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Tibetan teahouses (part 1: The culture of teahouses)

Updated: Mar 5, 2019

Famous teahouse behind the Potala, Lhasa

Teahouses are very important in Tibetans’ life. Some even talk about the “culture of teahouses”.

As the topic is quite vast, we’ll first dig into the idea of the “teahouse culture” in this article, meaning: why teahouses are so important and how people behave in them. Then, in the article that will be published next time we will see what kind of tea and food are served and how to order - which is quite unusual as you will see.

Tibetan teahouses

Part 1: “The culture of teahouses”

Why going to the teahouse?

Some may think that Tibetans who often go to teahouses are simply wasting their time, without fully understanding the importance of teahouses in Tibetans’ lifestyles.

Actually, first of all, in Tibet teahouses are the place to get all the information you need. If you are a grandmother, you will go there to know which lama is currently in town or which of your old friends is in the hospital. If you are a scholar, you will go debate with your friends about the latest philosophical essay you read. In any case, you will get to know about general news regarding China, Tibet, Lhasa, your group of friends and your family. Tibetans would say that TV is not that efficient in terms of transmitting news. Teahouses are a far better place. Some even say that if you do not go to the teahouse at least once a week, you will feel totally lost when you get back.

Secondly, teahouses can be the place where you meet with your friends or relatives, to talk about good or sad things that happened to you or the people you know. It is quite common to hear people gossiping in teahouses, complaining about one relative or praising another relative’s success.

Finally, people can simply go there to enjoy tea, and maybe play cards or dice. Pilgrims, students, grandparents who dropped their grandchildren off at school: all of them might stop to get tea and a snack. People also have the habit of having breakfast at the teahouse.

Those three activities, of course, can occur at the same time. You can just as easily talk about the latest construction work that started in Lhasa, while throwing your dice on the table.

A Tibetan drinking sweet tea in Gamchung Sakhang, one of the most famous teahouse in Lhasa

How to behave in a teahouse?

Teahouses are quite representative of common behaviour in Tibetan society.

People in Lhasa are usually very friendly, even with strangers. It is common to see people at the bus stop chatting with each other, even though they have never met before. Same goes in teahouses. First, you can sit at a stranger’s table. People will even invite you to come if they see that you are looking for a seat! Second, people sitting next to you, even if they are a stranger to you, will talk to you.

People in Lhasa are also quite compassionate, or at least tolerant. In teahouses, you will see people from all walks of life; beggars, sock sellers, potato sellers…etc entering and the staff will not throw them out. This mindset has a lot to do with the strong Buddhist beliefs that Tibetans have. Compassion for all human beings is probably the most valued principle in buddhism. Most Tibetans believe giving to beggars is an act of compassion.

Next time, we will discuss the more tangible. What tasty food you can get in teahouses, and more importantly, how to get it. Tibetan teahouses do not serve tea and food the same way as in Western teahouses and coffee shops.

The most famous beggar in Lhasa, a specialist in modern Tibetan and Indian songs

Special thanks to Thomas Pan who proofread this article!


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