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Ancient Horse tea Route, Tibet influence and Legacy

The Introduction of Tea into Tibet: A Historical Journey

The Rise of the Tibetan Empire

In the 7th century, the Tubo empire, thriving along the Yarlung Tsangpo River, began to expand its territories. It stretched north to Qinghai and Gansu, and eastward to the southern foothills of the Himalayas and the western regions of Sichuan and northwest Yunnan, nearing the tea-producing areas. This proximity naturally facilitated interactions with the Han Chinese and other ethnic groups, making the introduction of tea into the Tibetan plateau a seamless process.

The First Encounter with Tea

The earliest Tibetan historical records indicate that the Tubo initially did not have tea. It was Trisong Detsen’s great-grandson, Me Agtsom (704-754), who, suffering from a prolonged illness, heard about the healing properties of tea and sent emissaries to the interior lands to acquire it. A loyal minister found the tea in a dense forest within the Han territories. He carried a portion on his back and loaded another onto a deer to bring back to Tibet as an offering. Upon drinking the tea, Me Agtsom’s illness was cured, introducing the custom of tea drinking to Tibet.

Tea in Tang Dynasty Records

According to “Supplementary History of the Tang Dynasty” by Li Zhao, when the Tang envoy visited Tibet, he brewed tea in his tent. The Tibetan king, intrigued by the beverage, was informed of its benefits for relieving fatigue and thirst. The king then revealed that Tibet also had tea, listing famous teas from Shouzhou, Jinzhou, Guzhu, Qimen, Changming, and Yinghu, which indicates that by the Tang dynasty, several renowned teas from Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, Jiangxi, and the Jiangsu-Zhejiang region had already made their way into Tibet. The Tibetan-Chinese historical compilation “Ocean of Sweet Dew” further details the characteristics, culinary uses, and medicinal benefits of sixteen types of tea from the Chinese mainland, highlighting the importance of tea to the Tibetans and the depth of Han-Tibetan exchange.

Cultural and Health Implications

This historical journey of tea into Tibet not only signifies the physical movement of goods but also illustrates a deeper cultural and health-related integration between the Tibetan and Han Chinese peoples. Tea became a crucial element of Tibetan daily life, reflecting a significant aspect of the historical interactions and mutual influences between these distinct cultures.

Historical Context of Tea Trade with Tibet

The contract and historical records indicate that the exchange of tea between Tibetans and other Chinese regions through warfare, marriage alliances, and trade has been ongoing for two to three hundred years since the Tang Dynasty. By the end of the Tang Dynasty and the beginning of the Song Dynasty, tea drinking had become a widespread custom among Tibetans.

The Linguistic Legacy of Tea

It’s notable that the Tibetan word for tea is directly borrowed from the Chinese “槚” (jia), with the pronunciation remaining unchanged from the Tang Dynasty to present. In Tibetan, Han Chinese are referred to as “jia-mi” (tea people), and China as “jiala” (tea land), reflecting the deep association between Tibetans, tea, and Chinese culture.

The Unique Tibetan Tea Culture

Tibetans have a unique appreciation and demand for tea unmatched by any other culture, largely due to the invention of butter tea. This staple of the Tibetan diet, essential for survival in the high-altitude regions, underscores the importance of tea in Tibetan daily life. Despite the global popularity of tea, the Tibetan thirst for it is unparalleled.

The Vital Role of Tea in Tibetan Life

Once introduced to Tibet, tea quickly became a necessity for its rich content of vitamins and minerals crucial for the highland diet, and its ability to aid digestion and cut through the greasiness of the traditional meat and dairy-heavy diet. From nobles to commoners, the Tibetan people’s love for tea is so ingrained that there’s a saying: “One might go three days without food, but not a day without tea.”

Tea: A Treasured Tradition in Tibetan Culture

The Sacred Inscription of Sera Monastery

In 2012, during renovations at Sera Monastery, one of the three great monasteries of the Gelug school in Lhasa, an unexpected discovery was made. A large copper tea pot, once used for brewing tea and now placed outside the main hall, revealed an inscription in Tibetan on its interior. Translated by Sönam Döndrup, a former researcher at the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences, it reads: “A gathering of extraordinary enjoyment, a treasure with boundless origins.” This find underscores the deep reverence for tea among Tibetan Buddhist monks and the Tibetan people alike.

A Song of Tea and Trade

Liang Jiong·Langsa, a Tibetan writer from Ganzi Prefecture, Sichuan, recorded an ancient folk song from the southern route of Kham-Tibet, vividly capturing the essence of tea production and the Sino-Tibetan tea-horse trade:

Where does tea first come from? It first comes from the eastern lands of the Han. Grown by three sons of the Han, picked by three Han maidens. Tea dried in snow-white copper pots, tea bought by the merchant Lob Sang. Tea exchanged for fine horses and medicinal pelts, tea carried by the porter Onta Sangmu. Tea that crosses great rivers and small streams, tea that traverses high mountains and steep ridges.

