The Ancient Tea Horse Road

Story posted: Saturday, 28. May 2011 by CPA Media

Pictures From History / Themes / TEA HORSE ROAD 






The Ancient Tea-Horse Road


What is the name of that mountain, That mountain that lies ahead?

After we get to Changdu Monastery, Then we can press on to Ya’an

The butter tea of Batang is sweet, The zanba of Litang so appetizing 

Once we’ve reached Baxiu We can press on to Mangkang


What is the name of that river, That river that lies ahead?

After we get to Zhongdian City, Then we can press on to Lijiang

Oh, my pretty girl at Dali, My fragrant tea leaves in Pu’er

The ancient Tea-Horse Road is long indeed, It leads you all the way to paradise


Ode to the Tea Horse Road


China’s ‘Ancient Tea-Horse Road’ in Historical Perspective

The antique Silk Road that connected the Chinese and Mediterranean Worlds for more than a millennium, facilitating the exchange of both goods and cultures, is widely known and celebrated. Less familiar is its more southerly equivalent, the ‘Ancient Tea-Horse Road’ that once linked the lush gardens of southwest China with the frigid wastelands of Tibet and – beyond – the torrid plains of northern India. The latter is also sometimes called the ‘Southern Silk Road’, though this is something of a misnomer, as silk seems never to have played a very important part in the traffic that travelled along it.

Frontiers of Tang China c. 700 AD
Web image
Frontiers of Tang China c. 700 AD

By contrast, the name ‘Tea-Horse Road’ is both appropriately descriptive, and of considerable antiquity. In this there are clear contrasts with the more northerly Silk Road, which was never known by that name to Chinese annalists of the distant past; rather the designation is thought to have been coined by a German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, as recently as 1877. Again by contrast, the name ‘Tea-Horse Road’ – in Chinese chamadao – was in official use from at least the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The addition of the word gu or ‘ancient’, making the currently popular name chama gudao or ‘Ancient Tea-Horse Road’ is a much more recent, and even near-contemporary, designation.

Also unlike the Silk Road, which followed a relatively well defined route for much of its length, the Tea-Horse Road was more of a skein of tracks, a network of paths and passages both difficult and diverse, that passed through the immensely difficult terrain of western Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet and Qinghai, over some of the highest, coldest and most inhospitable regions in Asia.

The ‘Heavenly Horses’ of the West

Yet the Tea-Horse Road did share something of importance with the older and more venerable Silk Road, and that something was horses. Ever since the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (259-10), unified China in the 3rd century BC, the Chinese Empire began to look westward, towards Central Asia, both for trade, and for territorial expansion. An absolutely necessity in this great enterprise was good horseflesh – something China was sadly lacking, but which its nomadic neighbours, Mongols, Turks and Tibetans, possessed in great numbers. Above all, the Chinese desired the ‘heavenly horses’, also known as ‘blood-sweating horses’, of the Ferghana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan.

Celestial horse. Painting by Tang Dynasty artist Han Gan (706-83)
Celestial horse. Painting by Tang Dynasty artist Han Gan (706-83)

Accordingly, the Chinese emperor Wu Di (141-87 BC) despatched missions to the west under the command of the imperial envoy Zhang Qian in 138 BC. The redoubtable Zhang Qian returned to Chang’an – present day Xi’an – thirteen years later and was heaped with praise and honours before going on, in 119 BC, to lead a second expedition to the west of the Tian Shan, effectively establishing diplomatic relations with Ferghana, Bactria and Sogdiana, all of which sent ambassadors to Chang’an, beginning a process of regular diplomatic missions to the Chinese capital. Zhang Qian returned via the southern rim of the Tarim Basin, bringing with him a gift of exquisite Ferghana horses for Emperor Wu Di. About a decade later another Chinese emissary returned the favour when he visited the Kingdom of Anxi or Parthia, taking with him gifts of fine silk, a fabric unknown at that time to the west of the Pamirs.

The foundations of future trade along the ancient Silk Road were thus put in place. Many rare and valuable goods were trafficked in either direction, but the initial, and long continuing basis for East-West commerce remained the exchange of Chinese silk for Central Asian horses.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of good quality horses to the Chinese state. At times of dynastic strength, as under the Han (206BC-220AD), the empire was able to deal, for the most part, on favourable terms with the nomads to the west, but in times of dynastic weakness the situation was reversed, so that lack of steeds from central Asia compounded Chinese military weakness. This conundrum is summed up in the Tang Shu or ‘Book of Tang’, which unequivocally states: ‘Horses are the military preparedness of the state. If Heaven takes away this preparedness, the state will totter and fall’.

The founders of the great Tang Dynasty (618-907), which coincided with the Golden Age of the ancient Silk Road, understood this very well. When the dynasty was founded by Emperor Gaozu (618-26), the state inherited a mere three thousand horses from its weak predecessor, the Sui. Through a combination of military conquest, trade and careful husbandry, by the time of the Emperor Gaozong (649-83) a mere four decades later, the state boasted no fewer than 706,000 horses, a force intended to awe and dominate the nomads of the northwest.

