No matter how quickly China races to some undefined goal of progress, I don’t think it will ever lose sight of its cultural heritage. The afternoon of my last Tuesday in Beijing, I went to Maliandao Tea Market to bring back some souvenirs for my family and myself. Inside a blank, gray, industrial highrise, I found dozens of small stalls, each of which eager to perform a tea ceremony for my friends and I, small pockets of undisturbed culture set against the backdrop of constant modernization. Although the teas varied wildly in price and flavor, we settled on a Tie Guanyin, the tea of the Iron Goddess of Mercy, from one shop. After retelling the fable as she had no doubt done hundreds of times before, the saleswoman pulled out three vacuum packed 1 Jin, approximately 1 pound, bags of tea and instructed us to keep them in the refrigerator.
After three more stalls, some light haggling and a couple dozen tiny cups of tea, I found myself wandering down into the building’s basement in search of a tea wholesaler, just to round out our purchases with something cheaper to give away to everybody. After getting turned away at the door of the first wholesaler I found, I met a young man busking outside of his family shop. A few short minutes later, I walked back to my friends to drop off a five pound bag of a slightly lower grade of Tie Guanyin, and had every intention to return for more.
For my second purchase at this wholesaler, I decided on a Taiwanese varietal, Rensheng Gingeng Wulong, or human health ginseng oolong tea. After sampling two or three black teas, the shop’s manager sent his son out to go track me down five pounds special. While we waited, we began to talk over countless cups of tea, discussing everything from our cultures’ differences in film and social interaction, and the not-so-different price of a KFC sandwich. After about half an hour of discussing life, in Chinese, the tea came, and with it the need to settle on a price. I started with my usual salvo of, “come on, i’m just a student, could you lower the price just a little?” or something similar. Although this got him close to my maximum price, he still wasn’t there yet, so I decided to try something different.
For one homework in Hao Laoshi’s reading and writing class, I had to research the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, especially the stories surrounding Zhuge Liang. Although I couldn’t remember the exact chengyu, or four character set phrase, I remembered that Liu Bei, the general of the Shu Han kingdom, had to ask Zhuge Liang three times to join his army. I asked the shop keeper again to drop the price, telling him the story of Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang, and that as kindly as he had treated me, this was my third time as well. After his look of utter shock subsided, the shopkeeper agreed, and even threw in a beautiful tea set for free.