Historical Records of Tea Production

Historical documents mention the abundant production of tea along the banks of the Lancang River, south of the Ailao Mountains. In the “Man Book” by Fan Chuo during the Tang Dynasty, Volume Seven on the produce of Yunnan states: “Tea grows in the mountains around Yinxing City, harvested without any specific method. The Mengshe Man peoples drink it mixed with pepper, ginger, and cinnamon.” Yinxing City refers to the present-day regions of Jingdong, Jinggu, and areas to the south in Yunnan, inhabited by ethnic groups such as the Yi and Hani.

This suggests that over 1200 years ago, during the Nanzhao Kingdom, tea was already being produced within the Yinxing and Kai’nan jurisdictions. The method of tea consumption among the local ethnic minorities, involving spices, predates and shares similarities with some Tibetan butter tea practices, as well as the Bai ethnic group’s Three Courses of Tea. The Dong ethnic group’s oil tea and the Hakka’s pounded tea also retain this ancient tradition of tea preparation.

The Historical Journey of Pu’er Tea to Tibet

The Roots of Tea Cultivation

The “Pu’er Prefecture Chronicles” reveal that in Yunnan, some ethnic minorities began cultivating tea trees as early as the Han Dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty’s Tianbao years, large-scale cultivation of the large-leaf Pu’er tea began along the banks of the Lancang River. By the Song Dynasty, a tea-horse trade market was already established in what is now Ning’er County. By the Qing Dynasty, Pu’er tea had gained fame across China for its strong flavor, particularly valued in the capital. Tan Cui’s “Dianhai Yugeng Chronicles” from 1799 records that Pu’er tea, harvested from the Six Tea Mountains surrounding Pu’er, involved the efforts of hundreds of thousands of tea workers. The tea, transported across various regions and filling the roads with traders, became a significant source of income.

The Tea Horse Road to Tibet

Yunnan, as the original site of tea cultivation, played a crucial role in transporting tea to the Tibetan area, breaking through the natural barriers of rivers and mountains. This trade route was established no later than the Tang Dynasty, corresponding to the period of the Tubo regime in Tibet and the Nanzhao state in Yunnan. There were close political and economic ties between Tubo and Nanzhao. Among the teas introduced to Tibet, the large-leaf Pu’er tea from Yunnan was especially favored by Tibetans for its rich aroma, delightful aftertaste, and the exceptionally fragrant and well-colored butter tea it produced.

The Natural Fermentation Process

The journey of tea leaves to Tibet via the Ancient Tea Horse Road involved a long and arduous transportation process. Through exposure to wind, sun, frost, and snow, and packed in breathable natural materials, the tea naturally fermented, developing a unique flavor and aroma. Both the compressed forms of tea, such as tea cylinders and bricks, were highly cherished by Tibetans, making the Yunnan-Tibet Tea Horse Road increasingly busy.

The Golden Era of Pu’er Tea in Yunnan (1662-1870)

Peak Production and Trade

The early and middle Qing Dynasty marked the zenith of Pu’er tea production and sales in Yunnan. In Xishuangbanna alone, the Six Big Tea Mountains reached an annual production high of 80,000 dan (a unit of weight), turning every household into tea cultivators and sellers. The routes were packed with horse caravans and traders, with approximately 50,000 horses annually traversing through Western and Southern Yunnan and into Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos during the spring and autumn seasons.

During the Qianlong and Jiaqing reigns, the annual production of Pu’er, Mengku, and Fengqing teas reached 100,000 to 120,000 dan. Apart from a small amount consumed locally, about 80% of these teas were transported as primary commodities to various counties within and outside Yunnan, including Sichuan and Tibet, with some even reaching Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos.

Pu’er Prefecture and the Tea Administration

In 1729, the Qing government established the Pu’er Prefecture and opened a Tea Administration there, specializing in tea management. Pu’er became synonymous with tea, relying on it for food and clothing. The Prefecture was also tasked with overseeing tribute tea for the government, a portion of which was presented to the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and other high-ranking monks in Tibet. Thus, Pu’er tea entered Tibet in another form, serving as a strategic resource for the government to maintain connections with Tibet and ensure frontier stability.

In 1736, the Qing government moved the Youle Administrator to Simao, renaming it the Simao Administrator, making Simao a key transit point for tea between Pu’er and Xishuangbanna. Simao flourished due to the widespread trade of Pu’er tea. From the Daoguang to the early Guangxu period (1821-1876), Simao was bustling with traders and markets, attracting over a thousand Tibetan merchants annually and becoming a vital tea trade route.

