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The ‘Ancient Tea Horse Road’, China

China Tea Horse Road
The ‘Tea Horse Road’

During 2011, I was able to travel for a period of time along the well-known Silk Road, starting in Xi’an and on through North-West China into the Uzbekistan/Kyrgyztan section; the series of routes continuing on through the Middle East, dispersing into parts of Europe.  However, there is another very important network of trade routes, which I had travelled quite extensively over a period of ten years on trips organized through Pukeiti, not knowing of their importance until recently. This is the “Ancient Tea Horse Road”, Cha Ma gu dao.  Most people are unaware of the existence and historical significance of this road. People know of the part butter-tea played in the Tibetan diet, however camellias from which the tea is produced do not grow in Tibet and so tea had to be imported along what was known as the Tea Horse Road. This was a network of routes of more than 3000 kilometres in total through sparsely populated mountain ranges and passes, river gorges and crossings, high plateaux and grasslands. It is also sometimes known as the “South-West Silk Road”, Xinan Sichou Zhi lu.  Because China had lost its monopoly of the silk trade so tea assumed increasing importance in the trade for horses, with tea not only traded but as a currency too.

It is a moot point as to whether tea drinking arose in China or in India. While it is generally considered to have developed in China where C. sinensis is found in Yunnan, it could equally be considered to have evolved in Assam where a closely related C. assamica is found. It is claimed that tea is the most common drink after water.

The north/south routes start near the border of Laos, moving north along the well-known tourist stops of Dali, Lijiang, Zhongdian (being rebranded as Shangri-la), past the extremely important “great bend” of the Yangtze, associated with Mao Zedong’s Great March, meeting the east/west routes from Kunming which travel through Chuxiong to Tengchong and beyond into Myanmar. When our group travelled through Chuxiong, mid 2010, preparations for the International Camellia Conference to be held there in February 2012 were already well advanced, including building a new hotel in a very attractive, old style sector, where there are a number of peoples, many of whom, I understand, are refugees or immigrants.  Further north, it meets other east-west routes coming from the direction of Chengdu, in Sichuan province, before turning west into a proliferation of routes to Lhasa, capital of Tibet, and swinging across and down into India.

Tea and other goods were traded using porters from a wide range of ethnic groups, in caravans of horses and mules, using yaks at higher, cooler altitudes and conditions.  Different sections of the road were travelled with different porters and animals more acclimatised to or familiar with that section. Importantly return trade included herds of sturdy horses from Tibet for military and official use in China. Included were those from Uzbekistan, the so-called “heavenly horses”, fetching as much as 450 kgs of tea. Regular trading fairs developed at many of the staging posts. Raiding and banditry were common in parts.  Like the Silk Road, the Tea Horse Road was additionally a migratory route for monks and their religion, pilgrims, armies and communities.  Early plant hunters, F Kingdon-Ward, George Forrest and Joseph Rock, travelled part of the “road”.  It was so well used that in some parts it was paved with stone and became known as the “Stone Road”.

Tengchong was an important strategic and commercial centre on the east/west route from Kunming before the network branched into what is now Myanmar, and as such has been fought over for many centuries.  Marco Polo travelled there a century afterwards and wrote about Kublai Khan’s late 13th century historical battles in his conquest of “Burma”, and was fought over as recently as World War II and reduced to rubble by the Japanese invading from Myanmar (there is still a minority group of Japanese descent near Tengchong).  The nearby village of Heshun survived largely intact and still has buildings and bridges and remnants of the stone road associated with the Tea Horse Road and so has a head start in the Tea Horse Road tourism and historical revival. Many products travelled the route, including Burmese amber and jade as well as tea, copper, iron, salt, furs and elephant tusk ivory. From Tengchong a series of routes, used until 1950, went on into Myanmar for goods to be transhipped to river transport on the Irrawaddy bound for Rangoon. The modern highway follows much the same route to Tengchong from Kunming.

Climatic conditions during the growing season, e.g. monsoon, affect the quality of the tea. The smaller leafed C. sinensis is more suited to growing in cooler climates and higher altitude conditions than the C. assamica.. Processing also affects the end product. In Yunnan, whole leaves are used, the product varying from mountain to mountain and season to season; while in Darjeeling the leaves are deliberately crushed in the manufacturing process, so infusing faster it is claimed and releasing greater flavour and aroma. India is now the leading producer of black tea under monoculture conditions. Blending is important for consistent standardised quality across the area and the seasons.  

There are several types of local teas together with plantation tea, a more extensively, usually terraced, monoculture product. An important variety is pu’er tea, named after the town, now known as Simao. Pu’er, made from a broad-leafed Camellia simiensis variety assamica, is like wine in that it is affected by the growing conditions, aspect, cultural practices, manufacturing processes, the degree of fermentation and oxidation, storage conditions and some of the same marketing abuses. And like wine the best varieties improve with age and likewise become more expensive. It is produced as sheng cha, raw tea, and shu cha, ripened tea. To facilitate transport it was pressed into discs. It is often harvested from agro-forests.

The health benefits and curative powers ascribed especially to Pu’er tea in Google are suggested to be reduced cholesterol in the blood stream, reduced body weight, help to reduce high blood pressure, heart and liver diseases related to high saturated fat diets, detoxify the liver, help prevent intestinal infection, digestive problems and constipation and to help prevent the formation of cancer cells in the body due to its anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory properties. There are no definitive studies as yet scientifically confirming all these claims.

Tea product has taken a variety of forms, loose leaf, large leaves, crushed leaves, bricks, discs and latterly, tea bags, the manner of its infusion in different cultures affecting its utilization and reflecting its adaptability and popularity. The Tibetans used yak butter, salt and even barley meal added to their tea as a stimulant, health product and dietary supplement. Burmese used fermented tea to which spices had been added, as a snack. Chinese preference is for green tea. Westerners, especially British, added milk and sugar to their tea. The practice of taking afternoon tea arose in fashionable England in the mid 19th century. Following his posting in Katha, Myanmar, as Assistant Police Superintendent, Eric Blair, writing as George Orwell, used his experience to background a novel and wrote about the tea-drinking habits of the colonialists.

Although pack animals are still used in some of the more remote areas, the importance of these routes diminished with the decline in the military horse trade. The routes were revived by World War II, further declined following the Declaration of Peace and the Communist takeover of China and have been superseded by the building of a network of roads which have largely followed the Tea Horse Road, and built for the more efficient vehicular traffic.

There is a recent revival of the Tea Horse Road and its history as it is increasingly promoted in Yunnan as a tourist destination and journey.

The economic, social, commercial and historical importance of tea and its trade features in many, including western, cultures. Within China its value as a trade product to obtain horses, form alliances, negotiate treaties and secure borders, was recognised. A tight monopoly was established, monitoring conditions of sale, taxation and licensing of traders, so much so that government control at varying times over the centuries had a stifling effect on tea production, quality and trade. Google states, “Pu’er tea was at one time very well known in Northern Canada, among the northern native people who were trading it across the Bering Strait”.  The East India Company and Dutch East India Company had monopolies in the tea trade for a period.  Tea clippers taking tea, mainly sourced in Fujian, raced to Britain to obtain the best prices. The Boston Tea Party is important in the history of USA.

This article is based heavily on one published in the NZ Camellia Bulletin, November 2011, pages 2-5.

John Meyer (Auckland branch)