The predecessor of teahouse is tea stand. A myth novel has it that an old lady in Western Jin (265-316) sold tea in the market every day. Buyers came and went nonstop from dawn to dusk, but the lady's tea never decreased. Teahouse in its real sense was bom in Tang Dynasty and blossomed in Song Dynasty and continued developing in Ming and Qing dynasties. This developing journey of teahouse is quite similar to that of tea itself. After 1960's, teahouse almost disappeared. It met its renaissance only till the reform and opening up policy of 1978. Now in many cities of China teahouse runs neck and neck with cafes. It is an appealing place for the young and indicates a fashionable lifestyle.
The primary function of teahouse was for tea drinking, so it went to great lengths to better itself in this aspect, inventing new varieties all the time. In winter, teahouse owners added cold- resisting tonics in tea. In summer, they added heat-dispelling medicines and sold sweetened bean paste, coconut wine, bittern plum water, pawpaw juice, and other beverages. The choice of tea apparatus was more and more particular too. New varieties invented by various teahouses were kept in exquisite porcelain bottles, set on red-lacquer plates, and placed in the most eye-catching spot in the teahouse, becoming a second signboard. Some teahouses used little pretty stainless steel teapots, red-day oven and charcoal fire to stew rain water, and cooked West Lake Longjing and other fame tea. Teahouses also employed professionals to take charge of cooking tea, who were called "tea doctor."
To gain customers, teahouses usually introduced some entertainments. Some teahouses hired geishas and musical band to play music or sing songs; some acted as a school and taught music fans how to play and sing; some provided chess, Chinese chess, and conundrums, functioning like an arena of intelligence. The most common was to hire storytellers to tell historical anecdotes, myths and legends, and love stories between a bright boy and a beautiful girl. Storytellers were very eloquent and their stories were vivid and real, full of humor and wit. One story could last two or three months. Storytellers always stopped at the key moment so that the audience would come the next day to follow the story. In this way many people became big fans of the storyteller and regular customers in the teahouse as well. Story listening and tea drinking had separate bills. The storyteller borrowed the teahouse's place and teahouse sold more tea because of the story, so it was a two-win situation. Audience paid storyteller for the story and storyteller paid 30% of his income to the teahouse owner. This form of tea plus story exerted big influence on Chinese literature. Early novels about knights originated from these teahouse stories. But novelists transformed oral language into written language, with some modification and rearrangement.
Teahouse also played an indelible role for opera. Some even say that "opera is an art irrigated by tea juice." Teahouse was not only a place for storyteller to show his talent, but also a stage for opera performance. At the end of 19th century, Zha Family Teahouse and Guanghe Teahouse of Beijing, Dan Gui Tea Garden and Tian Xian Tea Garden of Shanghai were well known locations for opera performance. Teahouse owner paid the troupe at first. Audience entered without tickets, only paying for the tea. Even theatres for opera alone often offered tea to audience. Some even were named as Teahouse. Opera had a special costume called “Tea Clothes," featured in blue blouse, big collar, and half length. This kind of clothes was first known as teahouse work garment, but later it became symbol of the whole working class. Most playwrights in the past loved drinking tea, of whom the famous playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) of Ming Dynasty was a representative. He named his house "Jade Tea Hair and the dramatic school he started was consequently called School of Jade Tea Hall. The spirit of tea has been rooted in opera. In south China, an opera is directly named after tea as "Tea Picking Opera." telling stories through songs and dances. This opera has its earliest embryo in the folksongs and dances performed in tea picking activities.
Teahouse plays an irreplaceable role in interpersonal communication. In ancient China, people sent tea in funeral as well as in wedding. But many people were often too busy to remember certain occasions and unintentionally offended others. With teahouse, this kind of situation was avoided. Teahouses introduced the service of "order and send" to solve this problem in particular. "Order and Send" means that customers entrusted teahouse to send certain tea to certain houses on special occasions to show good wish and blessing. This is similar to today's ordering flowers for people in florist shops.
Teahouse was not always noisy. Some "Simple Tea House" was featured in its simplicity and quietness. Some teahouses set special private rooms or sanctums to satisfy customers’ different requirements. For this reason, businessmen and officials used to take teahouses as places for discussion or negotiation, and many trades and policies were decided this way. In some regions of Sichuan Province, there used to be a custom of "drink talking tea." In times of civil disputation on house, land or marriage, plebeians would not take the trouble to appeal to local authorities, but preferred to ask someone to mediate. This was called "drink talking tea." During that period, parties involved in the disputation invited prestigious and strong minded elders to mediate. Entering the teahouse, the parties first served tea to everyone present, and then stated the ins and outs of the affair and lodged their own claims. The involved parties finished, mediators (called arbitrator) sitting at the two tables near the door judged according to what they said. Generally speaking, once a decision was reached, disputing parties should unconditionally observe it. The losing party had to pay for the tea during the mediation as legal cost. "Drink talking tea" is a folk way of settling disputation. Yet once the mediation failed and disputation didn't get solved, there would be even more problems and disturbances. Therefore, at the end of Qing Dynasty and beginning of the Republic of China (early 20th century), many teahouses had notices like 'Talking tea not allowed" posted, which was a peculiar phenomenon at a peculiar historical time just like "State-affair discussion banned."
