The "Yu Tai" teahouse in the ancient capital of Beijing was a witness and a microcosm of the times.
In the first Act, which takes place in the year 1898, the year of reform and the ensuing crackdown, we see the plight China has been reduced to: a weakened state, an impoverished populace, foreign aggression on the rise, foreign goods, including the infamous commodity, opium, flooding the market. The peasantry, mainstay of the nation, was forced into bankruptcy and selling off their own children. Residents in Beijing, as exemplified by frequenters of the teahouse, were apathetic to the national disastrous situation, but the discerning few, the better informed, began to get involved. Some advocated political reform, trying to persuade the reigning Emperor to head the movement; others pinned their hopes on industrialization as the only way to bring the nation to prosperity and the people to affluence. All these hopes were dashed after the crackdown. With the success of their coup, the die-hard ruling clique at the court was more arrogant than ever, even the Grand Eunuch insisted on the impossible, he wanted to by a young girl as his bride .The Imperial Secret police was more powerful than ever and the underworld barons had their heyday. All these, of course, leads to the inevitable conclusion: The Great Qing Empire is finished.
The Second Act takes us twenty years later. The Dynasty has fallen, a Republic has been set up, but the people are worse off than ever. In the same teahouse we see the manager trying his best to keep up with the times, but the incessant civil war waged by warlords of different factions and the general anarchy and lawlessness makes his efforts totally futile. In the distance, however, we begin to hear the rumble of a revolution, the younger generation, represented by the students, are restive and fomenting a protest under the banner of patriotism and democracy.
The Third Act takes us another thirty years later. After eight years of bitter war against the Japanese, the common people had hardly had time to celebrate China’s victory when the reactionary factions in the Kuomingtang instigated an all out civil war. The political situation became even more oppressive and corrupt, and we see even in this usually backwater gathering place, the Yutai teahouse, the seething discontent of the populace and the more vehement protests of the students. The manager of the teahouse now a man of over seventy, whose only ambition in life has one for survival, is finally reduced to despair and ends his own life.
The playwright, Lao She, who has been honored with the title of People’s Artist, (the only writer to be thus designated in the PRC ) thus condemns and buries three crucial periods in China’s recent history, and transpires his hopes and love for the new society of which he was an active and ardent participant.