The buzzing metropolis of Chengdu may be most famous for being the capital of Sichuan cuisine, but its identity is not linked to food alone – is also arguably the Chinese city with the most pervasive teahouse culture.
Home to somewhere between four and five thousand teahouses, Chengdu is known throughout China for being a laid-back city where everywhere you go, you’ll find a busy teahouse full of people chatting, talking business or playing majiang (mahjong) – all while sipping on small cups of their favorite cha.
We recently stumbled upon an interview on Chengdu website GoChengdoo with Texas A&M associate professor of history Wang Di, who is researching the role of the teahouse in China during the 20th Century.
The Chengdu native authored the book The Teahouse: Small Business, Everyday Culture and Public Politics in Chengdu, 1900-1950, a look at Chengdu’s teahouse culture in old Chengdu, making several interesting arguments about what led to the popularity of teahouses in Chengdu and its reputation for leisurely locals.
In the early 20th Century, many Chengdu residents lacked access to running water, and water in many of the wells around the city had a bitter alkaline taste, so a stop by the teahouse was important for many people. So important, that being located near a teahouse could push an apartment’s rent up significantly.
In addition to generating plenty of local wealth, the agricultural abundance of Chengdu and the fertile Chengdu Plain also translated to people spending less time in the fields to ensure a good harvest than in other parts of China. No wonder why drinking tea and catching up on the latest news and gossip was the activity of choice for people of all backgrounds in Chengdu.
Whenever we’re passing through Chengdu we always try to squeeze in a visit to open-air teahouse at People’s Park. Undoubtedly the city’s most famous teahouse, it is the perfect place to experience teahouses as they used to be in Chengdu. After a few hot cups of green tea, the tea-fuelled chatter around us fades into the background and we think about how far those little leaves traveled to get there.