DECADES SPENT brewing tea in rural Sichuan have left Li Qiang with firm views on what makes for an authentic chaguan, or Chinese teahouse. If age and beauty were the only tests, his shop, the Old Teahouse in Pengzhen, would pass easily. A place to drink tea for more than a century, the grey-roofed, timber-framed building dates back to the Ming dynasty, when it was a temple to Guanyin, a Buddhist immortal. Maoist slogans painted on the walls, in characters of faded red, reflect Pengzhen’s history as a people’s commune. Hours before dawn the air is already thick with tobacco smoke and fumes from a coal-fired stove, for the first customers arrive for “early tea” at half past three in the morning. Human companionship makes a teahouse, says Mr Li, who rented the hall from a collective enterprise in 1995. Only when customers treat a teashop like a home is it a chaguan, he declares. Until then, in Mr Li’s withering judgment, it is merely “selling tea to passers-by”.
Your correspondent visited Pengzhen this week to mark the 100th Chaguan column, a name that pays homage to China’s teahouses and their history as places where ideas are exchanged. Mr Li’s establishment draws a stream of locals. Many are old men in farmers’ blue cotton jackets and caps, puffing on pungent cheroots or cigarettes in sturdy bamboo armchairs. Those photogenic customers lure Chinese urbanites, who carry expensive cameras and look for images of rural life or selfies to post on social media. Such a diverse customer base makes Mr Li’s teahouse a good place for an experiment: an unscientific survey of how Chinese think. It being unsafe and unfair to ask Chinese citizens directly, in public, about Communist Party rule, this columnist spent a happy (if painfully early) few hours asking people two questions often used to assess morale in different countries. The first concerns a subject’s own economic circumstances. The second is about whether future generations are likely to be better off than their parents.
The exercise generated strikingly consistent answers. Despite wide differences of age and education, patrons in the Old Teahouse are optimistic about China as a whole, after decades of rising prosperity. Yet many also describe modern life as stressful, with too many families chasing too few chances to secure a good education, a good job and other paths to success.
Jiang Huiyun, an 82-year-old widow, sits in a prime window-seat each morning from four o’clock. Crop-haired and chain-smoking, Ms Jiang married in 1957 at a time of scarcity and hunger. Her wedding feast consisted of carrot porridge, but only after she had pleaded tearfully with her production-brigade leader for an advance on her vegetable ration. None of her four children finished junior high school. Her eldest son dropped out in his first year of primary school after being unjustly accused of vandalism. He earned money by “collecting dog shit and chicken shit”, remembers Ms Jiang. In the 1950s toughs attacked anyone with a side business as “capitalists”, she recalls. During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, Red Guards smashed Buddhist statues in Pengzhen’s temple-teahouse and “nobody dared to stop them”.
Unsurprisingly, she thinks life today is far better. As a rural pensioner she receives social insurance and old-age payments of over 2,000 yuan ($300) a month. Her grandchildren, having graduated from university, are upwardly mobile like many young people these days. A quarter-century ago just one-in-twenty Chinese attended university. Today half of all Chinese youngsters of undergraduate age are in higher education. Ms Jiang no longer lives in fear of hunger or political violence. Still, some forms of scarcity involve things that are harder to spot, such as equal access to opportunity. Like many in Pengzhen, Ms Jiang’s family have rural household-registration, or hukou. As a result, her grandchildren are second-class citizens, able to live and work in big cities but denied many public services there. Notably, they will have to find fees of 30,000 yuan a year to send Ms Jiang’s great-grandchildren to high school. “If we didn’t borrow money from others, how could we afford that?” she asks. Ms Jiang is emphatic: “We have a good life now.” But she adds: “Young people face a lot of pressures.”
In China to get rich is glorious, but daily life is a slog
A middle-aged man sipping tea before work will give only his surname, Huang. He praises modern China, declaring that “Each generation is doing better than the last.” Yet Mr Huang’s own life remains precarious. Now 59, he has no retirement fund. So he saves 1,000 yuan from his monthly pay as a cleaner in a factory, which ranges from 2,000 to 4,000 yuan depending on overtime. He went unpaid while covid-19 closed his factory for nearly three months, and has not forgotten the terror of worrying if his savings would run out before work resumed. His hopes rest on enabling his five-year-old grandchild to land a good job one day, though he worries about school fees. Taking early tea is one of his few indulgences. His daughter is too busy working to visit teahouses, he sighs.
Two 20-year-old women photographing tea-drinkers turn out to be undergraduates from Sichuan University of Media and Communications, on a class assignment. “There is definitely a lot of pressure” on the young, says one. She has an internship but no job lined up after graduation. Her mother’s uncomplicated childhood memories—“stealing bananas in the countryside”—make her almost envious. Still, the students are confident that life is better today, though not confident enough to give their names to a foreign reporter asking almost-political questions.
Mr Li, 55, suggests that some people create pressure for themselves by setting their sights too high. A devotee of the simple life, his menu consists of a single item: jasmine tea from Ya’an, in the foothills of the Tibetan plateau. He charges locals one yuan for unlimited refills, and everyone else ten yuan. “You chat a bit, drink some tea every day, that’s happiness,” he says. Pengzhen’s uneventful pleasures are not for everyone, for modern China is a restless, brutally unequal place. The tea, however, is excellent. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "Tea before dawn"