In Shanghai, Teahouses Offer Both Community and Solitude

THE WOMEN PLAY cards, faces strategically, immaculately bored. Smoke eddies from cigarettes. We are in Huangpu in central Shanghai, a city of some 25 million people — but these six women are the only other customers I see at De He Teahouse, half-hidden on the second floor of a sports complex.

It is October 2019, a little over two months before the world’s first reported cases of the novel coronavirus. Public gathering places are still open and bustling; I go unmasked in the metro, shoulder to shoulder with strangers. The teahouse, then, is a respite from the crowd: I enter via a stone gate guarded by grinning lions, then cross a short bridge over koi drowsing in a pond and arrive at a mausoleumesque sweep of glossy black tile and red lanterns dripping tassels. My guide, Ashley Loh of UnTour Food Tours, has called ahead for a reservation, and we take refuge along the perimeter, in a cushioned nook with tied-back curtains. Tea is ostensibly what we’re here for, but after we order, we slink off, past the women fanning their cards, to the all-you-can-eat buffet — chafing trays filled with congee, sweet corn soup, steamed taro and luo song tang, a Shanghai adaptation of the borscht brought to the city by Russian émigrés after the October Revolution of 1917.

A tall glass is placed in front of me, an aquarium inhabited by a single sea anemone: a chrysanthemum that blooms as hot water is poured down from on high, yielding a pale brew the color of resin, its scent stronger than its flavor. It’s lovely and also curiously unnecessary, almost incidental to the experience — of sudden reprieve from an insistent city; of finding a kind of hiding place in plain sight, in a country with a conflicted relationship to the notion of individual privacy; of paradoxically being alone and at the same time joined with others, all of us dedicated to our pursuit of this fleeting moment. I thought I was coming to a teahouse for tea, but it turns out I was looking for something else entirely. I don’t know yet that in a matter of months venues like this will shut down all over the globe, that my world will shrink to the borders of my own home. I don’t know yet how much I will miss this.

Some of the nooks at the more traditional De He Teahouse include carved-wood lattice screens that can be closed for additional privacy.Credit…Josh Robenstone

TEA IS ANCIENT, and arguably essential to China’s idea of itself. Fossils in the country’s southwestern Yunnan Province attest to the presence more than 35 million years ago of a probable direct ancestor to the tea tree. Records of tea cultivation go back to the Western Zhou dynasty in the 11th to eighth centuries B.C.; remnants of tea leaves have been disinterred from the tomb of an emperor who died in 141 B.C.; the first references to drinking tea in public places appear during the Tang dynasty in the seventh to 10th centuries A.D. But teahouse culture is a more recent development, as the historian Di Wang writes in “The Teahouse: Small Business, Everyday Culture and Public Politics in Chengdu, 1900-1950” (2008). It has roots in both scholarly tea parties and plebeian street-side “tiger stoves” that sold hot water for brewing tea at home and then started setting up stools so customers could linger.

In the West, teahouses are often imagined as austere oases of serenity and stillness, where a stylized ballet of gestures lends a mystical aura to the steeping and drinking of tea, encouraging interiority and self-reflection. (Such a fantasy elides differences between China and Japan, as well as between the Japanese chashitsu, a space designed specifically in line with the strict aesthetics of the tea ceremony, which is less a pastime than an art, and ochaya, where geisha entertain customers.) But in China, the rise of teahouse culture — which perhaps found fullest expression around the turn of the 20th century in the city of Chengdu, in the southwestern province of Sichuan — was driven by the desire for human connection. The Chengdu Plain’s relative geographic isolation, rich soil, temperate climate and extensive irrigation system meant that farmers didn’t have to band together in villages; instead, they lived close to their fields, in scattered, semi-isolated settlements, creating a need for gathering places like teahouses as hubs of both social interaction and commerce — counterparts to the Greek agora, the Italian piazza and the Arabic souk.

For the people of Chengdu, teahouses were an essential part of daily life; in 1909, the city had 454 teahouses among its 516 streets. Patrons would bring their pet birds and hang the cages from the eaves as they whiled away the hours. Ear cleaners made the rounds of tables, brandishing semi-surgical tools. Mahjong tiles clacked; storytellers, sometimes bawdy, attracted crowds of rich and poor alike; and ad hoc “teahouse politicians” declaimed, even under signs warning, “Don’t discuss state affairs,” which shop owners posted in fear of the ever-vigilant authorities. In short, these were hardly meditative, rarefied spaces. “Every teahouse is crowded from sunrise to sunset,” Wang quotes the editor and educator Shu Xincheng on 1920s Chengdu. “There is often no room to sit.”

