Land of Teahouses


In an article from the China in Focus magazine, Gwenaële Chesnais explores the world of Sichuanese teahouses. Her work on many aspects of tea culture has included a translation of the Chinese Classic of Tea and a Sino-French glossary of technical terms concerning tea.

As Europe is well-known for its cafes and pubs, China has her own gathering place, the teahouse. At the beginning of the century and until the 50's, they were widespread throughout the country. Nowadays, Sichuan province is the only place where they still play a major role in people's daily life.

Although teahouses are slowly reappearing in other parts of China like Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou, Sichuan remains the only province where teahouses do play a role in everyone's daily life. In Sichuan, in fact, there are three places in a person's day: home, office and teahouse.

The land of abundance

Many Chinese link the origin of teahouses in Sichuan with the geographic characteristics of the province. Sichuan, also known as the 'Land of Abundance', is an immense and prosperous province. Encircled by mountains, it was isolated from other provinces, but being rich in resources was always self-sufficient. Sichuanese people link this isolation with the rather slowly paced rhythm typical of their lifestyle. People's devotion to food is another important element. Any social event constitutes an opportunity to gather around a table and savour the local spicy dishes, such as the famous hotpot. Drinking tea goes well with spicy food and Sichuan is one of the most important regions for the production of tea in China.

Tea house
Shanghai ancient teahouse. Yuyuan temple garden. 1984

Teahouses in history

When were the earliest teahouses born? Nobody can answer this question with certainty. The first written sources which seem to mention teahouses are poems from the Tang dynasty (618-907). But the maximum splendour for teahouses was reached during and after the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). According to historical records on Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu, for example, the town counted 516 streets and 454 teahouses in 1909, and in 1939, it counted 667 streets and 599 teahouses, almost a teahouse per street. Nowadays one still can find some tiny streets with two or three teahouses in them. But the municipal policies towards the old part of the city are sweeping away all of them.

The Garden of the Coming Happiness

The first distinction to be drawn between teahouses in Sichuan is a geographical one: there are in fact substantial differences between the teahouses located in the North-eastem part of the province, in the South and in Chengdu. In Chengdu itself, I came across three major kinds of teahouses.

The first kind is typical of the narrow alleys in the old town. Very simple in their architecture and furniture, they are a mirror of Chengdu traditional life. The second kind are the lutian chaguan or open-air teahouses. They are found along the banks of the two rivers that cross the town, and in the public parks where locals spend their time resting. These teahouses reflect the practice of drinking tea in harmony with nature, close to trees and ponds. While many of the teahouses along the rivers have been destroyed since the 'Water purification campaign' started a couple of years ago, those in the parks are becoming more numerous and more popular. Finally, in the third kind of teahouses the public can enjoy performances of various local genres. These teahouses are built on a traditional structure. Rather big, they are generally separated into two main areas. One is a courtyard or a little pond, the other one is a stage or a pavilion where performance of Sichuan opera, storytelling or other local popular arts take place. Unfortunately, very few of these teahouses are left. The 'Garden of the Coming Happiness' is a famous one in the heart of the city. It contains an opera theatre, a bookstore, a cinema and even a Sichuan hotpot restaurant. That is maybe one of the reasons why it is still there.

Names and meanings

The sign hanging above the entrance of the teahouse generally defines its category. The more upper-class teahouses have a wooden signboard with the teahouse's name carved or painted upon it. The simplest ones are painted in very basic handwriting onto a white plywood sign, and sometimes, a blue cloth with the Chinese character for tea is hanging at the entrance or by the side. Teahouses' names imagery is connected to tea, in names like 'Tea Bowl', to flowers, as in 'The Bamboo Garden', to animals, as in 'The Stork's Cream'. They can also refer to clients' comfort in names like 'The Peaceful Garden', or to location, as in 'The Southern Bank'. These names want to evoke the poetic and soothing atmosphere of the teahouses. Other signs may also be found indoors: sentences or typical expressions referring to tea which have been offered by artists or friends to the teahouse manager A sign to be found in most teahouses refers to the basic principle of teahouse philosophy: 'one tea, one seat'. A famous sign in 'The Garden of the Coming Happiness' reveals the moods it would like to induce in its customers: “A beautiful environment, a beautiful behaviour, a beautiful way of talking, a beautiful soul”.

Cups and saucers

Despite some distinction between these teahouses, their interior is invariably the same: bamboo chairs, square tables, calligraphies evoking the teahouse atmosphere and the typical Sichuan teaset, the gaiwancha. This tea-set which is only used in Sichuan, includes three pieces: the saucer, the cup and the cover. Handing the cup with the saucer prevents the drinker form burning his or her fingers while the cover helps to move away the tea leaves which are still floating on the surface.

The flavour of tea depends greatly on the quality of the water. In Chengdu, during the 1950s, there was no running water. People used water from wells for domestic needs, but its quality was not good enough for tea infusion. The teahouses used the water from the river, which was collected by very low-income workers, and subsequently filtered. Teahouses had a special vat to filter the water and kept using it until the 1970s, years after running water had become accessible. The tea-kettle is also very important for the quality of the tea. Until the 1950s, copper kettles were commonly used in the teahouses. Copper, in fact, keeps the water pure during the boiling process. In Sichuan, the tea-kettle is famous for its long spout (30-40 cm) which enables the waiter to stand in one place surrounded by tables and pour water in all of the cups. The gesture requires very special skills. There are still a few old waiters in Chengdu who are able to do it, but don't have many opportunities to perform it.

Sichuan people like jasmine tea, which is abundant in the province. Yet, teahouses offer a range of 5 or 6 different teas including green teas and jasmine teas. The waiter pours water in your cup several times which means that one can sit for a long time drinking the same tea leaves.

Tea house
A teahouse built by the picturesque West Lake, Hangzhou. 1985

Teahouse culture

Drinking tea is not the exclusive pleasure of going to the teahouse. Other leisure activities include reading newspapers and playing Chinese chess or majiang (mahjong). Sichuanese people flock to teahouses to chat and exchange news and gossip. Before the era of television, teahouses were the first places where one could gather some information on the latest events.

Some people earn their meagre income in teahouse: blind people offering massages, shoe-polishers, fortune-tellers, musicians, singers, portrait painters and a variety of peddlers selling snacks or bric-a-brac. But the undisputed most original characters are the ear-pickers, the 'first character' in many scenes of local life. Wandering around the teahouses with ten kinds of ear-picking tools and making noise with his clips, the car-picker picks scrapes and scratches. Chengdu people are fond of ear-picking not because they want to have their ears cleaned but because it gives them a lethargic feeling which leads into a little nap. It suits very well the ideal of a quiet and nonchalant life many Sichuanese seek.

In traditional Chinese culture, tea-sipping was considered as a refined activity and tea-culture was synonymous with elegance. Nowadays, Sichuan teahouses display many elements of this earlier tea-culture, but they also have a 'vulgar' side to them. They are pleasant environments where people relax and chit-chat but, at the same time, they also gather many petty criminals. They are the reflection of society at any given time, and have always followed the evolution of local life. Despite a break of 15 years during the Cultural Revolution and the appearance of new leisure activities stemmed by consumer trends such as gambling and video projections, they are still standing in the whole province. Sichuan teahouses are definitely worth a visit!

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China in Focus 6, Page 13, March 1999

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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