Tea is important in China. It has been part of China’s cultural legacy for centuries. Even the word “tea” originally comes from the word “te” in Fuzhou Hua (the Chinese dialect in Fuzhou Province). In Mandarin, the word for tea is “cha” ??? (same character) and many other languages also use this pronunciation.
Tea has so much significance here and is used for so much, not just to fill a cup so that one can sip warm liquid. For example, various teas are used in Chinese medicine, tea is used in cooking to flavour foods, tea is used in washing and bathing, tea is used to help with skin abrasions or to help your puffy eyes when you’re underslept or hungover, i.e. steeped green tea leaves pressed onto the black circles under your eyes and then wait awhile. Dried used tea leaves have also traditionally been used to fill children’s pillows and is believed to be good for their developing minds. This is only some of what I learned about tea this week. (Yes, school can be helpful!)
So, it was perfect timing for an invitation from my new friend Rain to go out for a cup of tea together (??????????????????? “Do you want to go out for tea?” is more regularly asked here than “Do you want to have a coffee?”). I figured we were going to a local (random) café and I was simply looking forward to getting to know a new friend and scanning the menu for the various kinds of tea that I learned about in my lessons.
What I didn’t realize was that she had tickets to the most famous and historically significant teahouse in Beijing: Lao She Cha Guan ???????????.
Lao She was a famous Chinese author who was born in Beijing (then called Peking). He wrote many plays and novels throughout the course of his life, one of which was called “Teahouse” or “Chaguan 茶馆” in 1956. It was about the ups and downs of the people’s lives in China throughout the turbulent changes between 1898 and 1945 and has been dramatized many times by the Beijing People’s Theatre.
What truly interests me about Lao She is his political affiliation. He was a radical, it seems, and wrote work that was critical of decadence and political corruption and championed national resistance. At the time of Communist control, he was safely stowed in the United States but was forced to return in 1949.
I learned that between 1949 and 1966, Lao She wrote several plays and was “put to use” by the hierarchy but that his work during this period was never critically acclaimed. He “gave every indication of being a loyal support of the Peking government, but his egregious form of flattery, so exaggerated in its denunciation of the state’s enemies, may have been a form of oblique satire.” (source)
(Well, of course it was.)
When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, people like Lao She – public figures with loud, politically critical and/or influential voices with any history of dissent – were doomed.
He committed suicide in September of 1966.
(Hello again, Shannon.)
So, when I walked up to this building and saw all the connections to my life, I had to pause a moment to take it all in once again. There are simply no coincidences are there? No, I don’t think so.
The place was packed and Rain had already reserved tickets for the tearoom which included a full performance in traditional Chinese style. As she was negotiating for a table and settling the tickets, I watched tourist after tourist pose beside the bust of Lao She for a photo. We were then ushered into the tearoom and seated at a large table that was already occupied by two other women. Historically, teahouses were the places that people would come and sip their various teas, make new friends and take in the arts.
This current building, while newly constructed as the first teahouse in Beijing after the reform period (I believe it was built in 1989), has a full performance room with large round tables at which people sit with strangers eating sweet “xiao chi” (snacks) and sipping bottomless cups of traditional Chinese tea.
The stage is at one end and the performances were fantastic. The show began with a tribute to the upcoming Olympics and how the five Olympic Ring colours can be equated to the five traditional kinds of tea in China. Furthermore, there was a short Chinese opera (Beijing style), a magician, the traditional “xiang sheng” performance which is a Chinese comedic conversational exchange also known as “cross-talk comedy” (Da Shan is a famous Canadian performer here in China as his Chinese is impeccable and he is an expert in this performance style), some martial arts dances by various energetic young boys, etc. I can’t identify all of the traditional performance styles but it was all very enjoyable.
My favourite performance was called kouji 口技. It was a performance that featured two elderly men who used their mouths to make sound effects. The main part of their show was a full conversation in bird calls filled with emphatic gesturing and miming. The audience loved it. They finished their performance doing impressions of various forms of transportation like airplanes, trains and automobiles. They were a brilliant team.
(Hey, quick aside: what was that American movie from the 80’s called that was all about cops – maybe Police Academy? — where there was an actor who could make all of these amazing sounds with his mouth and he would often just speak in sounds rather than words? This is what that performance made me think of.)
I laughed and applauded even when I didn’t fully understand the meaning of these performances. The facial expressions on the faces of the performers were enough to make me laugh. This style and variety of performance is totally conducive to having no Chinese language skills. Many of the performances were wordless and easily entertained the many non-Chinese speakers in attendance.
After the concert, we took a stroll through the reconstructed traditional Chinese tea house which has been built inside the building – sort of like a building within a building. There was a false courtyard and a woman playing the guzheng and several little nooks and crannies in which to sip tea and take it all in as if we were back in time by a hundred years. I was not permitted to take photos inside this teahouse replica, however, and so I cannot show you what it looked like. All I can tell you is that it was peaceful and lovely and felt a bit like a living museum.
When we left, we zigzagged around the vendors outside wanting us to buy souvenirs and/or ride in their rickshaws and emerged quietly onto the sidewalk into the cool summer air. It had been raining slightly while we were inside and the damp freshness in the city cooled the skin my face and inspired me to breathe deeply.
This has been a reflective week filled with fortuitous timing and fated experiences.
Everything happens for a reason.
In Chinese, there is a beautiful word that sums up my recent time here: yuanfen 缘分. This compound (as it consists of two characters) means “destiny, fate, purpose, predestined lot” all rolled into two lyrical syllables.
Yes, China, I believe in yuanfen 缘分.
You make it impossible not to!