Lao She’s Teahouse: Commitment to Social Visions Lead to Funerals in Corrupt States Lao She’s play Teahouse portrays the impact of three historical periods on the lives of the frequent guests of a traditional Chinese Tea House, called Yu Tai Tea House. The historical periods include the Qing Dynasty where the Manchus ruled China; the Republic of China (1912-1949); and the post world War II period of the Kuomintang’s cruel government in Beijing after the victory of the War of Resistance against Japan. Without a plot to unify his play, Lao She achieves continuity through characters and a single location that endures even as history moves on.
The play hosts more than 60 characters, reflecting a variety of the personages peopling the historical periods. Three characters endure throughout the play and age with the change in governments, the teahouse manager Wang Lifa, the patriotic Manchu Fourth Elder Chang, and the industrialist Qin Zhongyi. Despite the world crumbling around them, and the corrupt government officials impinging upon their presence in the teahouse, these three characters remain committed to their visions of society and their faith that their way will lead to a better world.
Their fate, like the fate of the three periods of history, is reflected in the funeral, which serves as a climax in the play. A teahouse is an appropriate place to show the absurdity of the march of history played against the backdrop of a variety of characters because, as Lao She says at the beginning of his play to set the scene: In sum, the teahouse was an important institution of those times, a place where people came to transact business or simply to while away the time. In the teahouses, one could hear the most absurd stories, such as how in a certain place a huge spider had turned into a demon and was then struck by lightning.
One could also come in contact with the strangest views; for example, the foreign troops could be prevented from landing by building a Great Wall along the sea coast…the teahouse was indeed an important place, it could even be reckoned a kind of cultural centre. The teahouse represents the inner soul of the Chinese people. In their diversity, they are all unified in the same setting. Characters include secret police, thugs, opera and art aficionados, politicians, Chinese sold out to foreigners, and those who are committed to the values of their historical period.
The teahouse is the continuity of Chinese society, of diverse people set in a static scene while outside a dynasty collapses, imperialist power expands, war-lord disintegrate, and the post World War II American presence expands. In the first scene, Qin Zhonghyi, the teahouse’s landlord, supports the Qing Dynasty social and institutional reform movement because he believes that the secret for strengthening China is industrialization and his aim is to “pull all resources together and start factories. He is a reformer and wants the modernize China in order to save her. The Fourth Elder Chang is also committed to China, but in a different way. He is a traditionalist and supports the Qing dynasty, but when he recognizes that the writing is on the wall and is heard saying that that the Great Qing Empire is about the collapse, he is taken off to prison by secret agents. Wang Lifa tries to keep the teahouse going by trying to please everyone, bowing to everyone and introducing changes to keep up with the times.
Qin Zhongyi who has spent his whole life trying to save China by setting up industries in order to modernized his country loses everything because the government takes them over by stating that they are taking over from the surrendering Japanese. Fourth Elder Chang ends up selling peanuts. Wang Lifa, has his teahouse forcibly taken over by a government official. The Yu Tai Tea House, like the rest of China has decayed and is in disarray.
The only thing that remains are the large notices, “Don’t discuss state affairs. ” The various negative influences on China are depicted through the characters that come and go in the Tea House and by the monologues of the three men who had ideals that were crushed by self-interested corruption. Foreign influence is portrayed negatively and Qin Zhongyi laments that although he advocated saving China by industrializing it, the government took his factory from him, demolished it and sold the equipment as scrap. Is there anywhere,m anywhere in the whole world that you’ll find another government like this one? ” he asks mournfully. The three men, the only good ones, participate in a ritualistic funeral ceremony. Wang Lifa picks up the death money. Wang ends up committing suicide. And so, good men die, and the corrupt survive and thrive. The Tea House becomes a set-up for spying. The government gets worse. One wonders if Lao She is really predicting the increasing corruption of the communist government which was to follow.