The History of Pu-erh Tea Trading

Pu-erh tea trade has lasted thousands of years; a brief reading of the history shall   prove its value. The test of time is better than any language embellishment.

In Song dynasty, the Dali kingdom changed “Bu-ri-lian” established in Nanzhao era to “Bu-ri ministry’. At this time, the Song Empire was in constant war with the Jin Kingdom from the north, the Song was in urgent need of horses; Dali opened ‘Tea-Horse market’

in “Bu-ri ministry’,and traded local tea leafs for Tibetan horses, then exchanged the horses for silk, brocade and jewelry from the Song empire. The cultivation of tea thus expanded.

In the Yuan dynasty, the Mongol troops occupied Yunnan, changed ‘bu-ri’ to ‘pu-ri’,Pu-erh tea had become a major commodity in trade and exchange among different  ethnic groups in the borderland. In the mid-Yuan era, Pu-erh tea entered Russia    along with meat and diary as staple food. In 1383, ‘Pu-ri’ was changed to ‘Pu-er’. In Wanli’s era (1573-1620), ‘Pu-er’ was changed to ‘Pu-erhthe Ming government    arranged governmental officials to manage Pu-erh tea trade.

In 1659, Wu Sangui united Yunnan and sorted Pu—erh, Si-mao, Pu-teng, Meng-yang, Meng-nuan, Meng-bang, Meng-ge, Zheng-xie, Meng-wan, Upper-Meng-wu, Lower-Meng-wu, Zheng-tong, into thirteen Banna, under the rule of Yuan-jiang ministry. At this time, the production and trade of pu-erh were in good demand, according to the county annals of Si-mao: “In 1661, Si-mao processed ten thousand tams (1kg = 0.017tam) of tea leafs and sold thirty thousand packs to Tibet. In 1724, the influx of tea traders and craftsman into tea mountains reached as many as “hundreds of thousands”, therefore caused increasing troubles. In 1729, after the establishment of Pu-erh office,the bureau of Pu-erh tea was founded to manage the planation, processing and sales of tea, it threw out private traders in Si-mao county and forbad their tea trade.

In 1735, the Yong-zheng regime implemented ‘buying license’, tea traders returned to tea mountains. The main variety was round teacake, because seven teacakes were sold in one canister, it was also called ‘seven tea-cake’. Besides meeting the demand from the town of Si-mao, the trade reached to Burma, Thailand, Hong Kong, and through Southeast Asia to Europe, America, entering the international tea market. During the Qianlong regime (1735-1796) the Qing government investigated Pu-erh trade, and listed six of the varieties as tributes to the royal court, demanding 660 tams of annual tribute; after paying the tribute, civil and private trade were allowed.

During Kangxi(1661-1722), Yongzheng(1722-1735) and Qianlong (1735-1796) periods, the Qing government started copper and salt mining in Pu-erh, which promoted local trade;the gathering of traders drove further development of tea market. The annual ‘Flower-Tea market’ in the end of spring and beginning of summer especially attracted southern and northern traders during which stores filled the town and tents filled the outside of the town. The coming and going of caravans promoted the exchange of local and cultural commodity, catering trade and hostels emerged in response to the demands of that time. Days after days, Pu-erh’s market flourished, there even emerged night market and Pu-erh thus became the center of trade and businesses in southern Yunnan. Markets in Mohei, Shigaojing, Mengxian, Manmo Street also came into being and gradually throve. In 1845, as the tribute and public tea consumption increased, tea production grew to one hundred thousand tams, transporting volume increased accordingly, therefore tea traders and local squires funded the 211 km Tea Horse road from Yi-wu to Si-mao, all paved in bluestone to avoid mud.

During Ming dynasty and Qing dynasty, besides Tea Horse road, Pu-erh as the center also spread four tea-horse routes. The first route is the “officials Horse road” from Pu-erh to Kunming where tea tribute travelled to Beijing. Traders from Yangzi river and from central, eastern Yunan, as well as local officials used this road to get to Pu-erh. The second route is the ‘Dry season Tea Horse road’, which starts in Pu-erh, passing Si-map, Lan-cang and Meng-lian to get to Burma. The third route is ‘the great Tea Horse road’ from Pu-erh to Vietnam and then reaches Europe. The fourth route is the ‘Tea Horse road’ from Pu-erh to Daluo, as the extension of the ‘Officials Tea Horse road’; it passes Simao, Cheli, Fuohai to Daluo and then arrives at Jingdong in Burma. Today in Pu-erh County, three almost complete remains of Tea Horse road are kept to testifying the glory of Pu-erh’s tea trade in history.

During Tongzhi Empire’s regime (1861-1875), the areas near Pu-erh suffered from five-year war resulted from the Islamic Revolt, tea market was outmoded and tea traders gradually left, leaving tea plantation lie waste; the trade declined for a time. During Guangxu(1875-1908)era, tea market revived and private trade recovered. In the town of Ninger, tere were more than one hundred and eighty stores, among them there were more than twenty large brands such as Xietaichang, Tongxingchang, Ronghechang. Pu-erh tea brands that were processed in Ninger were Maojian, Yacha, Xiaoman, jingyuetian; their shapes ranged from round cake, square brick, to buffalo heart and human-head bowl. Folk stores that processed tea had more than ten large stores such as Hengheyuan, yutangfeng, leiyongfeng, producing round, square and tight bowl tea.

After The revolution of 1911, Han traders, especially tea processing stores flourished near Xichuang Banna, the Dai traders also built their own tea plantation. In 1919,plague and malaria were rampant in Si-mao county, tea trade started to decline, the trade in Si-mao went into a long term halt, tea trade moved to Yiwu and flourished again until 1937. As France closed the border of Laos and Vietnam, the tea road travel down south was blocked and Yiwu’s tea trade stepped into stagnancy.

During the War of Resistance against Japan, massive outsiders entered Pu-erh, among them, a lot were in trade and created new development for the tea trade. The trade routes were divided into the northern route and the southern route, the northern route reached to Kunming, exported tea leafs, salt, medicine, and imported cloth and tabacoo, the so-called“province-goods. The southern route exported salt and silverware, reached Fuohai, and sold tea to Burma, meanwhile imported ivory, kerosene, cotton, cotton yarn, cloth western medicine, pilos deer horn, tiger bones and other groceries, the so called “ Bazi goods’. At this time, Pu-erh not only sold tea to Sichuan Tibet, Hunan and Hubei, it also reached Hong Kong, Vietnam and as far as Europe, the trade was especially well known in Japan and western Europe. Pu-erh had become the trade and business center of southern Yunnan.

In the beginning of the Anti-Japan war, Pu-erh tea trade in Fuohai met no obstacle, tea was sold abroad to Burma, India, Siam,Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, internal trade reached Yunan, Guizhou, Kangnan. As the Japanese troops marched south, war spread to the areas near Fuohai, internal and external transportation suffocated, therefore tea sales could not return to previous record.

In the 1950s, the government of the People’s Republic of China strongly propagandized business and trade policies, advocating ‘ Revive old tea plantation, Develop new tea plantation’, the size of tea plantation thereby increased gradually, the production volume grew considerably compared to the post-war period, private traders purchased tea and sold to Malaysia, Hong Kong and Rangoon. However, because of the low prices for tea, tea farmers could not sustain their living; the transportation of tea from the mainland to Tibet cost too much time and finance, therefore sales were not adequate. In 1975, new Pu-erh factories were built to process six types and more than forty brands of tea including Geen tea, Black tea and Tuo tea, Pu-erh tea, they were available for sales inside China and abroad.

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