As the Middle Kingdom protects and heals itself during the COVID-19 outbreak, we want to share stories with you of the real people of China – the people that make this country so beautiful. Before we can welcome you back here in person, we want to bring the people to you. These stories illustrate the deep complexity, humanity, and beauty that resides across this vast nation, and we hope that by sharing these real people with you, you’ll get to know a different side of China. These are the real #HumansOfChina and this is #OurChina.
Article and Photos by Matthew Furnell. Follow him on Instagram: @mjgfurnell
“Chengdu is a city where people know how to relax, life moves a little slower here” – this a familiar phrase we have all heard many times from Chengdu locals, Chinese friends who have moved here, and expats alike.
But as we find ourselves standing in a line, 10 people deep and almost the same number wide, waiting for the 8am commuter train into the city, it’s hard not to think: Are we missing something? Because life here seems pretty damn fast.
Chengdu’s population of 14 million residents dwarfs most European cities. It can feel overwhelming as a foreigner to live in or visit such a large city. Where to even begin? What neighborhoods to visit, what things to do, what to see? Well, if you’re looking for the quieter side of Chengdu, a side with rich culture, old history, and laid-back afternoons, one of Chengdu’s many tea houses could be the perfect spot. Chengdu really does have a lot of tea houses. There are modern and minimalistic tea houses, cozy and musty tea houses, tea houses with live traditional Chinese music and tea houses with a futuristic twist. Below we will introduce three of the oldest and most authentic tea houses in the city; three must-see spots to sit down and share a cup of tea with friends and locals.
Pengzhen Tea House
Walking into Pengzhen Tea House for the first time is something you will always remember. As the smoke clears from hand-rolled cigars and steaming iron teapots, you get your first glimpse of a place that most likely hasn’t changed for over 100 years. Forget about just slowing down; this place feels like it’s a time capsule, a moment of Chinese history, preserved inside what can only be described as a wooden barn, with its walls covered in old communist memorabilia and portraits of Mao. When you step inside, it feels as if you are stepping into a China before its economic boom, before its commercialization and capitalization; a simpler time, where communities were smaller and people were closer.
A group of old men sit around a bamboo table, wearing thick winter jackets and flat caps, as they drink their first cups of tea before the sun rises. It’s difficult to tell if it’s steam from their drinks or smoke from their cigars that’s lingering in the air. Most likely a combination of the two, which cause beautiful swirling patterns as light rays begin to burst through the opening in the ceiling.
Early morning mist and smoke in Pengzhen Tea House. Photo by @mgfurnell
As the sun slowly rises, more and more old people fill the tea house. There are people playing cards, talking, relaxing. There is even a group of men waiting to get their hair cut at an outdoor barber just outside of the shop. The tea house is full of fascinating people: there is a man sitting in the corner, with a long white beard, dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, selling hand-made bone and root pipes. He is a traveling salesman who moves between small towns in Western China trying to sell his products. He says he always finds himself coming back to Pengzhen because there is nowhere else that feels more like home.
Pengzhen Tea House’s owner. Photo by @mgfurnell
The owner of the tea house is easy to spot. He’s the man who is about 30 years younger than everyone else, usually wearing a pair of Beats headphones and carrying an iron teapot. He tries to arrive by around 6am every day, but said some of the more familiar customers will let themselves in as early as 4:30 to sit together and relax. Something he said resonated with us, “if I wasn’t open every day, I don’t know where a lot of these old guys would go. Most of them don’t really have any family to look after them, they come here for the company, and as long as they keep coming, I’ll keep opening.”
Entering Pengzhen Tea House feels like walking into a living museum. It is very welcoming to photographers and visitors, just be sure to buy a cup of tea and support their business if you do decide to go. As the dawn transitions to the morning, you may become increasingly aware of the growing number of photographers in the tea house. Sometimes photography workshops with up to 15 participants will be held there. We definitely recommend getting there bright and early to have a more comfortable experience.
Pengzhen Tea House.
Recommended time to visit:
We strongly advise arriving at the tea house between 6am – 7:30am.
Niang Niang Miao (娘娘庙) Temple and Tea House
Most people visiting or living in Chengdu know about Wenshu Monastery. In fact, it is one of the first places people visit when they come to the city, and for good reason: it’s beautiful, peaceful, and the trees surrounding its border somehow make the air seem cleaner and sweeter. You can hear birds singing, people chanting, and if you’re lucky, monks relaxing and even playing ping pong. But it is what lies just behind Wenshu Monastery that most people miss. Hidden in the corner of a small back street, behind Chengdu’s largest Buddhist Monastery, is one of Chengdu’s smallest Taoist Temples connected to an ancient tea house.