The Lijiang Trade Market

In Northwest Yunnan’s Lijiang trade market, from September to the following spring each year, Tibetan caravans continuously arrived to obtain tea permits before heading to Pu’er and Simao to trade tea. The journey from Lijiang through Dali’s annual “March Third” trade fair and the grand “Mule and Horse Fair” in Lijiang involved Han, Bai, Naxi, Hui, Yi, and Tibetan merchants, forming a thriving production, purchasing, transportation, and sales mechanism among the diverse ethnic communities.

Tea: The Catalyst for Cultural Exchange and the Ancient Tea Horse Road

The Rise of Tea and Horse Trade

In the late Tang Dynasty, the increasing demand for tea by the Qiang tribes of the Western Sichuan Plateau and the Tubo (Tibetan Empire) sparked the emergence of tea-horse trade. This trade particularly flourished under the reign of Wang Jian, the founder of the Former Shu Kingdom during the late Tang and Five Dynasties period. Wang Jian not only promoted tea cultivation but also established the practice of taxing tea, with his massive cavalry supplied through trade of tea and other goods.

The “Tea Classic” by Former Shu minister Mao Wenxi mentioned the “Huofan Bing” tea from the southern foothills of Qionglai Mountains, specifically cultivated for trading horses from the Western Sichuan Plateau and Northwestern Qiang tribes. The markets for these horses were located in what is today Southeastern Gansu, Hanyuan in Ya’an, Ya’an itself, and Mao County along the Min River.

The Tea Horse Department Memorial

At Xindian Town on the eastern foothills of Meng Mountain, beside the current National Highway 318, stands a memorial architecture of the Tea Horse Department. This structure, a brick and wood courtyard with red sandstone columns, was renovated in 1849 during the Qing Dynasty’s Daoguang era and is well-preserved today, purportedly first built in 1072 during the Song Dynasty’s Xining period. It serves as a prime testament to the ancient Tea Horse Road. The Tea Horse Department was a specialized institution established by the Song Dynasty to manage the tea-horse trade between the interior lands and Tibet, crucial for acquiring scarce warhorses and fostering economic and cultural exchanges.

Impact of the Tea-Horse Trade

The flourishing tea-horse trade significantly boosted tea production in Sichuan. According to researcher Mr. Jia Daquan, the peak annual production reached over 30 million jin (a unit of weight), surpassing the total tea production of other regions in the country at the time. Most of this tea was transported west into Tibetan areas, via routes from the Qingyi River through Jiazhou and Yuzhou, up the Jialing River to Fengzhou, or overland through Qiongzhou, Chengdu, Hanzhou, Mianzhou, Jianzhou, Lizhou, passing Jinniu and Qingyang posts to Xingzhou in Shaanxi for further transport.

The Qing Dynasty marked another golden age of border tea trade, with annual shipments of famous mountain teas reaching 20,000 loads, equivalent to over 2 million jin per county. Sometimes, the Tea Horse Department alone would handle over 2,000 merchants and countless pack horses daily, highlighting the grand scale of the tea-horse trade in its heyday.

Border Tea: The Lifeblood of Tibetan Trade and Sichuan Farmers

The Evolution of “Border Tea” to Tibet

After the Song Dynasty, the tea transported in bulk to Tibet was known as “Border Tea,” named for its packaging in bamboo strips into large, elongated shapes, also referred to as “Big Tea.” Classified by quality, border tea was divided into several grades: Brick Tea, Golden Tips, Golden Jade, and Golden Warehouse (coarse tea). Brick Tea and Golden Tips were reserved for consumption by the Tibetan elite, while Golden Warehouse was more commonly consumed by farmers and herders. Golden Jade represented a middle grade, suitable for both high and low ends of the market. By the early 20th century, the classification simplified to just three categories: Brick Tea, Golden Jade, and coarse tea.

The Main Production Areas of Border Tea

The regions of Ya’an, Mingshan, Qionglai, Tianquan, and Yingjing, situated at the western edge of the Sichuan Basin and linking to the Hengduan Mountains, were historically the main production areas for border tea. Cultivating, picking, and selling tea were major supplementary income sources for local farmers. Tea picking and selling activities were conveniently scheduled between spring planting and autumn harvesting, not interfering with grain production while providing a financial boost during the lean season. Thus, tea was affectionately dubbed “the second harvest” by local farmers.

