A ‘city’ view or interpretation of things – all things – often strips a thing of its informality and its earthiness…assuming it has any earthiness at all.
Tea has long held a formidable relationship with the earth as it begins in the earth, draws from the earth and retains the taste of what it has taken from the earth. It has also held strong bonds with cities that are leagues (or mere kilometres) away as some of its greatest fans need some of its astringency to ‘take them away’.
It is December and a gloomy wet sheen hangs over Chengdu and nothing is entirely dry. It is a city infamous for its perpetual grey shrouds. Within the tea nation of China, perhaps no other first tier city can claim as much attachment to tea as can Chengdu. It is a metropolis that pays its respects in quantities consumed. Situated in China’s southwestern Sichuan province, Chengdu has long and happily confounded me. It is all things: liberal and forward thinking, yet it also determinedly holds on to traditions. The tradition that brings me is the city’s long and mighty relationship with tea, the sacred leaf.
The idea and tradition of a teahouse can hardly find a better and more committed version than that of the sort that has been functioning in Chengdu for an eternity. It is in Chengdu that tea’s ancient traditions come together with a practical economy.
Here, you sit alone or with friends, and tea isn’t so much prepared for you by a nimble fingered master as it is simply planted in front of you, to consume in your own time, your own way. Teas, their properties and correct water temperatures, are not part of the Chengdu teahouse in many cases, though more ‘formal’ houses are easy to locate within the city’s huge spaces. The previous day, by contrast, I sat for four hours while a tea hostess served two others and myself an entire gamut of the green leaf in as many shapes and strengths as one can imagine. Flared cups, a four hundred kilo tea table, tongs, smelling cups…all the instruments of a tea fanatic’s paradise were on display. Today though, it was tea simplicity laid bare.
During the Song Dynasty, Sichuan’s teas were funneling into and up onto the Tibetan Plateau, along the Sichuan-Tibet version of the Tea Horse Road. It was also acclaimed teas from Sichuan that made their way to the Emperors – picked in miniscule batches and presented in pure silver canisters. Tea has long grown within the province’s lush and rolling lands and has a history of export, but it has legions of devotees within closer realms, taking in its perfumed astringency in far more humble surroundings.
My own selfish thirst can easily be sated by hundreds of tea shops that sit tucked away in nooks and little grey alleyways. There is no shortage of tea denizens by which to quench a thirst. Even amidst the ever growing number of coffee shops, it is still a landscape of tea. One of Chengdu’s informal tea mantras is ‘a tea house is a place of all things, all words and all thoughts’. It is and always has been a lively soul-filled place where one can let loose, sip some fluid and let loose some more. Tea, friends and ideas all blend into a wonderful mix where voices explode as the tea stimulants take hold.
One of my destinations is an informal tea house that is (in my mind at least) a perfect example of what makes a tea house in Chengdu so necessary to visit – simple, unpretentious and made entirely for humans and the human spirit. Sitting wedged into an ugly corner of the Song Xian Qiao Antique Market, it is in many ways a perfect example of an average (neither famous nor particularly touristy) bustling teahouse. Teahouses without people are sad paradoxes.
Trudging through the year-round antique market, one can eye vignettes of China’s past, with everything from ancient posters that reek of must, to Tibetan charms and stones. Of interest to me though, is how many of the shop keepers have tea vessels in their hands, nearby or being desperately sought. Informality rules here – as it should, where tea is concerned. Thermoses, jars, coffee cups, and the odd ornate tea set up, all pay tribute to that which ‘must’ be consumed: tea.
The air is cold, dank and windless, and a chill weaves through layers into the bone. Teahouses here have long provided a corner of reprieve, from a city known for stifling hot summers and grim sunless winter days.
Vendors are up to their chins in wool and stand in small pods clutching their glass cups, mugs and jars of tea. Getting the hot tea into their bodies is more important than pushing goods at this point of mid-day. Peering into the bottom of some of these jars I can make out the floating bodies of delicate green tea leaves. Ceremonies here are for show – tea is for consuming.