Most days at De He, groups of women gather to play cards.Credit…Josh Robenstone

AS A SPACE that bridged public and private, the teahouse allowed strangers to engage and exchange ideas in relative freedom — a radical experience in a society that enshrined the family as the primary social unit, with multiple generations sharing a single home. In this freedom, the teahouse had kinship with the coffeehouses of 17th- and 18th-century Europe, which the German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas has credited for helping give birth to the Enlightenment by breaking down the “monopoly of interpretation” previously held by church and state.

China may never have subscribed to the “binary opposition between state and society” seen in the West, as the historian Philip C. C. Huang writes in “ ‘Public Sphere’ / ‘Civil Society’ in China?” (1993). But the historian Qin Shao has argued that early teahouses still had subversive power as microcosms of both city and country. After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912, an ascendant, Western-leaning cultural elite viewed teahouses as holdouts from a primitive past and dangerous breeding grounds of “moral decay and social disorder,” Shao writes in a 1998 essay — due in part to teahouses’ tacit permission of gambling, prostitution and “the singing of obscene songs,” but also because leisure itself was suddenly perceived as a threat to productivity, defying modernization and the newly formal workday structure. Wang cites an early 20th-century slogan: “Don’t enter teahouses and don’t watch local operas; just cultivate the land and plant rice.”

With the consolidation of state power under the Communist leader Mao Zedong, public life was not only constrained but co-opted, through mass rallies and omnipresent propaganda. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, when a stray overheard phrase could reap condemnation, many teahouses closed. Only in the post-Mao era, starting in the late ’70s, was the tradition revived, as the government eased controls over the private sector and veered toward then-leader Deng Xiaoping’s ideal of a “socialist market economy.” As standards of living rose, so, too, did a resurgent nostalgia — once deemed dangerous, a target of Mao’s po si jiu campaign to destroy old customs, culture, habits and ideas — as a way to reassert cultural identity amid the upheaval of China’s swift transformation into a global power, the anthropologist Jinghong Zhang writes in “Puer Tea: Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic” (2014). To drink tea, at home and in public, became an almost nationalistic act, an affirmation of being Chinese.

At De He, peanuts and citrus fruits are offered with tea and an all-day buffet.Credit…Josh Robenstone

IN SHANGHAI — CHINA’S most technologically advanced megacity — before the pandemic, De He feels subdued, far from its raucous Chengdu predecessors. There are busier spots in town, perhaps above all the tourist-besieged Huxinting Teahouse, an ornate pavilion rising on stilts over a lake of lotuses. But among the city’s thousands of teahouses, a new vanguard suggests a shift from populist engagement to retreat and refinement, whether in settings stocked with antique furniture, as at De He, or styled in a self-consciously edgy aesthetic, like the Tingtai Teahouse, in the M50 art district in the onetime industrial zone of Putuo, with its tiers of private chambers in elevated stainless-steel boxes. At some, tea sommeliers offer high-priced varieties of Bingdao Pu’er, Tieguanyin oolong and Dianhong (black tea from Yunnan Province in China’s southwest), prepared tableside. Reservations are often required, with time limits imposed, lest customers linger too long. It’s an escape, but not from time.

In “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” a 1980 study on the use of public plazas in New York City, the American journalist and urban planner William H. Whyte observes that although people “speak of getting away from it all,” evidence shows that they are in fact drawn to busy places: “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.” Yet at the other teahouses I visit with Loh (and, later, with the food writer Crystyl Mo), encounters between strangers are kept to a minimum. Men in suits, swinging briefcases, disappear into discreet, closed-off rooms. There’s an aura of exclusivity, as at a private club; one spot, a branch of the Yinxi mini-chain on Yuqing Lu in the former French Concession, is unmarked from the outside save for a row of chubby, blank-faced monk dolls set into the wall. To enter, Loh presses down on the head of the second doll from the right, and when the door opens, we ascend steps over billowing mist. In the garden, tables stand cocooned in glass cylinders surrounded by water, reachable only by steppingstones.

With coffee shops now as their rivals — among them the mammoth 30,000-square-foot storefront of Starbucks Reserve Roastery that opened in 2017 in Shanghai’s Jing’an district — teahouses have had to adapt. Some tempt the younger generation with their interiors; others make tea the focus, with formal ceremonies requiring a skilled practitioner, or as a luxury product, with prices for particularly rare varieties rising into the thousands of yuan per pot, the equivalent of hundreds of American dollars. These modern iterations don’t quite fit the classic model of “one of the most affordable public social spaces,” as Shao has described it, and it’s difficult for an outsider to tell how much they retain the spirit of the freewheeling teahouses of old, where “ordinary folk” could gossip and express opinions and “release destructive emotions and cope with social change” without fear of consequence or government interference. Instead, they appear to embrace a different nostalgia, for an imagined time when the world was less demanding or easier to shut out. Perhaps the promise is not engagement but its opposite: retreat.