The disappearance of teahouse in ancient China was the result of developed commodity economy In Song Dynasty—the time of teahouse's prosperity, the population of capital Bianliang (today's Kaifeng of He'nan Province) reached 260,000 at one time. Afterwards, people of Nurchen nationality occupied Bianliang and Song had to transfer its capital to Lin'an (today's Hangzhou of Zhejiang Province). Lin'an was even bigger, with mongers and underlings in every avenue and alleyway and nonnative people several times more than native people. In such a big metropolis where the pace of life was so quick, a great many people didn’t have time to cook, so they bought ready-made food in nearby shops. Teahouses supplied lea-accompanying snacks for customers, so if busy, many people just had some tea and snacks or ate tea- soaked rice in teahouses, just to temporarily alleviate hunger and thirst Thus teahouses got a function of noshery, which could be considered the earliest form of Chinese fast food. When Qing Dynasty came and urbanization quickened its pace, teahouses also increased. In Beijing alone there were as many as over 30 famous teahouses, while there were above 800 in Hangzhou, big and small. In Shanghai, teahouses stood in numbers near the old Town God's Temple, forming a peculiar sight of tea market. People could bring tea to teahouses to cook and only had to pay for the water. The variety of tea-accompanying snacks was large, including local specialties like dried catsup, melon seeds, tiny plates of fruit, crisp cakes with sesame, spring roll, sugar-oil steamed bread, and so on.
Teahouse was a micro world where people of all walks gathered. In addition, teahouse didn't have a time limit, so the advantage of longtime sitting naturally made it the center of information collection and distribution. Tea doctor in a teahouse was the most informative man. Had one had anything to ask, he was the right guy to go to. A noblewoman in Song Dynasty lost her cat, so she had hundreds of pictures of the cat painted and posted in all major teahouses, like today's notice of "Lost" in newspaper. The tea-loving Chinese writer Laoshe wrote a famous play Teahouse. Based on the ups and downs of a teahouse, the play demonstrated a half-century social turbulence from 1898 to 1945, vividly depicting a picture of all kinds of people living in a troubled time. Teahouse is written in 1956. With less than 50,000 words, it covers rich social contents, covering more than 70 characters, 50 of whom have names or nicknames. These characters include figures of high positions, underdogs at the bottom of social ladder, boss and lads in teahouses, favored eunuchs, despicable pimps and scourings, entrepreneurs who believe in saving China through industry, old and new secret agents and hatchet men, storytellers, physiognomists, deserters, and kind-hearted workmen, embracing almost all levels of the society. Teahouse is divided into three scenes, each taking place at a different time. The play doesn't utilize massive historic scenes, but uses different characters' fortune to refract the vicissitude of the entire society. All activities are confined within the teahouse too, which, like a mirror, displays one by one the diverse human beings. In view of this, Laoshe took much pain to describe the teahouse, through which he delineated the peculiar teahouse culture of China. For instance, at that time people could buy snacks like "mixed meat noodle"; teahouse was not merely for tea drinking, either, but was a public place for intercommunication; customers could bring tea leaf themselves and frequenters could buy on credit; storyteller and teahouse were in an interdependent relation, and so forth.
Though teahouse reflects the two sides of tea culture, it more often than not appears as a representative of the folksy side. Though it was in high fashion for a period, it was still low and cheap in the eyes of scholars and bureaucrats. Moreover, the trend of pure tea advocated by scholars went against the general practice of teahouse's adding condiments in tea. After Ming Dynasty, with teahouse's getting more and more elegant, it was gradually accepted by scholars, and some well known tea experts resorted there. A lot of senior officials liked going to teahouse, and the idle youngsters of the Eight Banners (an establishment of army in early Qing Dynasty) took teahouse as the best place for killing time. Emperor Qianlong built a royal teahouse—"Mutual Joy Garden" —in the Garden of Perfection and Light meaning to enjoy with all civilians. In times of New Year, Mutual Joy Garden opened trade streets which resembled commercial streets of common people, with shops, restaurants, teahouses and the like on each side. Even the peddling shout was imitated quite true to life. The regal family of Qing Dynasty enjoyed folk fun here, and in this way teahouse climbed its way from public streets to palaces.
Walking in street in China today, you will find all kinds of teahouse everywhere. They either take the form of south China gardens with bridge and pool, kiosk and pavilion, meandering path and flowers, and arch and corridor, or they imitate country taverns to pursue pastoral rustic charm, or take up a modem style designed and decorated to be vigorous and fashionable. Teahouse today has become a symbol of taste and is considered as part of fashion. Entering these teahouses, you can hear melodious and relaxing music and smell distant tea fragrance. Teahouse provides chess, poker, and other entertainments. You can also order snacks or fast food when hungry. Teahouse continues to play an important role in the life of Chinese people. Nowadays Chinese teahouse is often called "Tea Art House" where ladies perform different styles of Chinese tea ceremony for customers, so teahouse serves to revive the traditional culture of China.