Leisure Life in Old Beijing

The leisure lives of people in Old Beijing were refined, balanced and carefree, brimming with the charm of the ancient capital.

Leisure life in Beijing may be well described in one phrase: “having fun”, or in the words of Beijingers, “looking for fun”. Beijngers like to have fun and are good at looking for fun. To raise a bird is fun, to fly a kite is fun, to sip wine with a piece of garlic is fun, and to sing an aria of Peking Opera or listen to it is also great fun. Yet the most common way of enjoying a leisurely life for ordinary Beijingers is to drink tea and wine.

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There were a great number of teahouses in Old Beijing, and people from all walks of life would meet for tea. People would stop to rest at a teahouse on their way to exercise their pet birds. They would either hang the cages on a pole or put them on the table, sipping tea while enjoying the creatures. Thus, various kinds of birds would be chirping together. A teahouse was a public place for socializing, as well as a compact society where comedies and tragedies of everyday life transpired.

A large number of restaurants were scattered throughout the city of Old Beijing, but most of the large ones were located in business areas, while small taverns were set up at the entrance to alleys. These taverns usually had simple dishes to go with wine, such as boiled peanuts, dried tofu, preserved eggs, smoked fish and fried shrimps. Inside the taverns, there were usually several big vats, their mouths covered with big lids painted red, which served as tables, hence these taverns were nicknamed “Big Wine Vats”.

Besides drinking tea and wine, Beijingers had other ways to enjoy life, such as raising goldfish and pigeons, flying kites, raising crickets and grasshoppers, collecting porcelain ware, facial masks, potted plants, clay and dough figurines……They could find pleasure in all types of trivial things, to make their lives more interesting and joyful.

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Beijingers like to raise goldfish, a hobby developed as early as the Jin and Yuan dynasties. They enjoyed setting up goldfish tanks, which together with persimmon trees, became an indispensable decoration for a traditional courtyard known as siheyuan.

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Beijingers also like to raise pigeons, with pleasure derived from releasing the birds to fly. Some people like to tie pigeon whistles to the birds’ tail feathers. In Beijing, nomatter in warm spring or hot summer, clear autumn or icy cold winter, whistling sounds can be heard in the sky. Thick at one moment, thin at another, remote or near, high or low, quick or slow, at all times they hover and echo, like refreshing music from heaven.

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Following the changes of the times, the lifestyle of Beijing people has also changed. Now there are many bar streets appeared for people to enjoy themselves in their speare time, such as the well-known Sanlitun Bar Street and Bar Street around Shichahai Lake.  Shichahai Lake used to be a deserted place, but now it became so attractive and a variety of bars stand shoulder by shoulder with interesting names, such as Blue Lotus, Listening to the Moon and Hello Bar. These catchy names, if threaded together, could make for an amazing poem, from which people would be able to feel the folk flavor of the Shichahai Lake district, now better known by foreign visitors as Houhai.

Beijing is a city that belongs to yesterday, today and tomorrow. That’s true!

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