Niang Niang Miao (娘娘庙) temple dates back around 250 years and the tea house connected to it is almost as old. Visit early in the morning and you will find the two female Taoist monks who run the temple practicing taichi. Master Xu is the older of the two, she has been living in the temple for 28 years. She is a wise teacher who has a deep understanding of the tao. While there, she told us of the many changes she has seen in the surrounding area over the years but that the temple and the tea house are much the same as when she first arrived. She talked to us about change being good, how the natural flow always brings change and so we should welcome this change openly. However, she also warned us of unnatural over–consumption and development taking place in China: “change can be positive but we must limit ourselves, we must remember our culture and our roots.”
Customers enjoying their daily brew outside Niang Niang Miao Tea House. Photo by @mgfurnell
As the morning goes on, the tea house fills up with interesting characters. Old men sitting outside drinking and chatting; a group of friends waiting at a table inside for the 8 RMB lunch to be served, that they assure us is very worth the wait; and at the back of the tea house, a teacher giving a lecture to around 15 elderly students, about how to read a person’s soul to tell their future. If you ever find yourself near Wenshu Monastery, Niang Niang Miao (娘娘庙) Temple is definitely worth a visit. Sit down, have a cup of tea, maybe even stay for lunch, and who knows, perhaps learn something about the tao.
Niang Niang Miao Temple 蜀汉广生宫古娘娘庙道观
Recommended time to visit:
Arriving before noon is the best time to find people relaxing in the tea house.
Tea House on the Sha River
The line between mahjong house and tea house is quite blurred. Of course, every mahjong house will serve tea but most of them feel more like a place to specifically play mahjong, rather than sit back, relax, and drink tea. However, the tea house on the Sha River has a different feeling. This is probably the most local of the three tea houses we have talked about. Pengzhen and Niang Niang Miao definitely still have a lot of culture and character, but it is not unusual at all for foreigners and tourists to come through there, take photos, or sit down for a cup of tea. The same cannot be said about the tea house on the Sha River.
Locals playing mahjong at the tea house on the Sha River. Photo by @mgfurnell
To get to this tea house you need to go to Lijiatuo subway station and take a short walk across the river. As you walk out of Lijiatuo subway station it feels the same as many of the Northern areas in Chengdu. It definitely has an older characteristic but it still very much feels like you are in the city.
This is where the tea house on the Sha River changes that feeling: As soon as you cross a small bridge over the river, you suddenly feel like you are in the countryside. There are green grass and farmhouses, wild dogs and unpaved paths. In the day, there are people sitting outside by the river drinking tea, painting, and just watching life go by; at night, most people move inside a small, three-walled barn where they play mahjong.
Sha River tea house. Photo by @mgfurnell
As a visitor there you will surely be noticed, but the local residents are very friendly. While there, we were offered to play mahjong, drink baijiu (Chinese liquor), and of course have conversations over tea. Most of the locals we met go there every single day. One old man told us he had been coming to the same tea house, sitting at the same table, for over 20 years. This is true for many of the patrons who come to these tea houses; they are not just places to come and drink a morning cup of tea, they act as community centers, places for the older generation to come together every day, to support each other and keep each other company.
Near Lijiatuo Metro Station; Over 上三洞桥 bridge to the other side of the Sha (沙河) River.
Recommended time to visit:
In the morning you will find people relaxing outside drinking tea. In the evening until as late 1am, you will find people playing mahjong and drinking baijiu.
Sit down and have a cup
It is in tea houses like these, where you can really see the more relaxed side of Chengdu you hear so much about; a side where life really does move a little slower. It is amazing how much culture is preserved in these tea houses, and how much you can learn about the city and its people over a cup of tea.
So, we realized that before we were missing something. It’s true, Chengdu is a busy and noisy and sometimes even a chaotic city, but if you know where to look, there are still pockets to explore in this city that are slow, that are relaxed, and that are like no other in this world.
If you’re interested in seeing more of Matthew’s adventures in Chengdu, following him on Instagram or visit his website. If you’d like to learn more about traveling to Chengdu yourself and discovering tea culture, get in touch with us today.