Located in old Beijing next to the Forbidden City, Lao She’s Teahouse, or 老舍茶馆 (Lǎoshě cháguǎn) operates in an exclusive niche that serves an important cultural purpose to Chinese people. However being a cultural landmark is not its only function, a closer look at the history behind the Teahouse and the aspects that the Teahouse chooses to emphasize reveals a political purpose as well. This unique combination serves two purposes. One, the Teahouse culture facilitates an exchange of ideas and the bringing together of families. Two, the subtle inclusion of political propaganda in the form of statues and plaques dedicated to the greatness of the CCP fosters growth between the people and the country. Another goal raising Lao She and his play on a pedestal is in an attempt to restore the legacy of the author that was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution due to its criticisms of the Communist Party. These criticisms eventually led to Lao She’s suicide. Through my observations and interviews of people who attended the shows at the Teahouse, I will show how the Lao She’s Teahouse successfully accomplishes its goal of spreading the communist message and restoring the legacy of Lao She while allowing the citizens of China to enjoy an authentic teahouse experience. Before I enter into the intricacies of the Teahouse’s culture, however, it is important to understand how the layout of the teahouse promotes these ideals.
The first thing one notices about Lao She’s Teahouse is how focused the place is on entertainment. Opening in 1988, Lao She’s Teahouse is a cultural hub for all types of performances ranging from shadow puppet shows to classic Jīngjù (京剧-Beijing opera). These performances are not limited to one specific area of the teahouse either. The first floor acts as a restaurant but also offers live folk music performances (民间音乐-Mínjiān yīnyuè) every night to entertain the hungry patrons. The second floor offers indoor grass courtyards and private rooms where tea drinkers can socialize, discuss business, or can watch intricate tea ceremonies put on by Teahouse staff. Finally, on the third floor tourists and natives of Beijing alike can come together to drink tea and watch a grand hour and a half mishmash of acts. There is not one corner of the teahouse that is not devoted to some sort of entertainment. In addition, 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. All these types of performances are designed to stimulate conversation and allow people to exchange ideas or grow closer.
Many of my observations and interviews revealed how these different types of performances attracted families or other groups of people that desired to share an experience together. During all of my visits to the teahouse, I witnessed an incredible number of families there to either eat dinner or watch the long performance. This is strong evidence that people desire to come to Lao She’s Teahouse to bond together as a family. Since tea is a beverage that can be had regardless of age, everyone can join in on the festivities and feel included. Even when serving the tea, the servers disregard gender and serve males and females in no particular order. Starting with the first floor, the second time I came there to gather information for the Body Language assignment, I witnessed a family of four (parents, son, and daughter) exchange a number of gestures that suggested the shared experience brought them together. In my field notes, I recorded that the family “did not look at each other during the performance but their eyes remained on the stage. Absorbed in the music”. After the performance was over, “the teenage girl made a side comment to the boy. He responds with a laugh and a smile”. This simple exchange between brother and sister is one that anyone with siblings can relate to. They were not fighting or arguing, but in this one moment they shared a joke. Later on in their lives, they may forget the joke that was shared, but they will remember that they had an agreeable time together at Lao She’s Teahouse.
The second floor that houses the courtyards and the private rooms allows for a more intimate setting that allows people to exchange ideas. Although I did not personally witness an exchange in one of these rooms, the play Teahouse describes a number of scenes where students and others come to the teahouse to seek refuge from the terror surrounding the city. One teahouse patron says, “Brothers, you are all looking at me. Hello! We are all brothers, don’t disrupt our friendship”, and another says, “In any event they won’t really fight! If they really wanted to fight they would go out of the city. Why would they come to the teahouse?” (Teahouse, Act I). Joshua Goldstein notes that “…in the Republican era playhouse, where, in step with principles of nationhood customer/citizens were to be treated with equal respect” (754). Although as Beijing begins to decay around them, the sanctity of the teahouse becomes compromised. However when they come to the teahouse in the beginning, they come with the expectation that they are not going to get harassed. This is a safe haven for them, and while Lao She’s Teahouse is a bit removed from the revolutionary periods of old Beijing, the same tradition still carries on today. People come to this teahouse in particular to escape the stress of their everyday lives to enjoy a good cup of tea and be entertained by a great opera show.
The third floor of the teahouse is the place where tea and entertainment come to an amazing crescendo. The entirety of this floor of the teahouse is one large theatre that seats more than 200 people. Here, I an experienced a particular situation that sums up how the ritual of drinking tea with others is one that unites people together. However, my experience is one of exclusion and how that prevented me from becoming an active participant in the culture. I had arrived to the table later than the others in my party and “When I sat down for the performance, my tea cup was not filled but others in my party…were already enjoying their steaming cups. During these moments, I felt left out and excluded. I was only able to watch others enjoy their tea and imagine how it tasted” (Field Notes). However, as soon as I got my cup of tea I could comment on how the tea tasted and could impart my knowledge on how to hold the lid of the teacup onto others. I, like them, was on the inside of this group who belonged to tea drinkers at Lao She’s Teahouse. Finally, when I observed the outside of the teahouse I noticed peculiar trend that pointed towards another way people grew closer with each other at the teahouse. This video gives a good idea of the type of performances that are typically seen at Lao She’s.
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 not only with each other but also with the nation of China.
