Tea Fit for an Emperor

Shanghai Travel Blog

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Shanghai Museum
On Monday I set out relatively early, as I wanted to get a jump start on tackling this amazing city.  My first stop was the Shanghai Museum, which is hailed as one of the best museums in the country.  The structure itself is very nice looking (as most museums are), and even though I've always considered myself more a fan of Western art than Eastern art, I thoroughly enjoyed the different paintings and calligraphy on scrolls.  So very delicate and intricate and meticulously done.  Really beautiful pieces.  Other exhibits included sculptures made from bronze or wood or stone, hand-painted porcelain, a variety of combs and jewelry and assorted adornments made of jade, and a whole manner of coins and money than spanned centuries.
Shanghai Museum
  And, even though it goes without saying, China being both massive and old as hell, pretty much everything in this museum was mind-boggling and cool.  An impressive collection, to say the least.

As I was leaving the museum a group of locals approached me and asked if I would take their picture.  So then we're talking and the "Where are you from?... Oooooh, AMERICA!" comes out.  It never ceases to amaze me just how delighted the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese have all been to discover a real, live American in the flesh, like they can't believe their luck.  I used to think this was the standard response for all foreigners, be it French or German or what have you, but whenever I'm with a Brit or whoever, the question comes out, they answer first, the response is "ooh, England" then my answer comes out and is greeted with fireworks and shrieks of joy and "AMERICA!!"  It really is quite hilarious.
Shanghai Museum
  Particularly how much it pisses off said Brit who has pretty much the exact OPPOSITE view of us Americans.

Anyway.  So these three delighted Chinese, who are so visibly excited they're practically hopping and twittering with glee, invited me to come along with them to a traditional tea ceremony.  Don't need to ask me twice.  So off we went, peppering me with questions along the way.  They asked how old I was, and were completely taken aback: "but you look so young!"  And it's like hey easy there, I AM young.  They were 22 (and still students), and immediately started deferring to me like I was an elder.  They were all ma'am this and ma'am that.  And I was all whoa cowboys, a couple years does NOT merit this elder treatment, and nobody's going to be calling me ma'am anything.
Shanghai Museum
  (For the record, the elder treatment persisted throughout.  It's deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture and etiquette.)  They also wanted to know how many brothers and sisters I have and what their assorted occupations are.  Enter the perfect time to ask how many brothers and sisters they have, but of course as soon as I answered I was asked another question and the topic was completely changed.  Seeing as I've been warned the whole politics thing is a sensitive subject best left alone, especially when talking to the well educated, I figured it was best not to delve into the one child policy (to the supreme disappointment of other travelers when relaying the whole story later that night -- apparently there are a whole mess of foreigners just itching to talk politics with the locals).
Shanghai Museum


We walked through some abandoned shopping arcade, fairly similar to all the ones I came across in Japan.  The tea room was tucked in a nondescript storefront, and we sat down in a tiny small box of a room (the walls papered with beautiful red and gold silk), with a table and four chairs and not much room for anything else.  The traditional tea ceremony was AMAZING, one of my favorite experiences of my trip so far.  It was very complex and detailed and involved, and really fascinating that this is how wealthy Chinese have been communing over tea for centuries.  I imagine we got the sweetened condensed chop shop version, and it was still that good.  The big bummer is they wouldn't let me take a single photo, not of the room, not of the tea, not of different brewing methods, definitely not of the actual ceremony itself -- nada.
Shanghai Museum
  BIG bummer.

The "ceremony" involved just us four plus the girl who worked there.  It started by her plopping a menu in front of us to be sure we were ok with the fee.  I did a double-take -- you want how much for tea?? -- but of course consented immediately.  It wasn't expensive by other standards, but it was LOADS of money as far as pricing in China goes.  So she starts by explaining that this was the traditional tea ceremony used by emperors and lords and the wealthy upper-class for centuries and centuries.  (I should say here that she didn't speak a word of English, everything was translated for me bit by bit as we went along.)  Each tea had its own specific brewing vehicle (only one being a teapot as you and I would recognize) and specific brewing temperature and duration, all very precisely calibrated.
Shanghai Museum
  For each tea the jar of leaves was held to each of our faces in turn, so we could inhale their bouquet.  Then the tea was measured out and put into its particular contraption, the water boiled and added to steep, the tea strained, and our little thimbles filled.  I say thimbles because in essence, that's what they were.  Very small delicate china, shaped like a perfectly round bowl and hand-painted with a predominantly yellow pattern, and about a quarter of the size of your average tea cup.  And we're not talking American or English tea cup, we're talking Asian tea cup.  The ones that are already small and hold no more than four or five ounces.  The delicate little tea cups we used were about half the size of a shot glass, so what's that, half an ounce?  TINY.
Shanghai Museum
  We then drank each tea piping hot and in three sips.  Yes, three sips.  Only three sips, always three sips.  And you hold the cup with your thumb and forefinger around the brim, your middle finger supporting it beneath, females with their last two fingers open and flayed outward, with the pinkie furthest, males with both fingers curled under.  We cheersed our tea nearly every time, and the elder treatment came into play here too, as I met their cups halfway, they'd correct me and immediately lower their tea cups, so mine was always the highest, not to be touched midpoint or higher by their (young? inferior?) cups.

