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Historian Wang Di, who for decades has researched the traditional teahouses of Chengdu, talks with NewsChina about the changes in teahouse culture over time, their role as an important public sphere in China, and how the slower-paced Chengdu lifestyle offers an escape from the rat race

By Xu Pengyuan Updated Dec.1

Laijin Yuxuan Tea House, Beijing, October 2022

Grand opening of a new Cha Yan Yue Se milk tea shop location in Chongqing, July 25, 2022

In October 1949, a young Swede sat in a teahouse on Chunxi Road in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, speaking into a recorder about what he was seeing, as curious locals crowded around, staring.  

He described a huge hall where nearly 400 customers talked business, politics or the weather. Beyond tea, patrons could get a table-side haircut, shave or ear cleaning. Storytellers attracted crowds of rich and poor alike. Kids weaved through the tables peddling fried peanuts, chestnuts and melon seeds. Many patrons wore traditional long gowns, while some wore suits.  

The young man was Göran Malmqvist, who came to Sichuan in August 1948 after studying ancient Chinese and spending two years traveling through China’s interior to study local dialects. Decades later, he became a renowned linguist, sinologist and a selection panel member of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  

Historian Wang Di included this anecdote in his 2005 book The Teahouse: Small Business, Everyday Culture, and Public Politics in Chengdu, 1900-1950.  

In the late 1940s when Malmqvist lived in Sichuan, Chengdu had 598 tea houses. Today there are nearly 10,000.  

Though tea is a national drink in China, no other city is steeped in teahouse culture like Chengdu. As the local saying goes, “A teahouse is a little Chengdu and Chengdu is a big teahouse.”  

Now, milk tea shops and cafes dot most Chinese cities. The leisurely, slow-paced culture of the teahouse has been replaced by takeaway apps.  

Wang Di, a historian born in Chengdu in 1956, has spent three decades studying the social history of the teahouse and street cultures in his native city as well as cultures of the surrounding Chengdu Plain.  

Wang focuses his research on the lives of everyday people in Chengdu, a group often neglected in the grand historic narrative. This is partially inspired by his own life experience: before joining the history department of Sichuan University in 1978, Wang labored in rural Sichuan as a sentdown youth during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and later worked for years at a brickyard under the Chengdu Railway Bureau. 
Wang received his doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University in 1998, and is chair professor of history at the University of Macau. His two books, Street Culture in Chengdu: Public Space, Urban Commoners, and Local Politics 1870-1930 (2003) and The Teahouse under Socialism: The Decline and Renewal of Public Life in Chengdu, 1950-2000(2018), won Best Book in Non-North American History Award from the Urban History Association in 2005 and 2019.  

In November 2021, he published his latest book The Street Corner Teahouse. In July this year, the Chinese translation of his The Teahouse under Socialism: The Decline and Renewal of Public Life in Chengdu, 1950- 2000 was published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong Press.  

The heavily Sichuan-accented historian takes a thermos of tea wherever he goes. He calls himself “a cricket of Sichuan,” singing a nostalgic song for his hometown for 30 years.  

NewsChina: In your latest book The Street Corner Teahouse (2021), you wrote in a more personal, literary way. What inspired the change?  

Wang Di: Initially, my editor encouraged me to write this book. I was also trying to promote my academic findings and explore whether historical writing could be more like popular literature. When scholars write about history, they consider ideas, arguments, quotes and references to historical materials. They seldom pay attention to its literary value.  

Attempting a more popular writing style was very important to me. During my academic studies, I’d detach myself from my research and never express my personal feelings. When I wrote The Street Corner Teahouse, I could lightheartedly put myself into my writing and write about my childhood memories and my feelings.  

NC: In your second book, The Teahouse under Socialism, you argue that the teahouse, which almost disappeared during China’s planned economy, saw a revival after reform and opening-up since 1978. How did teahouses in Chengdu change in the second half of the 20th century?  

WD: China’s political and economic environment fundamentally changed in the first and second half of the 20th century. Teahouses changed drastically as well, but still retained some basic features. We still see traces of the old-fashioned teahouse in many modern ones.  

But the traditional street-side teahouse has long disappeared. Teahouses were completely public spaces, and it was this lack of privacy that made teahouses most attractive. In the past, people saw a teahouse as a very important place to network, particularly among strangers. In modern times, people don’t visit teahouses for social interaction with strangers, but more for leisure, private conversations and intimate gatherings.  

In The Teahouse, I write how the teahouse offered a place for people of all walks of life to do business. The modern teahouse no longer provides the networking opportunities it used to. Nowadays, although we can still find folk performers, storytellers, ear cleaners, shoe shines and fortune-tellers in some, most of those prosperous scenes have already faded.  

Only time will tell the fate of teahouses. But at least right now teahouses in Chengdu are not in decline. There are many more than in the past. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Chengdu government, there were nearly 10,000 teahouses in the city. Teahouses adapt over time to fit people’s needs. They might take a totally new form decades later that we can’t see right now.  

NC: Teahouses represent a kind of lifestyle and social sphere based around a beverage. Now, milk tea is popular among younger people and represents another kind of lifestyle, a more fast-paced, solitary and individual one. Does this mean that social interaction has changed?  