The Demise of Silk…

For at least two millennia, perhaps even from the time of the legendary Yellow Emperor Huangdi, China managed to maintain a very successful monopoly on the export of silkworms and the knowledge of sericulture. But no monopoly is foolproof, and no technology can be kept secret forever. The monopoly was defended by imperial decree imposing a mandatory death sentence on anyone attempting to export silkworms or their eggs, but this security was first breached – as far as is known – by the second century BC, when knowledge of sericulture reached Korea. It is thought likely to have reached Vietnam – an unwilling Chinese colony between 208 BC and 939 AD – at a similarly early date.

During the first half of the 1st century AD, silk worm technology is thought to have reached the Chinese-dominated oasis of Khotan in the Tarim Basin, a city that is still a centre of silk production today. A Chinese princess given in marriage to a Khotan prince is said to have carried the eggs of silkworms to her new husband concealed in her hair. It is thought that silkworms and knowledge of sericulture travelled from Khotan south to India and west to Sassanid Persia during the 3rd century AD, while records also recount a Japanese expedition to China in the same century carrying four silk-weaving girls, together with silkworm eggs, back to Japan.

From Persia knowledge of sericulture travelled slowly but inevitably further to the west. In particular the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-65) was keen to strengthen his empire by expanding long distance trade, circumventing, in so far as was possible, the monopoly on silk still enjoyed by his Sassanid rivals. To this end he tried to establish contact with the expanding silk markets of South Asia by way of Ethiopia and the Red Sea, but to little avail. The real breakthrough came in 552, when Justinian first obtained the elusive silkworm eggs. These were smuggled to him across Persia by two Nestorian monks in bamboo tubes. With their safe arrival in Constantinople, silk would soon become a Mediterranean product, with China’s silk monopoly definitively broken.

…And the Rise of Tea

Circular compressed Pu'er tea, Xiaguan, 2004
Circular compressed Pu'er tea, Xiaguan, 2004

Yet China still needed horses from Central Asia, as she would right down to the early decades of the 20th century. These could be seized by conquest, or gracefully accepted as tribute during times of dynastic strength. But how were they to be paid for at other times? Fortunately, from about the 7th century onwards, during the time of the Tang Dynasty, another export was discovered for which the settled populations of Tibet and Central Asia, as well the nomads of Mongolia and the Central Asian steppe, rapidly acquired an all-consuming taste – Chinese tea.

Tea – its botanical name Camellia sinensis clearly indicates that it originated in China – has been known to and valued by the Chinese as an infusion for millennia. According to tradition, the legendary Emperor Shennong first discovered the properties of tea almost five thousand years ago when, in 2737BC the wind blew some leaves from a nearby tree into a bowl of boiling water he was drinking, causing it to change colour. The curious monarch took a sip and was pleasantly surprised by the flavour and restorative properties of the brew, thus serendipitously discovering the art of drinking tea.

Science adopts a rather more prosaic explanation, claiming that tea production originated in Southeast Asia, and more specifically in the mountainous region where China meets Burma and Laos. Tea was almost certainly first put to culinary use, both as a food and a drink, in Yunnan, especially in the tropical southern districts now designated Pu’er Prefecture and Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture – the latter known in the Tai-speaking world as Sipsongpanna., or ‘Twelve Thousand Rice Fields’.

Seemingly tea had spread from these frontier regions into China Proper centuries before the rise of the Tea-Horse trade, and was cultivated in Fujian among other eastern provinces. As early as the 6th century BC the philosopher and naturist Laozi described the infusion as ‘the froth of liquid jade’, an indispensable ingredient of the elixir of life. In 59BC the Chinese scholar Wang Bao wrote the first known treatise on buying and preparing tea, establishing that tea was not just a medicine but also an important dietary supplement by this early date. In 220 AD Hua Tuo, a physician from Anhui, praised tea for its restorative properties, commenting in his medical treatise Shin Lun that: ‘to drink bitter tea constantly makes one think better’.

Yet tea seems to have remained unknown, or at least unappreciated, in Tibet and Central Asia until Tang times – coinciding, fortuitously for the Chinese, with the decline of the Silk Monopoly. At its peak in around 750, the Tang capital of Chang’an [present-day Xi’an] was the largest and most populous city in the world. An estimated 800,000 to one million people lived within the city walls, with another one million or so living outside the walls in the greater metropolitan area. The city walls were simply massive, rising through 5.5 metres in height, and extending for 35 kilometres to form an elongated square with sides 8 kilometres by 9.5 kilometres. As many as 25,000 foreigners, including such diverse peoples as Turks, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Indians, Koreans, Malays, Japanese and Armenians, lived within the city walls, congregated mainly around the Western Market.

Chang’an was also a sophisticated, fun-loving city, with entertainers and courtesans, wine shops, taverns and tea houses. The latter were extremely popular, and many clustered around the so-called ‘Persian Bazaar’ in the west of the city, where the Silk Road began its long journey to the Mediterranean, and where merchants, money-lenders, caravaneers and entrepreneurs of just about every Asian (and some European) nationalities could be found. Tea-drinking rapidly acquired a cachet among Central Asian visitors to the city, and caravaneers soon began to purchase tea in bulk to carry west, along the long road back to Central Asia and the Middle East...



China's Ancient Tea Horse Road by Andrew Forbes (Kindle Edition - Jul 14, 2011) - Kindle eBook
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