Tea plays an important role in the culture of Beijing, and while you can generally enjoy tea in any restaurant or hotel, one of the best ways to capture the true essence of Beijing’s “tea culture” is by visiting one of the city’s many teahouses.
In Beijing, a teahouse is more than simply a place to enjoy a steaming hot cup of oolong while you rest after sightseeing. For generations, teahouses have served as a centre of Beijing’s cultural life; residents enjoy tea ceremonies, elaborate and precise demonstrations of brewing, pouring and serving tea, as well as other forms of traditional entertainment, including Beijing opera, acrobatics, comedy and music, in the teahouses. As a result, a visit to a teahouse has become an important, and not-to-be-missed, experience for travellers from all over the world who go on holiday to Beijing.
Types of Teahouses
While the term “teahouse” is used loosely to refer to any establishment focusing on tea culture combined with entertainment, there are some subtle differences. The traditional teahouse is one that offers a wide variety of teas and entertainment; these are the most elegantly decorated and elaborate establishments. Modern teahouses are more focused on serving oolong tea, and you may find more food on the menu at these spots. Finally, there are specialty or “special feature” teahouses that tend to be focused or themed around a specific type of tea or type of performance. In many cases, the differences are subtle, but in general, many visitors enjoy the traditional teahouses the most, as they offer the most extensive variety of teas and entertainment. They also embody the “typical” teahouse experience that they expect.
Most Popular Teahouses
There are nearly 1,700 teahouses in Beijing, ranging from the large and elaborate Lao She teahouse in Tiananmen Square, to smaller, family-run establishments in the bustling residential neighbourhoods.
By far the most popular teahouse in Beijing is the aforementioned Lao She Teahouse, opened in 1988 and named for the drama “teahouse” written by the writer Lao She. Few foreign visitors come to Beijing without experiencing this legendary teahouse, which offers a wide array of entertainment, including tea ceremonies, acrobatics, magic, Chinese martial arts, puppetry (both traditional and shadow), and on the weekends, the Beijing Opera. Because Lao She is one of the few teahouses with a full-service restaurant, many visitors enjoy a meal before the performance. Because this teahouse is so popular, it’s important to make reservations; the minimum charge for anyone visiting the teahouse is CNY20 (208 rupees), while the longer performances cost between CNY 180 – 380 (1,875 – 4,000 rupees.)
Another popular teahouse in Beijing is the De Yun She, formerly known as the Tianqiaole Teahouse. This is a historical teahouse, built in 1933 and renovated in the early 1990s. Like other teahouses, De Yun She offers a wide range of entertainment, but what makes this teahouse distinctive is the fact that patrons must pay using ancient copper coins. Before entering, you can exchange some of your modern cash for coins, which helps you get a true taste of Beijing’s history. Tickets start at about CNY 30.
Other popular teahouses in Beijing include the luxurious Sentosa Tea House in the Chaoyang District, the chain of Wufu teahouses that offer a wide variety of teas at 12 locations throughout the city and the Fudehou Teahouse, a historical teahouse once popular with artists and actors that specialises in jasmine tea varieties.
Teahouse Etiquette — and a Warning
Enjoying tea in a teahouse is an experienced to be savoured. Most performances last for an hour or two, giving you time to adequately enjoy the tea. Take a moment to smell the tea before sipping and sip slowly to experience the full flavours.
While visiting a teahouse is a popular activity for visitors, a few unfortunate visitors have had less-than-pleasant experiences due to a common trick. Foreigners may be approached by young people who claim to want to practise speaking another language (usually English) and invite you to a nearby teahouse, where you will be served tea, and possibly snacks — without being shown a menu. When the bill comes, it’s exorbitantly high, and you’re expected to pay or face serious consequences. You can avoid this by either declining the invitation, or if you want to talk with a stranger, insist on choosing the place yourself.
Above all, keep an open mind about the experience and the insights into Chinese folk culture. A visit to the teahouse is a window into China’s history — and an unforgettable experience for any visitor.
Beijing teahouse image by Charlotte Powell from Flickr’s Creative Commons
Teahouse interior image by Chris Wilkinson from Flickr Creative Commons