What is the Tea Horse Route ?
Cha Ma Dao – Tea Horse Road
The Tea Route emanates from South West China and was principally a network of routes from which tea and horses were traded between Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, Laos, India, and Eastern China. Regarded as the oldest trade route in the world, it predates the Silk Route by 200 years.
Waring States Period 403 BC – 256 BC & Qin Dynasty 221 BC – 207 BC
Around the 3rd Century BC, the area around Kunming was known as Dian. A Chu general arrived and set himself up as the King of Dian.
From about the 4th Century BC, this part of Chinese history was concerned not only with the consolidation of the Warring States but also with the repelling of nomads on horseback, such as the Uyghurs, Xiongnu and Xiangbei. They attacked from the North and Northwest. China had a strong army, but they had terrible horses. The attacking nomads had swift Mongolian horses and powerful ‘blood sweating’ horses from Ferghana, in modern day Uzbekistan. The Chinese were no match for the nomadic invaders and lost infamous battles.
In 221 when (Emperor) Qin Shi Huang had unified China, counties and command posts were set up in Yunnan. There was an existing road in Sichuan which was extended and known as the “Five Foot Way”. In 109 BC, Emperor Wu sent General Guo Chang to establish a command post whose seat was at Dianchi County (present day Jining). Another county was known as Yunnan. In order to develop the trade with Burma and India, Emperor Wu also issued orders to keep and develop the Five Foot Way, renaming it ‘South West Barbarian Way’
Han dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD
It became imperative in the Han dynasty (14BC – AD 49) that horses must be gathered. They were traded for gold, silver and silk. But soon after, they were being traded for tea. The Han dynasty reared 300,000 until they were overrun by the Tabgatch and other nomadic groups.
A Note about Puerh tea
Pu-erh tea is one of the oldest types of tea in China with a rich history of over 1700 years that can be traced back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD). During its height of popularity Pu-erh tea was freely traded and even used as money for the bartering of goods. Premium Pu-erh tea was offered as a tribute tea to the Emperor of China and to this day Pu-erh tea remains a highly valuable commodity. Pu-erh tea is revered in China as a traditional medicinal tea with many health benefits.
Not far from Pu-Er city are the areas of Xishuangbanna and Simao, in the south of Yunnan Province where the cultivation and processing of Puer tea is still carried out to today. With an altitude of up to 2000 metres, it is high up in these mountains where the air is fresh, cool and crisp, amidst scenes of unspoiled beauty and fertile lands that you will find the tea plantations for this unique tea. The secrets for processing Pu-erh tea are carefully guarded and in the past trespassers mistaken as spies have been known to be killed on private tea plantations. To this day the tea secrets for Pu-erh production remains ruthlessly guarded and it is the only place in China where genuine Pu-erh tea can be produced.
The 3 Kingdoms and 6 dynasties 220 – 618 AD
During the 3 Kingdoms, present day Yunnan and Southern SIchuan was known as Nanzhong. In the 4th Century, the Cuan clan went to Yunnan. Cuan Chen called himself King, keepng authority from Dianchi. The Cuan Clan ruled Yunnan for over 400 years.
Tang dynasties 618 AD – 907 AD
In 738 the Kingdom of Nanzhao was set up in Yunnan by Piluoge and they ruled from Dali. He was confirmed by the Tang as King of Yunnan. And in this position, with the power base in Dali, the thirten kings of Nanzhao ruled over 2 centuries playing a vital role in the relationship and trade between China and Tibet.
The Tang dynasty built up a herd from 5000 to 760,000. When the Tang dynasty fell apart in 907, North China was invaded by the nomadic horse people named Khitans. They set up the Liao dynasty (907 – 1125) based in Shenyang c.400 mile NE of Beijing.
The Song dynasty 960 AD – 1279 AD
Meanwhile in the South, the Song Dynasty, after the troubles of the Five Dynasties, set up a Central Government in 960. Wishing to regain control of the North, they sent up a huge army in 979 to combat the Khitans and to regain the 16 prefectures. Near Beijing, the Song were thrashed by the Khitan cavalry. They received another massive defeat by the Khitans in 986 and subsequently had to make tribute of 200,000 bolts of silk and 12,500 lb of silver.
In the West, they were also attacked by the Tangut Xixia who made them pay in 1006, an annual levy of 1650 lb of silver, 10,000 bolts of silk and 20,000 catties of tea (26,500 lb). Whereas the Khitans had about 1.8 million horses ready for battle, the Song had only 200,000.
The Song’s most important ally and source of horses were the Tibetans. The Tibetans were also against the Tangut Xixia. In 1055 the Song exchanged half of its annual production of silver (8,300 lb) for buying horses from the Tibetans.
In 1074, threatened by invasion and bankruptcy, the Song government set up the Tea and Horse Agency in order to buy war horses. Sichuan’s tea farmers were ordered to sell their tea to the government for a very bad price. The tea was transported by coolie with a wheelbarrow (some up to 520 lb) to the markets where Tea was exchanged for horses. The going was incredibly perilous.
With many thanks for notes taken from Mair & Hoh’s True History of Tea & from Yunnanclinic
Posted in: ORGANIC TEA