Based on the play Teahouse by Chinese author, Lao She, Lao She’s Teahouse is a restaurant dedicated to the mixture of fine cultural performances and the art of drinking tea. This enchanted places offers the unique chance to mix pleasure with more pleasure and allows for its guests to enjoy a variety of shows, like Jingju and Kunqu, while sipping on the finest quality tea. Located in Qian Men next to the Forbidden City, the Teahouse is a must visit for all newcomers to Beijing. I chose Lao She’s as my field site because it appears to be the hub of Chinese tea drinking culture. With some rooms specialized for tea tasting and others for watching Jingju, this teahouse gives the tea enthusiast plenty of spaces to become absorbed in the culture.
The object that I am drawn to that seems key in allowing the outsider a view into Lao She’s tea culture is the Lao She’s Teahouse teacup. Apart from the unique process involved in cultivating the leaves to achieve the desired flavor, the teacup seems to be the keystone in the arch of tea drinking culture. Although it is not placed on the table at the start of the meal, the teacup is brought out with the hot kettle with the top already on it. Looking into the cup, it is full of water with the leaves of whatever kind of tea ordered floating on top. The lid acts as a filter to block the leaves from entering your mouth while still allowing liquid to pass through. Moving on to the design of the cup, as you can tell from the picture the masks of Jingju opera are plastered in a circular pattern around the cup. These designs are not only on the teacup but also on the mini soup bowl and spoon inside of the bowl. When I first saw these designs, I thought to myself why these masks? Why these masks and not some other decoration like tealeaves? What is the teahouse trying to draw attention to by blazoning everything with the mark of the Jingju? In a more inclusive look at the schedule of Lao She’s Teahouse, it became apparent that they were trying to draw a direct connection between the Teahouse and their ability to provide their guests with great entertainment wrapped up in the tea culture. They offer multiple shows every night and often have shows going on simultaneously on different floors. One side effect from offering this sort of entertainment coupled with tea drinking is that it cultivates a growing relationship between the members of the group who come to enjoy the festivities.
While out on my Body Language field assignment, I observed a family who came to watch the Folk Singing and Instruments that seemed to be the perfect model for what this Teahouse was designed for: groups of people growing in their relations through watching this performance. This family or group of four, made up of a mother, father, one teenage boy and one teenage girl, shared this experience of watching the performance and from their body language it looked like they were brought closer together through the experience. Because the prices at the Teahouse are relatively high, thirty-eight yuan for the cheapest cup of tea, it must have either been a special occasion or they are well off. Regardless, this group of people seemed to come to the Teahouse specifically for this performance because they left immediately after the performers vacated the stage. The video posted is a brief excerpt of one of the songs played by the Folk Performance group.
Lao She’s play Teahouse is also centered on this very idea. The teahouse is a meeting place for those to gather together and share opinions during three of China’s most important movements in the 20th century: The 1898 beginning demise of the Qing Empire, ten years after the Republic has been established, and finally in 1945 with the beginning of the Chinese Civil War. Revolutionaries and common folk, the students and the old, the educated and the poor, all come together under the roof of this one teahouse to discuss the direction of their country during these various movements. I believe that it is this very sense of community that Lao She’s Teahouse is trying to foster, but they are doing it in a very unique way. They are incorporating a shared experience of entertainment to try and foster these relationships with people.
However, the question that I have on my mind is whether or not these performances add or subtract to this sense of community? Tea seems to be the perfect medium through which people can get to know each other. For example, the lids on the cups of tea are often so hot right after the water is poured that they cannot be touched, so the drinker has no choice but to wait before enjoying the tea allowing them a chance to talk and converse freely with other members of their group. However, does the inclusion of these performances hinder what the conventional teahouse is set up to do? My next step will be a more in depth analysis on how the various groups of people react before the performance, during the performance, and after the performance to get a clearer idea of how these people reacted to the show. Perhaps interviews or a survey will better facilitate the kind of answers that I am hoping for.