Lao She’s Teahouse is specifically designed to provide both a cultural atmosphere and a political one. The reason for making this atmosphere political as well is to attract customers and to function as a place to highlight the greatness of the Chinese Communist Party. However, the one twist to this is that the play by Lao She is in part a critique on the Communist party in the late 50’s. Through the celebration of Lao She through the Teahouse and the many politicians that visit, the government has transformed the play in the minds of the public into one that celebrates the glories of the CCP instead of criticizing it. The complicated history of the production of this play is evidence that this transformation of the play’s meaning is the goal of the teahouse.
Lao She’s play has had a complicated relationship with the government mainly due to its subject matter and has been pulled from production many times. Shiao-ling Yu, author of the article Politics and Theatre in PRC: Fifty Years of Teahouse on the Chinese Stage, brings these issues to light as well as the underlying criticism of the current government. First, the synopsis of the play: it occurs 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. The author describes:
Teahouse, with no central plot, has more than sixty characters and covers fifty years. To give unity to this loosely structured play, Lao She had secondary roles passed from father to son (played by one actor). To bridge the different acts, he added a storyteller who comes on stage during intermissions to give a brief introduction to each act and to provide humorous and satirical comments on the events that are about to take place. Although the actions are confined to the interior of a teahouse, the play’s unconventional dramatic structure expands space and time: it presents a cross section of Chinese society and links three historical periods. (Shiao-Ling Yu)
Although Lao She “wrote this play ostensibly ‘to bury the three historical periods’…there are many parallels between the events in the play and the actual conditions in the 1950s” (Shiao-Ling Yu). The author of the article mentions things such as the nationalization of drama houses and the disappearance and ban of many old plays in Beijing. In addition:
The confiscation of Wang Lifa’s teahouse and Qin Zhongyi’s factory in act 3, set in the 1940s, invites comparison with the nationalization of private enterprises after the Communists came to power. In 1949, 85 percent of trade was in private hands, but by 1952 private enterprises fell to 17 percent and the nationalization of industry and commerce was completed by the beginning of 1956 (Rodzinski 1988: 22, 32). Such hasty reorganization of commerce resulted “in a decrease in the variety and quantity of goods and services available” (p. 33). Qin’s outcry, “where in the whole wide world, can you find a government like this one” (Chen 2010: 593) is a masked protest against the PRC government of Chairman Mao (Shiao-Ling Yu)
These criticisms of Mao eventually led to Lao She’s suicide during the Cultural Revolution in 1966 due to harsh beatings and torment by the masses (Shiao-Ling Yu). So, at first it seemed strange to me that the Communist Party would use such a controversial play to highlight the achievements of the CCP. But the as I read further in the article made it note that Lao She was the “People’s Artist” and that he was an active proponent of using literature to promote political themes. Lao She “pointed out that a work of literature may be a weapon of political propaganda, but it must be real literature, for nobody will want to read a work full of political jargon” (Shiao-Ling Yu). Lao She’s Teahouse is more than just monument to an important part of Chinese culture. It is an attempt by the government to restore its past wrongs. The CCP is trying to carry on this legacy of authors serving the people. They made in Teahouse in his honor in an attempt to use his standing as a great national author to promote the ideologies of the party, while trying to restore his image in the people’s minds.
Lao She’s Teahouse functions as an active celebration of the CCP in the form of a Teahouse named after an author who was a victim of the Cultural Revolution in attempt to raise and restore his importance to the country. In many of their plaques and signs, they advertise their role in the promotion of cultural improvement and preservation. Through Lao She’s the CCP tries to model themselves as the saviors of old Beijing culture. In part it seems like they are trying to gloss over the Cultural Revolution that destroyed many parts of old Beijing and build themselves a new reputation as the saviors of this Teahouse culture and Lao She’s tarnished reputation. One of the first things that tipped me off that this was one of its functions was during my first visit to the teahouse. While browsing outside and around the teahouse, I noticed a number of plaques that were dedicated to the good deeds of the CCP. One of these plaques detailed the formation of a non-profit program that started when a prominent government official in 1979 brought back a number of students from the countryside, which was not a very popular movement by Mao, and offered them cups of tea for only two yuan. However, the most important part of this sign was the inclusion of the words that the program was designed to “promote the spirit of dedication” and “practice in the Beijing spirit”. There is also another sign that mentions that one of the goals of bringing unique instruments into the teahouse was to “carry forward the national culture”.
As soon as I sat down and told the manager I was a student doing a project on the teahouse, he launched into a long monologue describing the many famous politicians and dignitaries that come have tea there. Also, there is a hallway on the second floor entirely dedicated to pictures of famous people who have visited the teahouse, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The way in which Lao She’s flaunts their many connections seems to be a way to give legitimacy to the Communist Party and the message this Teahouse is trying to send.
In conclusion, the CCP has been very successful in restoring this author’s image while at the same time highlighting its own achievements in restoring Beijing’s old culture. They have also been successful in transforming the message of the play that was once seen as a criticism of the 1950’s government into one that celebrates the government. The first time you walk into the Teahouse you get this grand picture that Lao She was and always had been a strong voice for the Communist Party instead of a dissenting voice.
Shiao-ling Yu. “Politics and Theatre in the PRC: Fifty Years of Teahouse on the Chinese Stage.” Asian Theatre Journal 30.1 (2013): 90-121. Project MUSE. Web. 2 Aug. 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Picture of Kissinger: http://english.cri.cn/7146/2009/01/08/1481s441588.htm
Teahouse by Lao She: http://www.chinesenotes.com/chaguan/chaguan_act1.php
From Teahouse to Playhouse: Theaters as Social Texts in Early-Twentieth-Century China