tea and wine. Some peddlers would prop up a stall and sell cooked sheep head and donkey meat and beef. Tea drinkers would buy some meat and bring it into the teahouse to accompany the wine.

Wild teahouses were found mostly in; the suburbs. Wild meant natural environment. With farmland all around them, their customers could enjoy the quiet and pleasant natural scenery. The wild teahouses were mostly thatched houses with a reed awning on bamboo poles. Around the teahouse were trees and floral plants. City people would have a bowl of the thick bitter tea and chat with local farmers when they left the city for an outing. What they saw were crops in the fields and green mountains under a clear sky, and what they heard was the chirping of cicadas, the croaking of frogs and the barking of dogs.

During the Qing Dynasty, Beijing had several well-known wild teahouses.

The Maizidian Wild Teahouse was located outside the city gate of Chaoyangmen. It was surrounded by ponds grown with redds. City people liked to rod fish in these ponds. They would bring their catch to the teahouse and ask the owner to cook them. When it rained heavily they could go to the teahouse to wait the rain over. This was much liked by the anglers.

The Liulipu Wild Teahouse half kilometer outside the city gate of Di'anmen stood amidst vegetable plots. People came here to drink tea and play gambling games, not for the slakes, only for fun. At sunset, the winner would buy wine and some cooked meat. They would go home in a pleasant yet drunk mood.

The Sanchakou Wild Teahouse stood by the road outside the city gate of Deshengmen, facing east with a grove of trees behind it It did a brisk business. Its customers were city idlers and merchants going in or out of the city.

The Baishiqiao Wild Teahouse was located by Baishiqiao Bridge. In those days a river flew through under the bridge and willow trees grew on the banks. There were fat fish in the deep water. People could get on a boat to angle on the river after they were satisfied with the tea.

Putaoyuan Wild Teahouse was located between the city gates of Dongzhimen and Chaoyangmen by a river. To its east and south were lotus ponds and to its north was a garden with 100 grape vines. It boasted the finest scenery among all the wild teahouses in Beijing. In summer scholars and men of letters often held "poetry get-togethers", "chess get-togethers", "lantern riddle get-togethers" in this teahouse.

Time has changed. Teahouses declined and vanished gradually. But die tea culture of Beijing has been preserved thanks to the oral and written records of tea lovers.