Gentility in Drinking: Chinese Intellectuals and Tea/Coffee Culture in Republican Shanghai (1920s-1930s)

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats



The coffeehouse emerged as an unprecedented popular leisure spot in Shanghai during the 1920s, which always conjured up an aura of western exoticism. Accordingly, drinking coffee became prevalent among elite men and women who advocated a modern lifestyle, especially cultural intellectuals, and coffeehouses were soon favored by many writers and artists for social gatherings. Such a kind of gathering resembled the phenomenon of “salon” indigenous to the seventeenth century France that Habermas regarded as the most typical form of civil culture cultivated by public spheres such as cafés and restaurants. Meanwhile, the teahouse (茶館 chaguan), which had long

functioned as a popular place for social gatherings in China that intellectuals sat together and communicated on literary topics or political issues, although despised by some Republican reformists as backward ill tradition, had experienced some self- transformation to cope with the rapidly developing urban environment. The traditional habit of drinking tea of Chinese people was refreshed with a modern connotation, and the stimulated “tea talk meeting” (茶話會 chahua hui) phenomenon then prevailed among Republican cultural elites, which was the combination of the tradition of the genteel gathering (雅集 yaji) among Chinese literati and the introduced European salon culture, and was vital to inspiring literary and cultural productions. In the meantime, “tea” and “coffee” became important cultural symbols, with the actual gatherings that happened in teahouses and coffeehouses extended to the print media. Two best examples are the “Coffee Seats” (咖啡座 kafeizuo) column appeared on Shenbao 申報 in the late 1920s and the journal entitled Literature and Art Tea Talk (文藝茶話 Wenyi chahua) first produced in the early 1930s, where articles on literary and artistic topics were solicited and cultural elites could participate another form of gathering in an imagined public cultural space. The physical and virtual gatherings shared some highly similar essences, and both are crucial to the formation of collectivity and identification among cultural intellectuals. Referring to such notions as “public sphere” coined by Jürgen Habermas, “structure of feeling” proposed by Raymond Williams, and “imagined communities” by Benedict Anderson, this thesis is going to investigate how the teahouse and coffeehouse as both physical and imagined social spaces activated significant cultural implications and were closely related to the identity politics of cultural intellectuals in Republican Shanghai during the 1920s and 1930s. I regard the teahouse/coffeehouse as important public sites that accommodated multilayered elements of cultural modernity and “tea/coffee” as conspicuous cultural symbols manifested in literature and popular culture.






Han, Zhuyuan (2020). Gentility in Drinking: Chinese Intellectuals and Tea/Coffee Culture in Republican Shanghai (1920s-1930s). Master's thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.