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Teahouses and Tea Parties

Teahouses emerged as popularity of tea spread throughout China. China's teahouses are similar to the cafes of the Western world, but have a much longer history. Now there is no record to verify exactly when the first teahouse appeared. However during the Jin dynasty some 1700 years ago, there were mobile commercial tea booths. This is a rudimentary form of what later became teahouses. Then comes the Tang dynasty, during which more shops that specialize in selling tea appeared. Some of these shop owners even installed statues of Lu Yu in front of their shops, revering him as the god of tea. There were also establishments called "tea huts", which allow people to drink tea and chat with the option of spending the night. The functions of a teahouse and a hostel are combined in these tea huts. During the Song dynasty, the teahouse industry flourished. While drinking tea by kungfu tea set at these establishments, people chatted, tasted snacks, and talked about business. There were also artistic performances and trade meetings. In terms of functions, these teahouses were no different from the modern teahouses. The famous Song dynasty painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival vividly depicted the prosperous urban scene at the time. Many teahouses were portrayed in the painting.

As the popularity of tea grew and the society flourished, teahouses appeared everywhere, from the urban centres to villages. They became a very important place of activities, for the nobility and commoners alike. Different styles of teahouses then emerged. There were tea booths in the open air. allowing friends and neighbours to casually chat. There were teahouses that combined restaurant or baths, and there were also some teahouses with elegant environments and refined facilities that provided special services to aristocrats. Such special services might include singers, dancers, prostitutes, opium,and gambling. From teahouses, we could see the best and most beautiful side of the society, as well as the most unrefined and indecent. The teahouses have truly become a microcosm of the entire Chinese society.

As a result of geographic and custom differences, teahouses across China are very different in style.

The origin of tea is in Sichuan in Southwestern China. It is situated in a basin enclosed by the higher surroundings. There is a saying,"Sichuan roads are difficult to traverse,more difficult than going up the blue sky." Teahouses are particularly important in such an environment. These teahouses served the important role of being centres of communication. As people rested and enjoyed their tea, important news and trivial gossips were circulated; political and social affairs were discussed. Teahouses also served as unofficial courthouses. It was difficult for people to travel to town to resolve conflicts in official courthouses, so whenever people had conflicts, they gathered at the justice of public opinion. Furthermore, teahouses were also centres of cultural activities. Here people came to recite poetry, create artworks, sine songs, and see theatre performances.

In Guangdong and Hong Kong, the dim sum and the service provided at teahouses are more important than the tea itself. Here on the south coast, the division between teahouses and restaurants are blurred. Here people drink tea while having a meal, and have a meal while drinking tea. In Guangdong, if someone asks if you want to have tea tomorrow, he is actually asking you out to a meal.

In Hangzhou, the home of the famous Longjing tea, the history of teahouses is particularly long and without decline. Perhaps it is because the beautiful natural sceneries and rich cultural heritage here, teahouses in Hangzhou especially emphasize artistic sentiments. The environment of the teahouse and the quality of tea are of the utmost importance. Partly because of Hangzhou's rich Buddhist scene, teahouse in Hangzhou do not emphasize tea snacks, but prefer plain tea. Of course, whenever a fashion runs its course, its opposite will become popular. As the society modernizes in recent years, many people have grown tired of the more refined lives and have turned to the natural and the wild. Groups of teahouses have risen around the suburban tea farms. The guests don't care about the facilities and services of the teahouses. They are there for the natural environment, as well as the modest yet delicious peasant cuisine.

Beijing has the most diverse teahouses. There are the crude and cheap teahouses that are very suitable for common people to kill time. In these places you can still experience the traditional lives of Beijing residents for the past a couple centuries. There are also high-end teahouses that receive celebrities and foreign guests. These places have first-class environment, facilities, and services, and people can also enjoy different traditional Chinese art forms, such as Beijing opera and Xiangsheng (also known as crosstalk).

More and more teahouses in China are exhibiting a fusion of the West and East, especially in some of the urban centres. It has become difficult to say whether these places are teahouses or cafes. Here China's traditional elegance and charm are perfectly intermingled with the modem atmosphere of the West f You may sample authentic Chinese famous teas, as well as genuine South American and African coffees. If you are hungry, there are also different kinds of Chinese-Western Vision food for you to choose from. These types of food have become quite popular among the white-collar class in China.

The main function of teahouses is leisure and social interaction, which are both ways for spiritual enjoyment. But leisure and social interaction contain more earthly and materialistic elements. And sometimes, a tea drinker might not be very relaxed. Under his relaxed and leisurely exterior, he might be having an internal battle with himself.

What better demonstrates Chinese tea drinking philosophies are tea parties. Although tea parties also serve the function of social interaction, it is less materialistic. It is more about the joy of gathering with a group of people with the same passion for tea. Tea parties are very flexible about locations. They can be held at any place where people can sit down and enjoy tea. Often,people prefer enjoying tea outside in nature.

"Wuwo tea party" is the most representative of this type of tea parties. Its rules are very simple. Participants sit together in a circle with their own tea and tea wares. Everyone infuses four cups of tea, and gives three of the cups to the three companions sitting on the left (or right) and keeps the last cup for himself. Meanwhile, everyone also accepts three cups of tea from the three companions sitting on the right (or left). After the procedure repeats a number of times, a short piece of music is played. Then everyone cleans up their tea wares. The tea party ends.

The ceremony of "Wuwo tea party" gives people a particularly Oriental experience, from both the kind of pleasure it brings and the kind of ideals it promotes. It is simple in form, but rigid in structure, expressing a meaning difficult to express in words. Its popularity has spread to the West, It is now a global tea cultural phenomenon.

In recent years, it seems that the joy and pleasure that drinking tea brings can no longer satisfy people. New tea and tea culture related leisurely activities are being explored. The process of tea production, which in past was strictly an industry has now been explored as a new way to enjoy tea. For example, many tea farms and famous tea producing regions have now become tourist attractions. Folklores, history,cultural heritages about tea are now a focus of public curiosity. People are now also keen to experience the actual tea production process. They go to tea farms to pick tea leaves and roast tea themselves. From such experiences, people gain more intimate knowledge and enjoyment of tea, and are brought closer together with nature.

If there is one thing in the world that promotes relationships between people, it must be tea. Tea's aromatic fragrance symbolizes harmony and peace. In today's world where civilizations interact, people must communicate. Tea is the best medium.