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Tea Horse Road remains a historic site of commerce and ethnic culture

ZENG JIANG and ZHAO XUZHOU | 2019-07-18 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The landscape of Dingri in Tibet Autonomous Region, a leg of the southwestern section of the Tea Horse Road Photo: Chen Baoya/CSST

China is home to tea. As part of Chinese people’s lives, tea is a crucial element of Chinese culture. Among the mountains in Southwest China, there is a network of paths carried out by the footsteps of people and horses. For thousands of years, it was linked Sichuan Province, Yunnan Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region, expanding across Nepal, India and West Asia. Recently, Zhang Xilu, a professor from Dali University, and Ming Qingzhong, a professor from Yunnan University of Finance and Economics, were invited to talk about the caravan culture and the latest development of the ancient trail.


CSST: Caravans played an important historical role in many cultural routes in China’s southwestern region. What’s your understanding of caravans and caravan culture?

Zhang Xilu: I have definitions for these two terms. A caravan collectively refers to a team of horses and its organizers and managers. Everything material and spiritual related to the caravan’s formation and operation is considered caravan culture.

In terms of form, there were two kinds of caravans. Professional caravans dealt with large volumes of trade all year round while small caravans gathered temporarily for occasional business. Professional caravans adopted a whole strict organization with a hierarchical leadership consisting of three or more people. Each herdsman controlled four or five horses, which was collectively called a ba. Several ba formed a caravan. Composition of horse teams also followed certain rules. The front three horses consisted of the head horse, the second horse and the third horse. Walking at the front, the head horse needed to be well trained and to know the route. Its owner would dress it up.

In addition to the Tea Horse Road and the Southwest Silk Road, caravan routes had other names depending on the goods. For example, the section for salt trade was called the Salt Horse Road. The routes for transporting jade and bronze were called the Jade Road and the Bronze Road. Daxi Road was renowned for transporting tin. Although the goods were different, the formation of caravans was roughly the same. Therefore, caravan culture was a distinct form of culture from Yunnan Province, and it could engage in the transportation of all types of freight.


CSST: What are the characteristics of the Tea Horse Road between Yunnan and Tibet? What role did it play?

Zhang Xilu: The Tea Horse Road was a road that used horses to transport tea and other items throughout many dynasties. It can be divided into the Tangfan Road, the Sichuan-Tibet Road and the Yunnan-Tibet Road. Scholars in Yunnan Province focus on the section connecting Yunnan and Tibet on which caravans from ethnic groups, such as Han, Tibetan, Bai and Naxi, transported tea from Simao, Puer and other main producers to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet during the Tang and Qing dynasties. This part of the trail can also be traced back to the Western Han Dynasty and extended to China’s republican period.

This ancient trail mainly served for commercial business between Tibet and Yunnan Province. Tea was its significant good. Its role and significance, however, far exceeds commerce, as it became a channel for developing friendship, cultural exchange and religious communication. It contributed to important historical achievements in the boosting of economic and cultural communication between Tibet and various ethnic groups in Yunnan. Also, many people in Yunnan went abroad via this road. It was the foundation of today’s Yunnan-Tibet Highway. Since the opening of the Tea Horse Road, caravans have served as information carriers, spreading the cultures of the ethnic groups along the route. The Tea Horse Road is a precious piece of cultural heritage that can be developed. Its historical significance and cultural value could be on par with the Silk Road, and certainly no less than any other ancient road in the world.


CSST: What do you think about the current situation of the Tea Horse Road?

Zhang Xilu: In recent years, China has proposed the Belt and Road initiative, whose construction has opened a new chapter in China’s comprehensive opening up, highlighting its concepts of “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness” directed toward its neighboring countries. The initiative supplies a new platform for boosting regional cooperation and opens opportunities for developing the country’s middle and western parts. In this context, current transportation choices show progressive development based on the ancient trail that call for more exploration and innovation. The route between Tibet and Yunnan Province has undergone remarkable changes, according to surveys. The two regions have been connected by the Tea Horse Road since the beginning. Later, the Tibet-Yunnan Highway was constructed. After that, the railway became available for people to shuffle between the two regions. Presently, high speed rails cover several cities. From this perspective, caravan transportation has basically “died out.”

However, the areas along the route have larger mutual demand for tea purchase, processing and sale. In the tea producing areas, such as Simao, Puer and Lincang, the number of tea growers is higher than at any period throughout history. Xiaguan in Dali has expanded into a trade center covering Yunnan Province and beyond. The tea growers in multiple ethnic groups are gradually becoming better off. Tea manufacturers in Dali, Xishuangbanna and Dehong have grown stronger through competition. Therefore, the Tea Horse Road is becoming more active and prosperous.


CSST: You are one of the scholars who first studied the utilization of the Tea Horse Road’s tourism resources. Based on new observation and research in recent years, how do you evaluate the trail’s tourism resources?

Ming Qingzhong: The Tea Horse Road is not only an economic channel, but also a cultural channel with an ancient cultural heritage. For a long time we have been focused on the abundance and uniqueness of its tourism resources and the valuable characteristics of the places along the route. Based on this, we published “Tourism Resources of the Tea Horse Road (Yunnan Section) and Its Development and Utilization” in the journal Resources and Environment of the Yangtze River Basin in 1994, which may be one of the earliest articles on its tourism.

The Tea Horse Road is a heritage corridor that preserves the original culture of West China. The natural landscape and its peoples display natural wonders along with the diverse customs and splendid ancient buildings that have survived the ups and downs of history, containing hidden and endless tourism resources. I think it is not an exaggeration to describe it as diverse, rich, ancient and unique.

The Tea Horse Road is an access point for international trade and tourism. It is a trade and tourism belt connecting Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road. The ancient trail is a tourism corridor filled with multiethnic culture, including ethnic migration, cultural integration and harmonious relationships among ethnic groups. The Tea Horse Road is a measure to help the ethnic areas to achieve a new model of urbanization and rural revitalization through cultural tourism. Although the trail has become a historical and cultural heritage site, its rich tourism resources will promote social and economic development along the route and become an important solution to reducing poverty and achieving the common prosperity of all ethnic groups. In addition, due to the influence of its natural environment, the ecological environment along the trail is vulnerable. Therefore, it is preferred to develop tourism and other forms of green economy.


CSST: How can we deepen the study of the Tea Horse Road?

Ming Qingzhong: First of all, we should recognize that the Tea Horse Road is a world-class cultural heritage site left by our ancestors. I recommend including it into the preliminary list of China’s declared World Cultural Heritage and building it into a long-lasting cultural brand and tourism boutique. People of all ethnic groups along the route will benefit.

It is necessary to conduct multidisciplinary research concerning history, ethnology, commodity circulation, religion, arts and crafts, linguistics, sociology, anthropology and other areas in the humanities and social sciences. This also should involve fields such as transportation, geology, geography and architecture to cover its many dimensions.

Research on its characteristics should be strengthened, such as the investigation of villages and historical sites along the route. Research can focus on such areas as Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Meili Snow Mountain, Lijiang Ancient City, Dukezong Ancient Town in Shangri-La County, and Deqin Ancient Town and Yanjing Town in Mangkang County. The migration and integration of related ethnic groups is also worthy of study.