WD: I love milk tea as well. Drinking milk tea is an experience of greater mobility and flexibility. Often you need to sit at a teahouse to drink tea, but people don’t tend to drink milk tea at a milk tea shop. Instead, they get takeaway or delivery. But it’s not the beverage that totally changed people’s public life. Young people today still frequent teahouses. For instance, it’s a suitable place for holding after-school activities for students.  

The key factor is the internet. Socializing in the past was mainly done face-to-face, and then came phones. But the internet is an entirely new form of communication that goes beyond the boundaries of time, space, age and social rank. People with different hobbies and ideas join online communities and have deep discussions with total strangers. They can openly express their ideas online instead of in a public space. Cyberspace is an entirely new space, which poses the greatest challenge to the traditional public sphere.  

NC: Do we still need traditional public spheres?  

WD: Of course we do. I believe lifestyle changes happen very slowly. Human beings are emotional creatures. Face-to-face interaction is absolutely necessary. It explains why during the pandemic, people went out to meet up with friends as soon as the situation showed signs of improvement.  

NC: According to German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas, early capitalism developed in public spheres such as churches and cafes, while the teahouse in China exerted little influence on local politics and history – or even evaded it altogether. In Lao She’s 1957 play Teahouse (about people’s lives from the 1900s-1940s), on the wall it says “Don’t talk about politics.” Why are there differences in public spheres in Western countries and China?  

WD: Chinese people talk about politics in teahouses. But teahouses in China are not the kind of public sphere Habermas described. In Europe, there were two key forces behind the rise of public spheres: church and printing.  

Churches in China never really developed. Temples (Buddhist and Daoist) were never really independent from the State. Also, temples never influenced China’s politics as much as churches do in the West. These are the reasons why, when talking about public spheres, the majority of Western scholars insist the public sphere does not exist in China.  

American historian David Strand’s Rickshaw Beijing is a book concerning the public sphere in China. Strand and my tutor William T. Rowe are among the earliest scholars to discuss China’s public spheres. Even though it is different from Habermas’ public sphere, China does have its own. That’s undeniable. What is a public sphere? Basically, it’s a social space. In the conclusion of The Teahouse under Socialism, I elaborate on the public sphere in China. The book earned the Best Book in Non-North American History Award from the Urban History Association in 2019, which also means that my argument was accepted by mainstream academic society.  

NC: Does this mean popular culture in China lacks public spheres according to the Western definition?  

WD: Temples in imperial China had a public aspect to them. But they were not closely associated with politics. It was just a space for popular religion. Generally speaking, popular religions and local authorities had a collaborative relationship instead of a conflicting one.  

That changed in the 1900s. After the Revolution of 1911, which led to the collapse of the imperial system, many social organizations such as chambers of commerce and peasant associations somewhat displayed a certain kind of publicness. Some organizations even took up arms. Students became a strong social force in the May Fourth Movement in 1919. Teahouses became a popular venue for them to give public speeches.  

In the 1900s, teahouses in Chengdu also became very important spaces for political activities. During the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-1945), they served as spaces to publicly promote the resistance. There are many examples of teahouses in China being used for political activities. Despite what many Western scholars argue, China had a public sphere.  

NC: Chengdu has a reputation as a place of relaxation and leisure with a slow-paced lifestyle, something that contrasts the highly competitive rat race culture prevalent in most major Chinese cities. As a Chengdu native and scholar of its urban culture, do you think the reputation holds up?  

WD: Chengdu indeed has a slow-paced, relaxed lifestyle. It’s always been that way. In his 1920 essay “Thoughts on a Travel in Sichuan,” educator Shu Xingcheng depicted farmers in Sichuan as a group of people who “naturally know how to live a leisurely and comfortable agricultural life.” In the past, when I worked in a village called Meishan as a sent-down youth, the local farmers told me that they only farmed for half a year, and had plenty of leisure time.  

That leisurely lifestyle was looked down on by other people outside the Sichuan Basin. It was called the “basin mindset,” which suggests a lack of ambition, complacency and contentment with the status quo.  

But such characteristics are no cause for criticism anymore. As China modernizes and commercializes, people now admire the tangping lifestyle of Chengdu’s people. (tangping, meaning “lying flat,” is a buzzword that means doing the bare minimum). This change in mindset reflects the stressful rat race culture in greater Chinese society. 

But Chengdu residents aren’t really lying flat. Many still live a life full of pressure and hard work. However, compared to those living in megacities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, people in Chengdu have a less stressful life.  

NC: Can Chengdu’s lifestyle become a way out for modern Chinese? Is there a way to escape the rat race?  

WD: That is a matter of individual choice. Many people would enjoy a short trip to Chengdu, but they probably won’t want to take on the lifestyle. But I believe that if China’s economy continues to develop without any big problems, more people will embrace the Chengdu lifestyle. Chengdu culture has hints of post-modernism. Post-modernism emerges when modernism and commercialism have developed to an overly mature state, when people start to look back and rediscover the value of traditional lifestyles that should not be forgotten. 

Historian Wang Di at a lecture, Luhu Xunlu Library, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, summer 2019