Chinese Culture: Teahouses (and witchy magical Starbucks!)

As I begin this post, I happen to be revising for my Chinese literature exam, which is on the play Teahouse by Lao She. At the very beginning of the play, it's said that teahouses are no longer common in China ... so why not a throwback for our first Chinese culture post of 2016?
Teahouses: the Chinese Starbucks of the last century
Note: this post is based upon the details revealed in the play Teahouse. Therefore, inaccuracies are possible, but Lao She's writing was apparently fairly realistic and I hope to capture at least the spirit of teahouses.

Teahouses serve more than just tea.

FATSO HUANG: Proprietor, get some minced pork noodles ready. As long as Fatso Huang is here there won't be any fighting.
I swear I didn't make up this guy's name.

While teahouses primarily serve tea — yes, what a genius remark from Alyssa — they might also serve some foodstuffs and snacks. In Teahouse, these pork noodles become a minor plot point later when a wealthy, benevolent character offers them to a pair of impoverished peasants. In my school's recreated teahouse for our open day, we served pudding and 'dragonbeard candy' and biscuits.

And in my very fictional Witches Black and Silver teahouse, I've created a few magical dishes that our protagonist might try. Join my takeout army before next Saturday and I'll send you a sneak peek of the teahouse!

On the flip side, they might not serve tea at all. The wealthier patrons of a teahouse might choose to bring their own, high-quality tea leaves, which is very much a symbol of status.
So if they're not at the teahouse for tea, why are they there?

Teahouses are basically the Chinese Starbucks of the last century.

In the teahouse written by Lao She, politics were a forbidden topic. The irony here is that Teahouse is a heavily political work, and so political conflicts were reflected on a much smaller scale by the interpersonal conflicts. There's not a lot of murder, but there is backstabbing and snark.

In the most succinct manner possible: the teahouse proprietor has great people skills, his clients less so, and all hell breaks loose.
So basically a much darker Starbucks if politics were involved. But people meet there to have business deals (um, involving the trading of brides), to show off their fancy birds (or new laptops, in today's society), and simply to enjoy human company.

Curiously, a teahouse involved far more power plays than the insistence of certain holiday greetings on Starbucks cups. As mentioned earlier, the wealthy would bring their own tea, and sit on more comfortable stools while the plebs would be seated on benches. Powerful people might come to the teahouse for minions to beg their favour and to settle disputes between minions.

The proprietor plays a far larger role than the Starbucks barista. A barista might ask you for your name to write on your coffee; if you're anyone of consequence, the proprietor probably knows you well enough to butter you up. He'll echo your political views, and if two opposing views come together, he'll find some way to echo both.
PROPRIETOR WANG LIFA [to his landlord]: If I'm not dropping to my knee in greeting, I'm dropping compliments trying to please everybody. That way you avoid any trouble. Please sit down. I'll make you a bowl of the very best.
But more importantly, teahouses genuinely don't exist anymore in China. Of course there are re-creations, since Teahouse is one of the most famous contemporary plays in our history, but the real thing died out. In the play, the titular teahouse in fact loses a great deal of its unique character.

Which is why ...

My witchy Mulan + Swan Lake WIP features a teahouse of its own!

I mean, I call it the witchy magical Starbucks, but only because even urban Chinese people might be more familiar with Starbucks than a teahouse. Also, it's snappier.

This novel features a teahouse because it is an amalgam of history and future. It's a future where magic has been discovered, the society has evolved to accommodate that, and traditional gender roles are barely existent. But history reveals itself in the imperial monarchy and the social hierarchy that comes with it, including indentured servitude ... and what better than a teahouse serving these futuristic magical foodstuffs to reflect the anachronism?

After all, the China of this novel has been sealed off from the rest of the world because of the war, so is it that odd we recover this slice of culture I find so very fascinating?

In this witchy magical Starbucks, our main character Mo stops to get a breather after escaping Hong Kong with many soldiers on her tail. There she picks up her roadtrip companion and national fencing champion Tian, her stalker (and guardian angel??) black swan, and her assassin the Huntress.

Extending the discussion of interpersonal dynamics, I guess you could call them our ragtag band of heroes? Maybe?

If you've enjoyed this snippet of food-related Chinese culture, remember I share sneak peeks about my Chinese-inspired novels! Don't miss out:

Stay updated on Alyssa's Chinese-inspired fantasies!

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