Tuesday, December 02, 2008


All the tea trees in the world have their organs either directly or indirectly from China, and Asia still produces 90% of the world’s output. China’s tea culture dates back to as early as six thousand years and along with silk and porcelain, was introduced to most of the rest of the world about one thousand years ago. Not until the seventeenth century though did it become the latest craze in Europe and America.

While in Beijing, we were taken to the Lao She Teahouse, which is an amazing combination tea museum, tea café and entertainment house where a succession of short shows are performed before a live audience. Guest are treated not only to examples of time-honored Chinese entertainment forms, but are also served a menu of traditional tea cakes and most importantly several different kinds of tea, one for each season.

Our guide Judy arrived with us to the tea house but didn’t stay to watch the performance. She said she had seen it several times and told us that most young people are not really interested in this kind of “old fashioned” theater. She said she might go off and probably text her friends and meet us after the show was over. And I couldn’t blame her, it had been a very long day of steering us around Beijing, we had already been to the local “Dirt Market” (kind of like a giant flea market), and to the Han MeiLin Museum, both of which I will write about later. And now it was into the evening and she had brought us to the teahouse, she deserved a break from us, no doubt.

Upon entering the Lao She Teahouse we were greeted with musicians playing water harps and an Er-Hu, a two-stringed fiddle whose base is positioned on the knee and bowed. The two together produced a sweet and delicate sound in which to browse the first floor with its indoor fish pond. Making our way up the grand staircase we viewed many displays of traditional Beijing Opera costumes, beautiful artwork; paintings and calligraphy, and a really cool set of panoramas depicting the evolvement of the Chinese tea house. (see photos)

The room in which the performances were to take place was crowded with elaborately carved square tables and chairs. Chairs being arranged all around the table right up against each other so that it was difficult to get in and out, but cozy. We shared our table with several other guests. Throughout the approximately two hours that we were entertained I was amused also with watching the audience. What did others find exceptionally worthy of applause? What made them oooww and ahhhh or left them flat? I was also puzzled as to the actions of several of the audience members around us. One woman at our table who told us she was visiting from, um, can’t remember, but some other country besides the USA or China, was there because she had traveled with her boyfriend who had business in China but was now busy with a meeting. She had brought her laptop computer and stayed on it the entire show, barely glancing up at the wonderful acts. Then she and a server spent a lot of time negotiating the sale of a large quantity of moon cakes, the conversation just went on and on… and on, until she finally obtained a huge stack of boxed cakes. Another young Chinese woman behind us was texting on her cell phone the whole time while one of her companions actually lay down across the chairs and fell asleep! There were quite a few tables that engaged in conversation throughout the performances, though generally in undertones. Which all made me wonder why many of the audience had come to the tea house at all if not for the entertainment?

The first act up was a Tea Ceremony; a woman dressed in traditional clothing gracefully prepared a cup of tea while a musician played the Er-Hu. This was the spring tea, a light and refreshing green tea which was being served up to us in traditional covered tea cups as we watched the performance. Further delicacies were placed before us such as green tea cakes, small tasty spring rolls, sweet and delicate candied crab apples and of course, Moon Cakes, it was after all the first day of the Moon Festival. Between the acts at intervals the next “season” was represented with another tea preparation demonstrated and a new tea served to us. The tea leaves were loose inside the cup and before she left us, Judy had demonstrated the proper way in which to hold and use the cup; the hand holding the cup part sort of reaches around away from the body and the cup is tilted forward while the other hand is used to position the lid for blocking the flow of the tea leaves. It was a bit awkward, but indeed, looked quite elegant when done right. We all pretty much resorted to our old clod-hopping American ways after a few sips done properly. The tea representing summer was cold, I wasn’t expecting that, I always think of Chinese tea as being served hot.

We were thrillingly entertained for over two hours with a magic show, and short selections from Beijing Opera; a man and a woman appeared on stage dressed in resplendent costume with full face paint and high pitched voices. Quite unlike anything in Western culture’s entertainment venue and though interesting, we decided we were glad that we hadn’t elected to attend a full performance of Opera which could mean many hours of gong banging and singing in a language we couldn’t understand.(Go here for a performance clip)

There was also a master opera “face changer”. This is really fun to watch, a masked person, in this case a man, comes out in full opera regalia. The mask he wears is highly detailed and elaborate. He prances here and there, sometimes spinning on the spot and when he is facing you again, the mask has magically and completely changed! Or he will put his hand before his face moving it from top to bottom and a new face on the mask will have appeared by the time his hand has reached his chin. He even got right down into the audience so that people could witness the change up close, and still it was remarkable. (Go here for an example of this kind of performance).

Another performer was part musician, part comedian; he did amazing bird calls as well as used his voice to imitate a high pitched musical instrument, everyone laughed and clapped at this, and it did sound quite funny. Lily especially liked his recital as well as the shadow puppet play which was fun!

There were women with rings and sticks that twirled and tossed and spun. There was a magic show and acrobats and a very entertaining “long spouted teapot” pouring performance where men with tea pots that have spouts that are about 3 feet long prance and twirl and seemed to defy gravity while dispensing into tiny cups in unison their important amber liquid.

The evening ended with a Kung Fu demonstration, with bare chested men flying through the air over one another and tumbling and kicking and chopping. Lily has been a marshal arts student for three years now, so she was quite impressed seeing what could be done if one just practiced enough.

The evening was enjoyable and tasty, the perfect ending to a lovely day visiting several exciting Beijing sites.

KKW ©2008

1 comment:

Kara said...

Wow, the face changing clip was very cool. How did he do that! I thought it was in his hat but he took it off and now my mind is blown hahaha.