Tea houses, one of Chengdu’s features, are traditional places that give the most expression to Chengdu’s leisurely pace of life. Going to tea houses is the hobby of the Chengdu people. There, you can taste strong flavor of the old Chengdu: bamboo chairs, 3-piece tea sets (tea trays, porcelain tea bowls and lids), and “tea doctors” who hold dozens of tea sets on their palms at swift pace and tilt up tea pot spouts when adding tea for customers. Tea houses are also important places for people’s communication and entertainment. Tea drinkers go to tea houses for chatting, business talks or friends get-togethers. Some customs such as Sichuan opera performance and ear-picking are still popular in tea houses. Many tea houses are frequented by Sichuan opera lovers who meet and practice the opera there. Heming Tea Shop in the People’s Park and Jinjiang Juchang Tea Shop are among the typical tea houses in Chengdu.
There has been an old saying in China that Sichuan has the largest tea house in China, while Chengdu has the largest tea house in Sichuan. The largest tea houses in the old Chengdu had three or four halls and courts and could accommodate more than one thousand customers. That was indeed a magnificent scene.
The Chengdu people love drinking tea. Both the prevalence of and their indulgence in tea-drinking surpass that of the neighboring province Yunan, world famous for tea-producing. A cup of light tea after getting up in the morning helps the Chengdu people clear their lungs and moisturize their throats; a cup of light tea after dinner is good for promoting digestion and getting rid of fatness; after diligent work, a cup of light tea is surely a perfect dose for eliminating tiredness and refreshing yourselves; a cup of light tea is a good listener to close friends’ unrestrained talks; again a cup of light tea proves to be a competent mediator for clearing up disputes between relatives and neighbors.
Tea houses, or tea stalls are everywhere in Chengdu’s urban districts, towns, downtowns and countryside. “Music tea houses” alone, tea shops with background music going with tea, is counted in hundreds. Even nowadays, with quick pace of life, the Chengdu people are ready to enjoy leisure and still fond of tea. It is said that the Chengdu people consume several tons of tea every year.
(1) Old-fashioned tea houses in the old Chengdu
There are many old-fashioned tea houses in Chengdu, which are occupied mostly by the elderly. They visit the tea houses even in the early morning. Some old folks are used to taking tobacco pipes over one-meter long when drinking tea. Sometimes when the pipe goes out, they are able to press the lighter on the ground and light up the pipe again, mimicking the action of fishing. In the tea houses, tea drinkers can spit on the ground as if there is no one else around, and wear nothing on the upper body with so much ease. These old-fashioned tea houses are often noisy, and the tea drinkers, strangers to each other, usually come from different places. They drink tea and chat with each other in the same tea house, but they care their own business. When their interest is aroused, they can talk about everything, from the stars in the sky to national or even international affairs, from ancient tales to street gossips. However, when the talking and drinking comes to an end, they head for their own ways.
Old-fashioned tea houses are simply and naturally decorated. Their antique flavor indeed embraces a different charm. Tea doctors are ready to serve you when you set foot in these tea houses. You can have your own way here. For example, a pot of light and fragrant tea proves to be an economical choice. More often than not, artisans will offer services like face-shaving, foot treatment and hair-braiding. Just because Sichuan is rich in bamboo, most of the furniture in tea houses is bamboo chairs. There are also a few cane chairs. Tea sets are generally Sichuan-style “lid-bowl”, or lidded bowl. The lid is used to stir the tea leaves, while the bowl is placed on the tea tray. After a few drinks, you can lean on the back of the bamboo chairs, with more comfort, ease and leisure than sitting on those armchairs, redwood chairs or sofa chairs in Guangzhou’s restaurants. Chengdu’s tea houses carry a strong personal touch. You can just pay for a cup of tea and idle away a whole day. If you have engagements elsewhere and have to leave but intend to return there, you can put the bowl lid on the chair when you leave. The shop owner will not clear off your tea sets, and other customers will not occupy your seat. You can indulge yourself in the tea houses as long as you like, without being resented or given hostile look. That is absolutely different from Guangzhou’s tea houses. In Chengdu’s tea houses, you can drink tea only. No dishes are served except for tea snacks like melon seeds and peanuts. This is another difference from Guangzhou’s tea houses.
(2) New-style tea houses in Chengdu
The rapid development of China’s market economy brings dramatic changes to all aspects of social life. But one thing never changes that the Chengdu people always need a place for leisurely tea-drinking and chatting. Well aware of that, Chengdu’ businessmen lose no time in getting hold of the business opportunities. As such, all kinds of high-class tea houses emerge as required by times. The decoration of these tea houses cost hundreds of thousands or even up to one million yuan. With western furnishings and graceful tea sets, they are as magnificent as royal palaces. You can enjoy light music and piano performance, too. Of course, prices in such luxurious tea houses hike up considerably. Such classes of tea as the past “Sanhua” (third-grade jasmine) are no longer tolerable here. A cup of tea costs at least a dozen yuan or even up to several dozen yuan, and so-called “gentleman tea” and “lady tea” are distinguished in some tea houses. Young people are the major customers. They wear suits or dress themselves with fashionable and pretty clothes and go to tea houses with confidence and ease. They go there for dating, business negotiations, business operation planning or information exchange, or for other specific purposes. A new tea custom has come into being.
The atmosphere in these tea houses changes dramatically. Materialistic desires are exposed. Businessmen’s manners penetrate throughout the tea houses. The leisure and ease of the old-fashioned tea houses in the past are gone. For example, Sanjiang Tea Shop in Chengdu has become the information center for Chengdu businessmen to discuss business and exchange commercial information. Certain owners engaging in long-distance shipping often conclude business contracts here. While the Zitengge Tea Shop in Chengdu People’s Park has been made a place for gatherings of the literary and art circles. Cultural and artistic lectures and literary coaching in various forms are often held in the tea shop, attracting teenagers seeking for extracurricular studies. In Chengdu nowadays, writers are fond of composing their works in tea houses for the agreeable environment in all seasons. Young literature lovers often invite a few intimate friends for literary gatherings in modern tea houses. Students preparing to sit at exams like to give themselves a lift by drinking some tea and review their lessons in tea houses. The Yuelaifang Music Tea House opens for business from dawn till over ten in the evening everyday, but still it is packed with people all the time, though it is equipped with more than 500 seats. Customers in this tea house are uniquely young people. This helps to set new tea customs in new era. In addition to new-style tea houses, even old-fashioned ones in Chengdu begin to take on a new look. Bamboo chairs remain, but placed in a new matrix. Different from the past arrangement, the chairs are put in orderly rows, all facing the TV set in the inner hall. When the evening falls, a dense crowd of employees seat themselves in the tea houses. Only for a few yuan, migrant workers can enjoy tea and video the whole evening.
(3) The three-piece set for tea-drinking in Chengdu
In Chengdu’s tea-drinking custom, there has been always the “three-piece set”, namely the “gai-wan-cha” with the tea cup, the lid and the tea tray.
In Chengdu, tea houses don’t use tea pots to make tea. It is even rare to use Yixing dark-red enameled pots to make tea. Generally, tea cups and lids are porcelains from Jingde Zhen, while tea trays are made from tin and tea pots are copper tea pots. The tea made with these tea sets is of appropriate color, fragrance, taste and form, and most important of all, of proper Sichuan flavor.