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Early 20th Century tea houses in Shanghai.

Shanghai directly benefited from the fading power of Manchurian Qing Imperial Dynasty. Political vacuums emerged across the Chinese empire, but none quite so portentously as in Shanghai, which became a 'semi-colony', controlled and managed by competing foreign powers. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Chinese intellectual class was becoming energised by a heady mix of foreign ideas and domestic trauma. During the first decade of the 20th century, the collapse of Imperial China gave rise to a flourishing new cultural movement amongst the educated classes.

 Shanghai Tea Shops (1901-1907)

Shanghai Tea Shops (1901-1907) - New York Library Collection

Shanghai, along with Beijing, was one of the two centres for this burgeoning 'New Culture Movement'. And in Shanghai, driven more by commercial than cultural and political forces, tea houses were the scenes of a rapid social change. Women were afforded more privileges in this dynamic social shift. Where as in Beijing women seen at tea houses were assumed to be working as prostitutes rather than paying clientele, in the more socially permissive Shanghai, they were accepted as patrons in their own right.

In the 1920s, as the presence of foreign power and money increased and the community of 'Shanghailanders' swelled in number, Shanghai became a natural refuge for revolutionary activists, who were often found in the tea houses of International Settlement zones. Here, revolutionaries and dissidents could meet free from scrutiny and duress, and tea houses became safe meeting points for activists of various stripes and colours.

 HongKew (Hongkou) market (1907-1918)

HongKew (Hongkou) market (1907-1918) - New York Library Collection

Lu Xun, one of China's foremost authors and essayists of the 20th century was known to frequent tea houses in the Japanese-controlled Hong Kou district. Actors in the unfolding revolutionary drama of post-Imperial China would meet, agitate, and argue vociferously for their own impassioned causes, while, reputedly, Lu Xun would sit impassively, observe, and listen attentively, before offering his own contributions to discussion. Tea houses in the International Settlement Zones, provided a safe venue for the various intellectual movements, which would go on to shape China's tumultuous century. Faint glimmers of this rebellious past can be found in along the renovated street of Duo Lun Road, near Shanghai Sports Stadium.



Picture: Shanghai tea shops., (1901 - 1907) courtesy of Digital Collections, The New York Public Library. Publisher The New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundation

Picture: Hongkew Market, Shanghai., (1907 - 1918) courtesy of Digital Collections, The New York Public Library. Publisher The New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundation

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