History of Tea Transportation in China

Of the many ancient Tea routes in China, one of the most famed and important was the Ancient tea horse road, which is located in South – Western and North – western China, and is a caravan based international commerce route from ancient times to today. It is also a major center of economic and cultural exchange in south western China, and it is also a special title for a special region. This route played a very important role in the history of tea transportation from China to other nations abroad, and even within China this route is heavily emblazoned into the history of tea transportation there.

In the Hengduan moutain’s high mountain gorges, in the triangular area formed by Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet there lies a great wilderness, and a great path spirals through it, and this is the ancient trading route, Ancient tea horse road, which also happens to be one of the highest altitude roads of commerce in the world. This road is located near Lijiang, and several sites such as the ancient township of Shaxi, Yunnanyi in Xiangyun County, Nakeli in Puer City all contain relatively well preserved ruins of this ancient road.

The ancient tea horse road has its origins in the horse tea exchange markets of the Tang / Song dynasties. Because Tibet has a relatively cold climate, and an altitude of 3000 – 4000 meters and above, foods such as Tsampa, milk, yak butter, beef and lamb meat are the mainstay of the Tibetan diet. In the cold climate, one needs to ingest high calorie fats, but due to the lack of vegetables and the fact that Tsampa is exceedingly hot and dry, the excessive fats are hard to break down. Tea, on the other hand, both breaks down fat and prevents dryness. Thus causing the Tibetans to develop the habit of drinking butter tea, among other highlander habits. But the problem was, the Tibetan regions does not grow tea, but inner China does, and the hinterland is in constant need of war horses and domestic ones, which Tibet has in abundance. So, finally, a mutually complementary solution was found, and the hinterland Chinese traded one for the other with the Tibetans, along with some other things, and the markets where such commerce took place was called the Horse tea exchange markets, and its existence has lasted to this very day, albeit in a vastly changed way.

The history of tea transportation in China does not end there, of course, but subsequent developments all piggyback upon the earlier developments, of note is the fact that government controlled horse tea trading did not end until the Yongzheng emperor in the Qing dynasty, 1722 – 1735. The history of tea transportation in China is also a history of inter – ethnic communication and the history of the emergence of a national identity, or in the terms of the three musketeers, all for one, and one for all. Or as the Chinese saying goes: “When the brothers are united, their strength is like a sword that can cut through iron alloy; when words are born of a united heart, it has a smell like fragrant orchid.”