We drank six kinds of tea, each tea being refilled three times.  Numbers are not random or inconsequential in China; EVERY number has a meaning and a purpose.
Shanghai Museum
  Six teas, three cups each, three sips each cup.  Apparently the dude who had the Forbidden City constructed was wild about the number nine (which is thought to bring a long life), so there are 999 rooms in the place.  He also had 3,000 concubine "wives."  THREE THOUSAND.  I don't care what kind of math you do, with three thousand wives you know those women had it good.  They were probably required to show up once every fourth year and wave the flag, maybe collect some jewels and treats to bring the parents back home, before retreating for another few years of vacation.  And you know he probably had a few dozen he saw once and then never again.  And let's be serious -- you know that number was dreamed up to show the powerful almighty man flexing his big burly muscles and "yeah I'm the emperor, check out those perks," and never made it past the first hundred or so.
Shanghai Museum
  (Can you tell I'm exasperated with the strings and puppetry involved to create some bullshit facade which the ENTIRE POPULATION then gobbles up as the infallible truth?)  THREE THOUSAND.  Dude had a lot of wives!  Then of course the whole "he did it, so I can too" syndrome kicks in (what IS it with men??) and all the succeeding emperors felt it was their right to have three thousand too.  Don't even get me started.

The tea ceremony was lovely.  Educational, entertaining, delicious -- all the things required for a truly enjoyable time.  I got along quite well with my new friends, and the two hours flew by between history lessons and sips of tea and fits of giggles and me horrifying them by eating pumpkin seeds without peeling them first (which then prompted them to peel "the elder" something like five hundred pumpkin seeds between the three of them).
  A really great time.

At the end of the ceremony we could buy one of the teas we sampled if we liked, and yes please, sign me up.  Have we met?  I'm all about throwing my money at people in the name of shopping, particularly when there are local gems in pretty packages to be had.  So then the bill comes out.  And I squint and rub my eyes and blink and yep, I read that correctly the first time.  That's a lot of zeros.  Particularly for a country whose money starts with the number ONE, like mine does.  We're not talking Yen in denominations of one hundred, or Won in denominations of one thousand, but Yuan, in denominations of ONE.  HOW many zeros??  Apparently that nifty little number that startled me when we first sat down was per tea.
  It had been stressed to me that it was per person, not to be split by the group.  So I knew that and was expecting as much.  But apparently it was per person per tea.  We had six.  Times three.  And all those snacks you've been feasting on?  The assorted nuts and seeds?  Those were all per person per snack too.  (This irked me; no one asked us if we wanted snacks or told us we'd be charged for them -- they just appeared mid tea for all to eat.)  Then there was the matter of the big beautiful box of tea sitting on my lap that I purchased as my "genuine souvenir."  Let's put it this way: my accommodation for the whole of China will just surpass what I paid for tea.  Five weeks' accommodation vs. two hours' tea.
  A LOT of zeros.

From the highway robbery disguised as tea (that I'm STILL smarting over, two days later) we parted ways.  I walked along East Nanning Road, the biggest shopping street in all of China, and down to the Bund and back.  The Bund is a strip of buildings along the river that were constructed in the 1920s and 30s by Europeans (and was the center of commerce for Shanghai for decades, in fact many banks are still housed there), and as such they're done in the grand Greco-Roman fashion, with impressive arches and pillars and all that good stuff.  I imagine it's quite beautiful ordinarily, but seeing as the whole area is under construction (as is the ENTIRE CITY, more on that later), it's really dirty and grimy and the river has an enormous blockade running the whole length of it and you can't see squat.
  Not very nice to walk around at all.  So I doubled back to the hostel, dumped my overpriced tea, and headed out with Stuart (a British traveler I met the night before) for dinner.  He was wildly jetlagged, having just arrived in Asia the day prior, and hadn't yet seen any of the city.  So back to the Bund and Nanning Road we went, and finally settled on a little restaurant on a side street off Nanning Road. 

