Yunnan and the old Tea and Horse Road

When traveling in Yunnan, I heard a lot about the “Old Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道)“. Dali, Shaxi, Lijiang, Shangrila and Deqin to name just a few were important stops of caravans transporting tea to Tibet – they are now part of the Yunnan backpackers trail.

To me, the Old Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道) merely four Chinese characters on ancient village’s paifang. Beyond the images of tea on horse caravans and forgotten stone trails, I needed to put a story on these four Chinese characters.

I did some readings (mainly academic articles and books in English and Chinese) which took me through Chinese history. The article below is merely a non-exhaustive preliminary story to understanding what was the Tea and Horse Road.

Tea and Horse Road, Yunnan

Fresh tea leaves in a tea factory in Mengla, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan

Tea, horses and warfare

The history of the Tea and Horse Road started in the plains of central China in the 11th century and was motivated by warfare.

The borders of the Song empire (960-1279) was threatened by the Liao (Khitan) in the north and the Xi Xia (Tangut) in the west. Although the Chinese bred horses, they were aware that the horses of their enemies were faster, larger and more courageous during combats than theirs.

The fall of the Tang dynasty (618-907) showed two things :  the nomadic people who lived beyond the frontiers were skilled horsemen on the battlefield and the survival of the Chinese empire depended upon a steady supply of good quality horses.

Given the geopolitical and financial situation, the Song emperors were compelled to trade horses for tea with nomadic Tibetan tribes of Amdo (Qinghai province). The Chinese established and enforced a state monopoly on Sichuanese tea. Every year, around 7500 tons of tea were exchanged against 10’000 horses.

As a result Sichuanese tea inundated Tibet where consumption skyrocketed. However, all the tea of Sichuan was not able to save China from the Mongol invasions.

Tibet hooked on tea

Before the tea horse trade, drinking tea was a fashionable habit reserved to the Tibetan religious and political elites. Tea had already been introduced on the Himalayan plateau under the Tang dynasty (601-917) by Chinese monks who  presented it as a way to stay awake during long sessions of meditation.

With the large quantities of tea brought by the tea and horse trade of the Song emperors, tea became a popular good of consumption and an essential part of the Tibetan’s diet.

The streets of Lushi

The streets of Lushi

Integration of Yunnan into the Middle Kingdom

Let’s come back to Yunnan province.

Trade routes linking Tibet to Yunnan existed before the tea and horse trade of the Song, however, little is known about them. This trade route linked the Dai polity of Sipsongpanna (the Dai word for Xishuangbanna (西双版纳), a prefecture in south Yunnan, squeezed between Lao and Burma) to the Himalayan plateau.

Yunnan was formally integrated into the Chinese empire in the 13th century by the Mongol dynasty of the Yuan (1271-1368). The Mongol succeed where Han-Chinese dynasties had failed.

The Mongol dispatched thousands of Central Asian Muslim soldiers to Yunnan (I mentioned this on an article about the Muslim village of Donglianhua).

After the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) took over control of an extend empire, tens of thousand of Han-Chinese migrants moved to Yunnan, founded villages, mingled with the local ethnic minorities and got involved in mining and trade.

The social, ethnic and economic landscape of Yunnan province changes dramatically. The ancient town of Weishan (巍山) is a testimony of the Ming military presence in Yunnan. Villages like Heshun 和顺, Tuanshan 团山 and the town of Jianshui 建水 embody Han-Chinese involvement in this ethnic borderland region.

A view of Weishan from the Gongchen Tower

A view of Weishan from the Gongchen Tower

Yunnan and the tea and horse trade

Like the Song, the Ming emperors continued the tea and horse trade with borderland barbarians. Offices for exchange of tea and horse (茶马司) were set up. In 1398, Ming-sanctioned tea and horse trade is reported in Yongning, north of Lijiang on the Yunnan-Sichuan border.

Maintaining a state monopoly on tea was vital to the success of the official tea and horse trade. The official trade was interrupted when the emperor Zhengtong (正统) was captured by a Mongol tribe leader Esen Taishi. But Tibetan had become addicted to tea and private trade flourished in the absence of the official trade.

The tea and horse routes was a multi-ethnic enterprise that linked the Xishuangbanna –  site of tea production – to the Himalayan plateau – site of tea consumption. Tea leaves were hand-picked by Hani farmer in the hills of Xishuangbanna, and sold to Han-Chinese merchants by Dai aristocrats.

Tea leaves were then transported to the town of Pu’er where they were transformed and pressed into bricks. From there, they were transported Muslim and Han Chinese horse caravans which made their way to Zhongdian and Deqin via Lincang, Weishan, Yunnanyi, Dali, Jianchuan, Lijiang and Shangrila.

Inside the ancient caravan inn in Yunnanyi

Inside the ancient caravan inn in Yunnanyi

A network of trade routes

Sichuanese tea was transported through western Kham via Litang, Kangding, Batang and in Chamdo linked up with the Yunnanese section of the tea and horse road.

Tibetan monasteries were acting as tea warehouse and logistic centers. They redistributed the tea to Tibetan plateau. Once in Lhasa, tea bricks traveled further south to Nepal and India. Some Pu’er tea bricks even found their way to Yarkand and Kashgar where they joined the Silk Road. This is why the Tea and Horse Road is sometimes called the Southern Silk Road (南丝绸之路).

Instability in the Kham region have contributed to the creation of new trade routes. From Dali, tea was transported to Tibet via Baoshan, Tengchong (腾冲)Heshun (和顺) to Yangon in Burma then shipped to India and across the Himalayas. With the Panthay rebellion in central Yunnan, Pu’er tea was leaving directly from Xishuangbanna to Yangon via Menghai, Dajingluo and Kengtung.

In the same time, Pu’er tea bricks were heading south to Vietnam and embarking on ships from Haiphong reaching the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Hand pressed Pu'er tea bricks in a tea factory if Xishuangbanna.

Hand pressed Pu’er tea bricks in a tea factory if Xishuangbanna.

Trade, war and the Tea Horse Road

Towns and villages on the Tea and Horse road benefited and flourished thanks to Tibetan’s craving for Yunnanese tea that fuel the tea trade and the development of private trade.

Due to its link to warfare and later opium, tea trade was at the center of tensions during the Qing dynasty, but it’s another story I will tell later.

There are 8 comments

  1. jamoroki

    Reblogged this on jamoroki and commented:
    Although I am focussing on SE Asia, where I live, Travel Cathay is making me more and more interested in China through some very informative and well written posts like this one. I hope you enjoy it too.

    1. Gaetan

      James, I am glad to see my blog is making you more interested in China. If you were to travel to southern Yunnan province in Xishuangbanna or Sipsongpanna in Dai language (which is basically a northern Thai dialect) you will realize that this region of the country is definitely part of the SE Asian cultural world. Thank you for following and for reblogging this post about the Tea and Horse Road.

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you for your comment. The history of the Old Tea and Horse Road is really fascinating and I will be writing more about it in the coming months.

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