The Sichuan Teahouse

He Ming Teahouse, People’s Park

An old man had fallen asleep in his chair. His head lolled back, his mouth hung open. Another peered at a newspaper. A group in their twenties were lost in their smartphones. There was a click of mahjong tiles, the slapping of cards onto tables. The ear-cleaner walked round with a fistful of diabolical tools. He clanged them together in terrorem. A masseur gave a treatment which involved the techniques that school bullies use to make other children cry.  

The chairs were fashioned from bamboo, the tops of the tables were battered. They were laid out under parasols, themselves under a canopy of trees. But shade is seldom needed in Chengdu. You are, as the saying goes, more likely to see a teahouse than a sunny day.

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Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Teahouses are an ancient institution in Sichuan Province. They have been around since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). By the end of the nineteenth century, there was almost one for every street in Chengdu. They were always a lot more than somewhere to go to drink tea. Traders would do business from them. Gangsters would sell opium at them. People would go there to catch up on news and gossip.

The He Ming Teahouse on the lake in the People’s Park is over a century old. The name means ‘singing crane’. It is connected by a footbridge to the smaller Yongju Teahouse on Goldfish Island in the middle of the lake where there is a pond which teems with fish.

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A stream leads from the lake along the top of the park to the Zhen Liu Teahouse, where I settled and ordered jasmine tea. The name in Chinese is bi tan piao xue, which I am told means ‘snowflakes floating on a green lake’.

The tea leaves came in a sachet with a cup with a lid and no handle and a large flask of hot water. There is an etiquette to drinking the tea. Some grasp the saucer with one hand, lift the lid with the other and use it to scoop away floating leaves. Others hold the cup by the rim with their thumb and middle finger and use the index finger to push aside the lid just far enough to let the tea flow while filtering out the leaves. I learned all that later, though.

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas (Wikimedia Commons)

Elsewhere in the People’s Park there are orchids and bonsai trees. There are paifang gates, pagodas and humpbacked bridges. There are caricaturists and fortune-tellers and musicians. There are strollers and joggers and groups doing tai chi or dancing to music. There is ballroom and fan dancing and something you might do in a class at the gym.

Old men practice water calligraphy. They describe the characters on paving stones with giant paintbrushes dipped in water. Couples rent boats and pootle about on the lake. People fly kites and play badminton with tennis balls and keepie-uppie with oversized shuttlecocks. The game and the shuttlecock are called jianzi.

Spin a wheel to determine which picture the vendor will recreate in caramel dribbled from a ladle and mount on a skewer. It might be a butterfly, a cockerel, a songbird, a dragonfly or a slightly incongruous strawberry. Watch other vendors make san da pao by tugging pieces from a big ball of sticky rice, shaping them into smaller balls and bouncing them – for some reason – off cymbals into a tub of sweet bean flour.

Both looked two sickly for me. I snacked instead on squid threaded onto skewers, sprinkled with chilli powder and grilled on a plancha.

I passed a few hours at the People’s Park. Locals will make a day of it if they can.

© Richard Senior 2021

On a Slow Boat in China


I embarked at Guilin on the boat for Yangshou and went up on deck and leant on the rail at the front in the sun.

It was a slow boat and chugged sedately down the Li River, winding its way, in convoy with other boats, between the ranks of misty karsts. They stretched into the distance and faded into silhouette in shades of blue and grey and smudged with the sky at the horizon.


Every karst with an arresting shape has a legend attached to it and a picturesque name. There is Elephant Trunk Hill and Pagoda Hill and Ox Gorge, where a peak is reckoned to be in the shape of an ox and other features to resemble lions, tigers, bats and dragons.

The word resemble does a lot of heavy lifting along the Li River. Yearning for Husband’s Return Hill, which is not such a mouthful in Chinese, has a rock which is said to resemble a man in ancient costume and another supposedly resembling a woman with a baby on her back who is gazing in his direction. A rock which is claimed to resemble a container of rice is also part of the legend. TL;DR: the couple only had rice to eat, gave it to an old lady, starved and turned to stone.

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Buffalo waded into the green-blue water and snacked on reeds. Cockle-pickers sifted through sand at the side of the water. Vendors rowed up to the boats on bamboo rafts with boxes of fruit and called out like market traders. Around towns, flotillas of boat taxis scudded out to meet passengers with tiny outboard motors screaming. Occasionally there was a river barge with a patina of rust and a roof made from corrugated sheets. Sometimes a fisherman with a cast net.

At Nine Horse Mural Hill, the cliff face looms a hundred metres above the river and the rock is exposed in piebald patches which are believed to take the shape of horses, sitting, standing, galloping, or nodding to drink from the water.

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You might notice one of the horses even if you knew nothing of the legend, three or four if you had heard it and were trying your best to see horses. The others take more imagination by orders of magnitude, and those who see them all would likely tell you that any given object you pointed out looked like a horse.

Along the river, there is Green Lotus Peak where a group of karsts is thought to look like a lotus flower and there is a two-storey pagoda first built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Beyond it is Schoolboy Hill, which is a karst said to bring to mind a schoolboy reading a book.


It takes half a day to get to Yangshou on the slow boat, but I was in no kind of hurry. The sun was hot and the landscape pleasant and the sense of peace was welcome after the bustle of Chinese cities.

I ignored the announcement to go below decks as we neared Yangshou and had the deck to myself until we docked and I went down and out and along the jetty and onto the street to find my hostel.

© Richard Senior 2020