A great joy for me is getting lost, for it is only then that the body and mind float and discover places, people and ultimately, when the body does arrive at a destination, there is that sense of discovery. There is tea waiting somewhere.
After muddling along a damp narrow alley, I ask a Tibetan woman who is selling turquoise where the nearest teahouse is. She points and tells me that there is only one around this end of the market, and in a moment of intimacy, lets me know that the teahouse in question also serves the famed (and violently sweet) milk teas that Tibetans from Lhasa crave. Many of the stalls directly around the teahouse are occupied by long robed Tibetans, with ornaments and thangka paintings, and the teahouse’s most frequent and loyal customers are stall owners and shopkeepers.
The Song Xian Xiang Ming Cha Lo teahouse is both tacky and wondrous. Traditional teas are served (as are specific foods) – a brilliant way of keeping tea-fed bodies happy with the necessary balance of carbohydrates – and the place buzzes on one end with discussions, and on another, bodies recline with books and newspapers. It has long been this way with many of the teahouses – food, entertainment, repose and the ubiquitous mahjong playing are all available to keep the customers content from morning to night. During the height of the Cultural Revolution, teahouses were viewed with suspicion as being places that sowed and encouraged the seeds of rebellion, though now the teahouses (and thankfully their teas) flow once again.
I park myself with friends near a window and sink into a horrible wicker couch that has long lost any of its support or charm. Up comes a minute little waitress, hustling along with a tray of food, and throws down the menus with a smile, barely pausing as she moves on to deliver noodles to an adjoining table. There are no rules of when, what or how to consume tea. It is a fluid consumed before, with, and after meals.
The tea menu is simple, with the usual assortment of ubiquitous greens – Long Jing, Bi Lo Chun, Nu’er Wan – some Oolongs, and a vast list of flower teas. The flower teas don’t warrant a glance from me, but a local green from near Meng Shan further west in Sichuan gets the nod. Lightly roasted it is – from my memory at least – a gentle green whose roasting allows it more potent temperatures of water.
Around us, food is slurped noisily in, business meetings between antique dealers and clients bark along, cigarette smoke cruises in grey patches, and all through the large room there is a buzz of life. It is this one aspect perhaps more than any other that marks out the idea of a teahouse in this city.
When tea arrives, it is not sublime pottery with intricate utensils and sumptuous leaves, but rather four tall water glasses with our leaves already portioned out in substantial heaps – I measure out 9-10 in my glass – and a bright pink 4 liter thermos of hot water to refill. This thermos will be replaced whenever our group of four has managed to drain it. You are charged for the tea leaves and the ‘rent’ of the chair and table you occupy – which can in some cases extend to an entire day. Some tables are permanently reserved for nearby business people who are capable of showing up four times a day at all hours.
The idea isn’t to breath in a hint of something fragrant from the tea, it isn’t even to necessarily appreciate (in the purist’s sense) the tea. Here, the steps are simple: to order the favorite tea and have it along with whatever discussion of the day is on. It is to partake in a bit of nonsense, or business, or friendship, with a muscular portion of tea by the side for as long as one wants. To add to the ease with which one can pass a day here, there is, on permanent standby, a shoe-shine gentlemen who will take your shoes (encase your feet in paper slippers during the interim) and return your shined shoes to you within the hour – all the while one hasn’t moved from the side of tea. The teahouse is not a silent retreat in Chengdu, it is rather a shifting of gears into another world of energy.
Digging into my tea, I know that this tea ‘style’ isn’t perhaps the one that the west would like to imagine, but it does retain something essential of the spirit of tea: it is about bringing people together, and the very presence of tea leaves in a vessel seems to do something to nullify just a bit of the surrounding chaos.
Here there isn’t anyone staring hard into my eyes in wait for my nod of approval at a carefully prepared vintage tea…there is only a gentle chaos, which never quite fades.