The Economic and Cultural Impact

The opening of the tea market in Dajianlu (Kangding) marked a significant increase in tea production, particularly in Yingjing, a major producer of southern route border tea. This surge in production brought smiles to tea farmers’ faces and substantial profits to tea merchants. A vivid description from the time captures the essence of the tea trade: “Even in the halls of Dajianlu, tea is stored and valued, awaiting the Western barbarians and foreign monks.

These people, with rings in their ears and wrapped heads, rush to trade and return home jubilant. The trade thrives, boosting morale and facilitating the flow of goods. It enriches the East and satisfies the West, blends into religious offerings and prayers. Thus, those who follow this trade can profit tenfold, enriching their families, contributing taxes to the empire, and indulging in the finer aspects of life.”

There was also a popular tea song invoking the blessings of Guanyin (the Bodhisattva of Compassion) for a prosperous tea season: “Men and women pray to Guanyin, hoping each year the tea trade thrives; If Guanyin is moved by their pleas, our people would not lag behind others. For years neglecting the silk industry, they sing mountain songs and pick tea instead.”

The Flourishing Era of Tea Trade in Tibet Post-Kangxi

After Emperor Kangxi, Qing rulers continued to invest heavily in the Mongolian and Tibetan regions, utilizing tea as a key instrument to strengthen ties with the Tibetan elite and the broader populace. This strategy led to the most prosperous period for Sichuan tea entering Tibet, with Qing officials assigned to Tibet purchasing large quantities of tea in Kangding before their departure to ensure they had ample gifts for distribution along their journey. In Tibet, the trade of tea and mountain goods became a significant source of profit for Tibetan merchants.

The local government, monasteries, and upper-class individuals engaged in the tea trade, even exporting Sichuan tea to regions previously under Tibetan influence, such as Sikkim, Ladakh, Gurkha, and Nepal, making it a crucial source of income for governments, temples, and individuals alike. Records from the “Yazhou Prefecture Chronicles” show that during the Shunzhi era, the production and sale of border tea in Sichuan reached 96,902 dan; by the eighth year of Yongzheng, the total from both the southern and western routes reached 123,224 dan.

Before the 38th year of Kangxi (1699), tea marketed in Dajianlu (Kangding) annually exceeded 140,000 dan, and during the Guangxu era, the total from both routes still amounted to 110,000 dan. Even in the late Qing Dynasty, Zhao Erfeng, the Commissioner of Border Affairs for Sichuan and Yunnan, actively planned to revive the tea industry to compete with British-Indian merchants from the southern foothills of the Himalayas, thereby enhancing the vitality of the Ancient Tea Horse Road.

Today, tea plantations still densely cover the region, maintaining its status as the primary source of tea for Tibetan areas.

The Remote yet Connected Tea Trade of Western China

The incredible distance between tea-producing and tea-consuming regions in Western China necessitated a connection driven by the needs of the people, the encouragement of rulers, and the commercial markets of the tea-horse trade. The Ancient Tea Horse Road emerged to facilitate the massive transportation of tea, allowing it to permeate every corner of the Tibetan area like spring rain.

The Ancient Tea Horse Road: A Cultural Conduit Connecting Regions

The Creation of a Multi-Layered Market Network

The Ancient Tea Horse Road, traversing the expansive Hengduan Mountains, facilitated the transport of tea from its production sites to the vast consumer base across the Tibetan Plateau. This established a complex market network, enveloping the landscapes of the Tibetan region, including its towns, temples, and villages. Here, tea emerged as a significant commodity, radiating its influence through the network forged by the Tea Horse Road, linking the Hengduan Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau in a resilient and dynamic connection.

Tea: An Integral Aspect of Tibetan Culture

The seemingly modest tea plant holds an indispensable place in Tibetan culture, becoming a part of its cultural DNA and a treasured element. It integrates seamlessly with the semi-agricultural, semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Tibetan people, becoming essential to their diet, which predominantly consists of meat and dairy. On the plateau, the role of tea is irreplaceable.

The Tea Horse Road: A Pathway of Integration

The Tea Horse Road symbolizes a route of integration, facilitated by the natural affinity between tea and the Tibetan people, possibly also due to its unifying force. The movement of tea among different “ethnic units,” such as the Han and Tibetans, also plays a unifying role. After thorough research, Braudel noted that tea in China played a role similar to that of grapes along the Mediterranean, consolidating highly developed civilizations. This civilization reflects enduring historical and spatial connections, intertwining its history with the regional narratives around it.

A Metaphor of Cultural Synthesis

The blending of Han tea with Tibetan dairy, creating the beloved Tibetan butter tea, serves as a metaphor for the economic and cultural exchange, assimilation, and harmonious integration between different regions and ethnicities. This phenomenon appears miraculous yet is perfectly logical within its context.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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