A close-up of the tea set at Yinxi, including a double-layered tea tray for draining away any spills, and traditional gong fu cha implements.Credit…Josh Robenstone

Today, Twitter and Facebook are arguably enormous virtual teahouses, at least for those with unfettered access to them. Both, however, are blocked within China by a firewall, and their closest available social media equivalents, the microblogging platform Weibo and the messaging app WeChat, are carefully monitored by the state. Still, information is available to those who seek it. In my brief time in Shanghai, some locals speak to me about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which started earlier that year (and were portrayed by state media on the mainland as the work of a few thugs in thrall to foreign agents), and the plight of the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking and mostly Muslim minority in western China, more than a million of whom have been confined in re-education camps, which the government has claimed is necessary to combat Islamic extremism. We speak in public, freely, and no one seems to be listening. But then again, who am I? Just a tourist, a person of no importance, passing through.

Two years on, China has mostly routed Covid-19 — a surge from the Delta variant in late July subsided by the end of August — with strict mask mandates and elaborate surveillance technologies, while the West, where individual freedom is often prized over collective responsibility, continues to struggle. If anything, the Chinese government is even more powerful than before, with the country’s economy in overdrive and possibly poised to overtake the United States’ within the decade, according to London’s Center for Economics and Business Research. In this context, the liberating notion that no one is listening takes on a darker tone: Is it because it doesn’t matter what people say; because nothing will change?

THE LOVELIEST TEAHOUSE I visit in Shanghai isn’t properly a teahouse at all. The address, in the former French Concession, is off the street, and directions are provided only when a booking is made. Even though Loh has been there before, she’s initially unable to find it; we pass through one gate, then another, and finally enter a room in a private home. This is Wan Ling Tea House, where Cai Wan-Ling, a tea master from Anxi, in the southeastern province of Fujian — a region famed for its oolong tea — presides over what has come to be known as the Chinese tea ceremony.

A cupboard holding handmade ceramic cups and teapots at Wan Ling Tea House, where each type of tea has its own preparation requirements.Credit…Josh Robenstone

With its delicate tools and choreographed gestures, the Chinese art of tea, chayi, is often framed as an ancient ritual, but as the historian Lawrence Zhang has written, it’s of more recent vintage, with roots in the regional custom of gong fu cha, which, until the late 1970s, was largely unknown in China outside of Chaozhou, in the country’s southeast. Although there was a long tradition of scholarly connoisseurship in Chinese tea drinking, it wasn’t codified, and Zhang argues that the original incarnation of gong fu cha was untethered to specific philosophical meaning. That came later, inspired in part by senchado, a less rigid version of the Japanese tea ceremony that centered on whole-leaf steamed tea rather than the powdered and whisked variety.

When Cai begins, the question of whether chayi is old or new becomes irrelevant. Hers is a practice of close attention, narrowing my vision to these few objects arranged on the table: the lidded bowl, gaiwan, with the lid symbolizing heaven, its saucer the earth and the body the tea server negotiating between them; the “fair mug,” gong dao bei, placed at a 45-degree angle from the gaiwan, into which the tea is poured first, before it’s poured into each guest’s cup, so all will receive — as an act of fairness — the same concentration of tea; a small folded towel, to dab spills.

She knows the date each of her teas was harvested. Here, an oolong from Oct. 4, 2019; there, a white tea from March 29, 2016. She sits ballerina straight. Before she brews the tea, she puts the leaves into the gaiwan, shakes it gently with the lid on, then lifts the lid just slightly, to inhale the scent. Each component — gaiwan, gong dao bei, cups wood-fired in a 400-year-old kiln — is warmed with a splash of hot water, which is then poured into a side bowl. When serving more than one tea, she prefers a ceramic teapot because the material doesn’t affect the taste, and boils the water just once or twice, “to keep the water alive,” she says.

With each tea, there is a specific time for brewing, down to the second, but she consults no clock. I sit with her in silence as the tea steeps. And this is the wonder: remembering how to tell time simply by being, holding the seconds in the body, each one steady and strangely heavy. We have not escaped time, but somehow mastered it. She has more to tell me — how the first infusion is delicate, the second more full-bodied; how the tea cools faster in a clay cup; how she likes to drink dark oolong on a rainy day — and I lean forward to listen, for a moment lost to the outside world.

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