Sometimes I wake up in the morning and have to pinch myself.
Am I still here? Still in China? Still in Beijing?
Although my international role takes me back to the UK, and some other countries, on a regular basis the answer to my questions is invariably “yes”!
It is a rare privilage, afforded to very few, which allows me access to such a broad range of Chinese society.
From the back streets of the old 1950’s crumbling tenement blocks, which stretch out across the road from my relatively new-build apartment block in East Beijing, to the State Guest House and it’s hallowed halls of red and gold staging official and high level functions.
From ex government officials to professional drivers, Daoist monks and University professors I am able to spend my ‘down time’ from the day job in the presence of some really interesting people. These are the ‘real Chinese’ little seen by the Western media and almost never reported on.
Inside the Middle Kingdom
I continue to be amazed by this country of competing contrasts and contradictions. However, I have grown to love it too, despite the daily frustrations of two-hour queues in the banks, crowded subways and electric bikes that career in semi-controlled silence across junctions, their riders glued to their mobile phones.
At the beating heart of China, once you strip away the ecommerce, the ‘always on’, WeChat and Alipay FinTec services explosion you find that 5,000 years of Chinese culture is alive and well.
Tucked away in a renovated mixed-use residential and office block is the new and beautifully designed tranquil tea shop of Mr Ji or, as I refer to him, ‘Dong the Destroyer’. Ji Dong is a quiet unassuming man who has become an enthusiastic exponent of the value that ‘the art of tea’ can bring to a revival of Chinese culture.
Everyone’s cup of tea
Tea has always been ‘the thing’ in China, they invented it. Wild 400-year-old tea trees in the forgotten valleys of Yunnan provice still produce some of the finest Chinese tea you will ever taste. Each year Mr Ji makes the pilgrimage to these hidden locations to hand pick pu’er tea for his shop. Blending 200-year-old with 20-year-old and modern tea provides a unique mix of flavours.
However, outside in the choked and fume-filled streets of Beijing, coffee culture is exploding. Hip youth, changing the world with code parties, building apps for everything, sip cappuccino and chai lattes alongside the ubiquitous americanos.
You could be forgiven for thinking the old China is dead and buried in burgers and bytes. But you would be wrong. The tea shop of Mr Ji is among a rising tide of cultural resurgence in China as the country is encouraged, from the very top of the Party and Governemnt, to get in touch with its ‘Chineseness’. Intelligentsia and entrepreneurs alike can be seen gathering in places like his, and a wide aray of similar places, to drink tea and debate the changing China as it ‘Goes Global’.
Steeped in tradition
I am currently working with one of the foremost fashion houses in China as they seek to build recognition onto the global stage. Our conversations on market entry and fashion branding are invariably accompanied by tea, usually my favourites, Oolong or Pu’er.
The conversations with the Chairman of one of Beijings biggest real estate developers are short and pithy as he runs a multi billion yuan business. However, no meeting is complete without the inevitable offer of tea and the slow contemplative sipping of appreciation accompanying potentially market changing deals.
And the lesson from all this business of tea?
Chinese culture may look like a vibrant new world of Internet, FinTech, App-driven, mobile, innovative investment and global soft power (and so it may be), but never be fooled by what is at its heart. The culture of China runs deep and tea, and all it stands for, should never be underestimated.
About the Author
Jonathan Geldart is a business consultant and author of ‘Inside the Middle Kingdom‘, which draws on stories from a wide variety of Chinese people to form a compilation of insights and personal perspectives which you will not find in any guide book or newspaper commentary.
To hear more from Jon, have a listen to this week’s podcast: Episode #41: Inside The Middle kingdom.