Stuart had a giant bowl of beef soup, piled high with noodles and spicy dark broth and hunks of meat, and I had eggplant.  While yummy, it was heavy and oily and really horrifying to be served a bowl of something literally just sitting in a pool of grease.  We're not talking grease at the bottom of the dish when you're done, we're talking maneuver your chopsticks through a vat of liquid grease and pull out each piece, letting it drip as much off as possible before eating.
East Nanning Road
  (China is wreaking HAVOC on my eating habits.)  We also shared a plate of delicious fried rice (I haven't had fried rice that good since Australia, whose Chinese population is massive) and potatoes and green peppers, that were sliced to resemble straws, and also dripping with grease and oil.  Greasy obese feeling aside, it was a pretty good meal.  We were there pretty early (just before 5pm), but by the time we left the place was packed with locals.  Kudos to us!

From dinner I pointed Stuart toward the hostel and jumped on the subway and headed across town to meet up with my Chinese pals from earlier.  They had asked if I wanted to join them to watch some acrobat show, and I hesitated, but they likened it to the Beijing opera "When you're in Beijing, you see the opera; when you're in Shanghai, you see acrobats.
East Nanning Road
It's very famous," so I jumped on it.  It was only after I handed her the cash and she set off down the street (this was hours earlier, when we first stepped out of the tea house) to buy the tickets that my brain finally kicked in and said "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING??  Who wants to see acrobats?!  Save that money for the OPERA, you idiot!"  I really wish my brain had chimed in a bit sooner.  The show was boring.  Sooo boring.  And SO Chinese.  I don't know how to better explain that.  It goes back to the strings and the puppet master.  It wasn't anything spectacular; it was a bunch of limber teenagers running around doing somersaults or juggling straw hats or doing one-armed pushups on a pedestal that was raised ten feet in the air.
East Nanning Road
  And the audience!  You would not BELIEVE the audience.  Ooohing and ahhhing and gasping (yes, literally gasping, dramatically, CONSTANTLY) and clapping after every little thing.  PEOPLE!  I can somersault too!  How 'bout you pay me back for that overpriced tea and this ridiculous show, I'll do a few somersaults and throw in a cartwheel or two and we'll call it even.  I mean, seriously.  GET AHOLD OF YOURSELVES.  Have you never seen Cirque du Soleil?  Clearly not.  It was a SNOOZEFEST.  And a poorly executed one at that.  Every tenth somersaulter would miss his mark and knock down a hoop, or a girl throwing her baton would drop it or someone peddling their bike with no hands would swerve and nearly crash.
East Nanning Road
  And the Chinese were WILD for it.  (I should clarify and say they were wild for the properly executed stunts, not the hiccups.  The politely turned a blind eye to any botched acrobatics.)

More frustrating still was that I never found my friends.  The tickets we were issued didn't have seat assignments; you then turned that one in at the door and were given a seat.  I pointed this out at the time, and they kept saying they'd find me.  And I was like yes but aren't we going to an auditorium?  Don't those things have levels?  And seat thousands of people?  How on earth are you going to find me??  (The assumption was that I'd be the only foreigner sticking out like a sore thumb.  They were mostly right -- there was a French group and I spotted a few other stragglers like me, but probably fewer than two dozen of us in total.
View of Pudong from The Bund
)  We agreed to meet out front, just inside the doors.  I didn't want to be late and didn't know where I was going so I was a full hour early.  Which means I saw literally every single person walk into that theatre.  I waited and waited and waited and waited.  The moon started setting I waited so long.  Finally I went inside when I realized the show had started and I could hear loud music and roars of applause.  So I exchanged my lone ticket for my seat assignment and sat all the way in the back, forcing myself not to leave early, swearing that if these people pay this much money to come see a bunch of teenagers doing somersaults, clearly there was some big surprise in store worth hanging around for.  No such luck.

The evening was frustrating and the day was crazy expensive thanks to the tea, but it was a good day overall.
View of Pudong from The Bund
  I really enjoyed that tea ceremony, and am glad to have participated in it.  It was fun to meet some locals and make new friends and have a small piece of their culture translated and explained for me.  Ridiculous "acrobatics" and all, I enjoyed my first peek into China.
mosted says:
Those tea-ceremonies are mostly scam - but at least you liked what you got for your money :)
Posted on: Jan 08, 2013
fransglobal says:
It's not just Shanghai, the whole country is a construction site!

Only 3,000 concubines? What a wimp!
Posted on: Oct 28, 2009
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East Nanning Road
East Nanning Road
East Nanning Road
East Nanning Road
East Nanning Road
East Nanning Road
East Nanning Road
East Nanning Road
View of Pudong from The Bund
View of Pudong from The Bund
View of Pudong from The Bund
View of Pudong from The Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Along the Bund
Bamboo ladder!
Bamboo ladder!
East Nanning Road
East Nanning Road
East Nanning Road
East Nanning Road
Motorcycle finale for the acrobat…
Motorcycle finale for the "acroba…
Shanghai
photo by: Chokk