- The Teahouse: Small Business, Everyday Culture, and Public Politics in Chengdu, 1900–1950 by Wang Di
Wang Di’s The Teahouse is an extensively researched and detailed description of public life in Chengdu that touches upon many aspects of Chinese urban history in the first half of the twentieth century. Its wide range is at once the book’s greatest strength but also perhaps its biggest weakness. Throughout, the author draws on many important themes that define our understanding of modern China, including the increasing reach of the nationalist state, the role of public space in political life, the importance of commerce in shaping urban space, and the impact of the Anti–Japanese War of Resistance on Chinese society. Seasoned scholars will, [End Page 409] therefore, find much to reflect upon, while for those new to the field, Wang Di’s detailed descriptions offer an engaging introduction to some of the major issues. However, by touching on so many areas of life and thereby engaging with so many areas of historiography, The Teahouse is at times in danger of failing to give some of the debates the deep attention they deserve, although, as I shall argue, this may itself be an indication of how urban history in China is a maturing field.
Wang Di’s central claim is that the teahouse is a space in which many activities that defined the commercial, social, political, and cultural life of Chengdu, and indeed cities across China, took place. The teahouse is portrayed as a multifunctional place where during the first half of the twentieth century the traditional and the modern mixed together in a complicated and dynamic milieu, which goes beyond such simplistic characterizations. Through a detailed thematic exploration of the ways in which public space and culture intertwined in Chengdu’s teahouses, the book gives us an insight into the worlds of the men and women who founded them and worked there, the many visitors who sat to drink their tea, and the varied entertainments laid on for them, and intertwines these threads with an exploration of how successive governments sought to control this most public of spaces.
Wang Di’s exploration of the origins and characteristics of the teahouse as a business is insightful, but would benefit from comparison with other sectors. For example, teahouse owners often relied on family or other close personal relations for financing and assistance with operations, and this clearly meant their management style differed from some of the larger industrial companies being formed in cities like Nantong and Shanghai. As Wang Di rightly notes, this made them flexible in the face of the uncertainties of the age (p. 55). Given that many other sectors throughout China operated on a similarly small scale, one wonders how far the teahouse may be representative of the resilience of what is normally seen as a more traditional type of enterprise.1 The book moves smoothly from individual teahouses to the sector as a whole, and its place within city life. The teahouse guild was important in representing the interests of its members to the city’s political leaders and was successful at ameliorating onerous tax demands, not to mention intervening in disputes between individual enterprises and urban residents. Wang Di asserts that in carrying out such functions, the guild acquired an aspect of professionalism that enabled it to resist the increasing reach of the state. This is certainly in line with recent work on the importance of business and native place associations in urban life, but it also raises the question of how far guild members were actively involved in local government, something that has long been recognized as a feature of commercial and political life in Shanghai and other cities. Moreover, given the prominence of the Gowned Brothers, a mafia association with great power in Chengdu, an organization that Wang Di mentions later in the book, this raises the question of to what extent guilds, criminal fraternities, and political elites were...