The Political Side of Lao She’s Teahouse

While my first visits to Lao She’s Teahouse provided me with a glimpse of how teahouses facilitate a growing relationship between people, my last few visits revealed another dimension of this important cultural landmark.  Through my interviews and observations, I have noticed an increasing link between Lao She’s Teahouse and the Communist Party of China.  By linking it with a famous political play, inviting dignitaries from all over the world to eat there, and setting up a few reform programs based on tea culture, the CCP seems to have designated Lao She’s Teahouse as a political monument as well as a cultural one. Because of the high amount of attention this teahouse receives from the government, tourists flock to the restaurant to participate in the teahouse culture. So not only does Lao She’s Teahouse facilitate a increased relationship with your fellow diners, but it also allows the drinkers to become closer to the nation through an active participation in tea culture.  While I will discuss the actual play later in this blog, I would first like to pay attention to my fieldwork that supports my arguments.

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First commissioned for a movie about a CCP Party official, The Big Bowl Cup of Tea now resides at Lao She’s Teahouse

The most important piece of evidence that links the government to the teahouse is through the name.  By calling it Lao She’s Teahouse, the owners have no doubt made a statement that they would like to be connected to the rise of the People’s Republic of China.  A sign outside of the door, pointed out to me by a rickshaw driver during an interview, made note of a non-profit program now linked with Lao She’s Teahouse that has its origins in a dinner held by a Party official who offered two yuan tea to students returning from the countryside in the late 70’s.  The program was designed to “promote the spirit of dedication” and “practice in the Beijing spirit”.  In addition, a large tea bowl was placed in front of the teahouse in dedication to a movie made about a prominent CCP official.  This link between the CCP and Lao She’s Teahouse allow the Party direct access to tourists coming to enjoy the tea culture, which gives them the ability to expose the tourists to party propaganda.  The teahouse also serves as a meeting place for important native and foreign world leaders.

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Plaque inside of the Big Bowl Tea

By inviting so many important diplomats and celebrities to dine in the teahouse, they are increasing the renown of the place, which pushes more people to come visit much in the same way that people go to visit Hollywood Boulevard. This video is a good example of the type of performance typically seen at Lao She’s Teahouse.   When I sat down for my first cup of tea on the first floor, some of the managers first words to me were “Oh, you’re a foreigner” and then he went on to tell me about all of the famous American diplomats that came to visit.  On the second floor, they even have two walls dedicated solely to pictures of the famous representatives that came to enjoy a show.  All of these unique aspects of the teahouse entice tourists from all over China to come and take part in a special aspect of Chinese politics and culture.

The more I came to Lao She’s Teahouse, the more I noticed how revered this teahouse was to the people who came to visit it.  The first thing I observed was the sheer amount of people who took pictures of the teahouse, and many of them were just bystanders who had not eaten there at all.  Kids, parents, old people, and young all took pictures of this shrine to teahouse culture.  In a way, it reminded me of being in front of the Forbidden City watching people take pictures of Mao’s face.  With smiles on their faces, they asked their friends to take their pictures in front of the teahouse.  To me, this indicates that they are expressing a desire to remember this experience and show off to their friends back at home that they had visited the famous Lao She’s Teahouse.  It is not a place to go on a regular occasion but for one that deserves a special celebration.  One of the groups that I talked to was even celebrating a birthday.  In addition to taking a picture with the teahouse, many of these people took pictures together.  They are sharing an experience together that they want to remember, which is a hint for either a growth of a relationship or the fortification of one.  Rarely did I see one person stand there alone and have their picture taken.  Pictures are only one way that allows guests of the teahouse to develop a connection with the government.

Lao She’s Teahouse provides a unique mix of both political and cultural to the tourist that comes to participate in the festivities at the teahouse.  Although one of my criticisms is that it does not allow for peoples of all walks of life to enjoy a performance of a cup of tea.  With the lowest cups of tea priced at thirty-eight yuan and performances as low as 150 yuan, not everyone from society can participate in the culture, which does not seem to be in accordance with communist principles.  Unlike in the play where Wang Lifa gives a free cup of tea to a beggar, Lao She’s Teahouse would never seem to accommodate that kind of crowd.

Well it seems that I do not have enough space to give Teahouse the attention it deserves, so in my final blog post I will include my own analysis as well as some scholarly articles on the play as well as teahouse culture in China.