Focus: Public Space The teahouse in the early 20th century

Illustration of the book “Tea house”
Illustration of the book “Tea house” | ©Wang Di

Tea houses in China have always been more than just a place to enjoy a cuppa. They also functioned as political stages where different characters of the socio-political “theatre” played their parts.

This song, “A Canzonet of the Teahouse” (茶馆小调), was written by Wen Yiduo (闻一多), a popular left-wing writer who was assassinated in 1946 after delivering a speech condemning the GMD at a public meeting in Kunming. He wrote the song when he was a professor at Southwest Union University but it became popular across Sichuan. Although this canzonet might not be based on a teahouse in Chengdu, the teahouse politics he describes were universal, and it vibrantly depicts teahouse life with a strong political orientation. Wen Yiduo’s choice of the teahouse as a setting for the expression of political ideas was not coincidental. He might have believed that the teahouse would have the maximum impact on the populace because it typified the nationalist government’s suppression of free speech. The teahouse he described was crowded, with windows and the door opened wide to allow the cool air in, or, more likely, patrons were sitting at tables on the sidewalk. All kinds of noise could be heard, from the sound of bowls hitting saucers to conversations and the calls of waiters. Some people laughed and talked while others sighed or complained. The teahouse keeper was afraid of political discussions because he knew secret agents of the police might be mingling with patrons to collect intelligence. Political talk could result in not only in people losing their jobs or being arrested but also the teahouse being closed down.

The night breeze is blowing dry air,
And the teahouse is full of frivolity.
Patrons throng upstairs and downstairs,
Where the waiter is calling out and bringing boiled water.

Bowls and plates are jingling,
While fried melon seeds are crackling.
Some customers are chatting and some are arguing;
And some are in trouble, but some are laughing.
Some are discussing national affairs,
And some are airing their complaints.

The teahouse keeper is so afraid
That he comes to ask in a low voice:
“Sir, please, out of concern for my business;
Never discuss your opinions about politics.
Or national affairs.

It is difficult not to complain.
But you and I will suffer
If your conversation causes a problem.
You may lose your job,
And my teahouse may be shut down.

But losing your job is not the worst,
You might be put in jail.
What you should talk about is the weather,
And then go home and sleep well after drinking tea here.”

“Ha ha . . . ,” everybody is laughing.
“The teahouse keeper is talking nonsense,
Because we have had too much sleep.”
More sleep,
Makes us more stupid,
And more frustrated.

Instead, let’s talk without taboos.
Get rid of the bastards who oppress us, exploit us, and don’t let us speak freely.”

— Wen Yiduo (闻一多)

We can see the growing role of the state in the teahouse, which reflected the political transformation of the nation, the province, and the city. As the capital of Sichuan province, Chengdu experienced almost all of the political, economic, social, and cultural transformations from the late-Qing reform to communist victory. Each period during this historical transformation was quite different from the others.  This administrative evolution inevitably had an impact on the development and control of the teahouse trade and culture.

Because teahouses were public, many conflicts and unexpected incidents took place there. In addition, teahouses, as the most popular public space in Chengdu, often reflected the city’s image. Therefore, local authorities were greatly concerned with public order and attempted to control public places. In so doing, the local government implemented many regulations during the late Qing and Republican periods. To date, I have collected fifteen These regulations covered almost every aspect of teahouse operation, including registration, gambling, gangsters, entertainment, hours of operation, police supervision, and so on. Some were general and some addressed a single issue. There are no obvious differences in their approach to the issues, which may suggest that the authorities implemented consistent policies regarding control of teahouses. There is no question that the government increased its control over teahouses during the late 1940s; four regulations were issued in 1948 alone.

The teahouse was doubtless full of conversations about politics, ranging from class conflict, complaints about social situations, discussions of current policies, politics, and the government. The teahouse was a true witness of China’s political transformation, a place where people discussed the social reform in the late Qing era, the Railroad Protection Movement, the 1911 Revolution, warlords and wars in the early Republican period, the Kuomintang and Chinese Communist party, the War of Resistance (1937-1945), and the Civil War (1945-1949). Even the rumors that circulated might be a response to social, economic and political turmoil. As Wen Yiduo’s lyrics indicate, the teahouse became a space where people expressed anger at society and political developments. Politics in the teahouse, of course, often took the form of power struggles between elites and commoners, between the state and elites, between the state and commoners, and between the members of each of these groups. They often struggled to preserve their own personal interests, the interests of the small groups they associated with, or those of their own class. Although teahouses filled people’s needs in terms of leisure, business, and public life, they often became an arena of political struggle or were forced into the political orbit. In fact, local and national political developments were always in evidence in the teahouse and teahouse life. From this point of view, the teahouse could be considered a political stage, where all kinds of people and powers played roles in the ongoing drama of politics.

During wartime, the national crisis gave the state more opportunities to engage with teahouses and use them as a tool for political propaganda. Remarkably, the teahouse also created a kind of amateur politician, known “teahouse politicians” (茶馆政治家), whose opinions and behaviors became an indicator of trends in local and national politics. This chapter discusses how public space, leisure activities, and entertainment were always connected with politics, were closely associated with changes in the economy, social inequality, and political movements and how various political forces were always trying to control or enforce their influences in these domains. Government was intended to suppress the spread of any political ideology or activity that could jeopardize the GMD’s rule. As seen in Wen Yiduo’s lyrics, teahouse owners did their best to stay away from politics, but often failed because both the government and patrons enforced their politics there.

This text was first published as a part of the book “The teahouse – Public space and microcosm of Chengdu, 1900-1950” and appears here with kind permission by the author.